Yoga and the Art of Tax Collecting

By Sesa Dasa on 18 Dec 2009
In November the State of Missouri Department of Revenue began enforcing collection of a 4-percent sales tax on yoga classes.

In Krishna YogaNovember the State of Missouri Department of Revenue began enforcing collection of a 4-percent sales tax on yoga classes. Church-going ain’t what it used to be in America. When I was growing up church- going meant sitting on a hard wooden pew, being physically constrained while wearing my “Sunday Best,” and listening intently (and sometime not) to a preacher shouting lessons from the Good Book. Not anymore.
ReporterNews, Your Abilene (Texas) Online ran this November 12, 2009 story, “Sunday’s best is now casual dress: “The phrase ‘Sunday best’ or ‘church clothes’ seems to be going the way of ‘rotary dial phone’ or ‘VCR.’ A quick glance through most Sunday morning worship assemblies will find a full array of attire from suits, ties and dresses to blue jeans, sandals, T-shirts — and even football jerseys on game day.”
Apparently, this shift has a lot to do with demographics, “In general, baby boomers tend to think that their dress is an offering to the Lord. Generation Y (under 30) tends to believe their dress should be an honest reflection of who they are. Generation X (30-50) falls somewhere in the middle, with the majority saying they still dress up simply because they were raised that way.” Churches are naturally interested in attracting people when they are young and keeping them for life.
But what people “do” in their religious practice is also changing dramatically. According to a new survey released by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories…large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not travelling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects.”
Even worship venues are changing. According to the Pew survey, “In addition to asking about the types of religious services that people attend, the survey also asked about the locations or venues in which these services are held. Most people who attend services at least yearly do so at a church or other house of worship. But a significant minority of Americans (11%) say they go to services at other locations, either instead of (3%) or in addition to (8%) services in a regular house of worship.” Alternate venues include private homes, schools, parks/campgrounds, restaurants, hotels, other buildings, and even the great outdoors.
With so much movement in the American landscape of religious practice I find it a bit shocking at how parochial American governments can be. Case in point: In November the State of Missouri Department of Revenue began enforcing collection of a 4-percent sales tax on yoga classes. The Associated Press reported that Missouri Department of Revenue spokesman Ted Farnen defended the move by saying, “The sales tax on money paid to places of “amusement, entertainment or recreation, games and athletic events” isn’t new.”
Correct, it isn’t new for commercial enterprises. However, it certainly is new when it comes to places of religious worship where these same types of activities are regular functions? Mr. Farnen, did you ever play in a church athletic league, attend a church social, or ever find some recreation or amusement at church amongst fellow worshipers? I hope so because you would certainly be a better person for having undergone these types of traditional American religious experiences.
Now I ask you, in your mind try to extend those traditional religious experiences beyond their established ranges (pews, your Sunday Best, and the preacher man) and apply them to the practice yoga. The Pew survey already had done the research for you, religious practice in America now has a different face and dress, it includes strong elements of Eastern religions, the genesis of yoga, and non-traditional venues are becoming the norm. When you see through these new eyes Mr. Farnen, eyes attune to what is the actual practice of religion in America and not what you or others attached to outdate modes of religious behavior, perhaps you will begin to see yoga studios in a different light.
Why is government always the last to get it?, a London based news service reporting on the Missouri sales tax controversy sees it. They offer this understanding of yoga:
“The ancient Hindu practice is based around the notion that a balanced body can   lead to a balanced soul, therefore achieving harmony in the physical, psychological and emotional states. The important, and ancient, texts for a practicing Hindu have all included the importance of practicing yoga in their pages; the Mahabharata stresses the notion that without yoga one cannot live a happy life, the Yogabija Upanishad claims that yoga is the reliever of all bondage and, even further, the Bhagavad-Gita is considered to be the ‘go-to’ text for teaching the art of yoga itself.”
Sounds a lot like what Americans are looking for in their religious practices and experiences as documented by the Pew survey.
Indeed, the Pew survey was designed just for the purpose of assisting governments keep up with society so that government can make informed decisions. Here’s the “fine print” about the Pew survey, “This survey is a joint effort of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Both organizations are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and are projects of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world.”

            Of course, if the Missouri Department of Revenue doesn’t get it, others will force them to take a closer look. Jason Noble of the Kansas City Star reports, “…yoga practitioners maintain that the spiritual component of their classes may afford them First Amendment protections from taxation. ‘The practice of yoga in a studio setting is a spiritual practice, and is not done for entertainment,’ said Michael Shabsin, a St. Louis-area lawyer and yoga instructor. Shabsin said he is leading an effort to clarify the legal definition for places of amusement, entertainment or recreation and exclude yoga-specific studios. That effort could include legislative proposals and lobbying, he said.” Or a lawsuit I might add. That’s one American institution that hasn’t changed.
As a practitioner of both law and yoga I would be amiss not to mention that some do practice yoga purely for health or physical reasons. Religious traditionalists reject this understanding of yoga.  When commenting on the Seventh Chapter of Bhagavad-gita Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, expressed these thoughts about the real purpose of yoga:
“The yoga system is called attachment for Kṛṣṇa, or kṛṣṇa-yoga. Yoga means connecting, link, and if we always keep our self connecting link with Kṛṣṇa, then we become the topmost yogi. There are many kinds of yogis. Generally the yogis, they think of the Supreme Personality of Godhead always within the heart. This is the yogis’ business. Yogi’s business does not mean simply have some gymnastic or bodily exercise and keep the body fit for sense enjoyment. That is not the purpose of yoga.”
Given that some places are practicing yoga purely for health or physical reasons, perhaps they are taxable. But, evidently Mr. Farnen and the Missouri Department of Revenue are feeling some heat from Hindus and yoga teachers after the unjustifiable blanket letter to all yoga studios in Missouri announcing the taxation. The Kansas City Star reported that “Farnen said in a statement that the Revenue Department would consider religious exemptions to the tax on a case-by-case basis.”
I’ve got some advice for you Mr. Farnen, try practicing yoga. The art of tax collecting requires a fair and balances approach, keen insight, and good discretion. All these saintly qualities develop through the practice of yoga. Be guided by the words of Krishna in Bhagavad-gita, “Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.” BG 2:48

Posted in Editorials.