Yoga is Not “Just Exercise”, Instructors Say

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

Yoga instructors in Missouri are fighting a move by the state to tax yoga classes, saying they’re not just exercise classes but are a spiritual practice and therefore should not be taxed.

According to the St. Louis Dispatch, yoga instructors in the state are pledging to educate state legislators about yoga’s spiritual roots in order to avoid the tax.

“The Missouri Supreme Court has held that athletic and fitness clubs are places of recreation and therefore fees paid to these types of businesses are subject to sales tax,” David Zanone, manager of the Missouri Department of Revenue’s taxation division, wrote to 140 yoga and Pilates studio owners in a letter dated Oct. 13. “Yoga centers offer the same types of fitness services that the Missouri Supreme Court has held are taxable.”

Yoga instructors disagree, saying they teach a form of physical preparation for meditation, based on ancient Hindu texts, with the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment.

Mike Shabsin, an attorney at Sher & Shabsin who is also a yoga instructor, said he plans to work to be sure yoga classes are permanently exempted from the tax.

“Washington and Connecticut have carved out exemptions for yoga, tai chi and qigong as spiritual practices, and centers that teach those techniques are excluded from sales taxes for that reason,” Shabsin said. “Our hope is that Missouri will recognize the same thing.”

Shabsin is referring to the First Amendment battle that broke out in the state of Washington when the state began including yoga studios in a group of recreational organizations that had to charge customers a sales tax. Yoga practitioners, teachers and studio owners in Seattle and around the state came together to show legislators and the Department of Revenue that yoga was different from other physical activities.

“They told us that yoga is more than just staying physically fit; it’s more of a spiritual and mental type of exercise,”  Mike Gowrylow of the Washington Department of Revenue, told the Dispatch. “After they educated us, we agreed they had a point.”

The state ultimately decided not to tax yoga studios.

Two weeks ago, a group of yoga studio owners and teachers in Missouri decided to organized under the umbrella organization Spirit of Yoga St. Louis,  which will focus education, including a Legislative Yoga Awareness Day, and meetings with state lawmakers.

Shabsin said the group will encourage legislators to come up with a definition for a “place of amusement, entertainment or recreation.”

“We feel that yoga taught in a studio is actually instruction on an ancient spiritual practice, not an amusement, entertainment or recreation,” he said.

For now, yoga studio owners said they would comply with the request to collect sales tax, even as they prepare to fight it.

“Our studio will pay the sales tax under protest, so when we lobby the Legislature, we’ll have a stronger voice,” Brigette Niedringhaus, owner of Southtown Yoga in St. Louis told the Dispatch.

“In the meantime, we’ll educate people about what yoga really is, instead of just saying ‘you don’t understand us,'” Niedringhaus said. “That wouldn’t be an especially yogic way of approaching it.”

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