Is yoga really about exercise?

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Yoga practitioners are fighting a new sales tax by insisting the activity isn't primarily about fitness. Around the world, its definition can often be rather more flexible, writes Jon Kelly.

It might feel a lot like exercise to millions of gym-goers as their muscles strain and they struggle to hold that pose. But in the US, the yoga community is arguing vociferously that's not really what their asanas are all about.

From 1 October, a sales tax of 5.75% in Washington, DC, will be extended to gyms, fitness centres and other premises "the purpose of which is physical exercise". Locally, it's been nicknamed the "yoga tax", even though the city council's legislation doesn't actually mention the Y-word. And local yoga fans insist that the levy shouldn't apply to them.

With yoga, exercise is "a by-product in the same way as it is with dance or Tai Chi", says Richard Karpel, president of the Yoga Alliance, a US non-profit association. While the type of yoga practised in many gyms may have little to do with Buddhist or Hindu spirituality, he says, the primary purpose of specialist yoga studios "is to integrate the mind, the body and the spirit". Getting fit is a happy side effect.

It's true that for many centuries yoga was primarily practised as a form of meditation and as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hare Krishna monks, for example, are adherents of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. The asanas or postures of hatha yoga only took off in popularity in the west during the 20th Century. For this reason, state authorities in New York - where the activity is hugely popular - ruled in 2012 that yoga was not "true exercise" and thus exempt from local sales taxes.

But advocates for yoga have often found themselves maintaining quite a different position - that it isn't, in fact, a fundamentally spiritual activity. In Iran, to comply with Sharia law, teachers are careful to always refer to "the sport of yoga". Prohibitions on spiritual yoga are upheld in Malaysia, where a 2008 fatwa led to a yoga ban in five states. In the capital Kuala Lumpur, chanting and meditation during yoga classes are forbidden. In 2013, San Diego County's Superior Court ruled that although yoga's roots are religious, teaching a modified form of the practice does not breach the separation of church and state.

In the District of Columbia, the local tax authorities are clear - yoga is exercise. "It's an existential question," says David Umansky, spokesman for the city's chief financial officer, "but the city council passing the law made it very clear that yoga is included." Elsewhere, it might not be. At a stretch.

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