Yoga schools fight to stave off taxman - Business or spiritual pursuit poser in US

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  • Published 12.07.09

July 11: As yoga gains the status of pop culture in America, the question has risen inevitably: Is it a spiritual pursuit or a business that should be regulated and taxed?

The estimated $6 billion (Rs 29,400 crore) earned by the yoga schools annually has prompted regulators in many US states to try and force them into a licensing regime, setting off cries of religious infringement.

The battle has played out differently in different states. While protests have forced New York to back off, at least for now, some yoga centres in Virginia have closed down in the face of a $2,500 licence fee they cannot afford.

However, not all yoga institutes are against the move to “force this ancient tradition to conform to Western business practices”.

Sybil Killian of Manhattan’s OM Yoga Center asked whether yoga could fairly claim to be a spiritual pursuit in view of the huge revenues involved.

“People buy $1,000 pants to sweat in because while they’re getting enlightened, they need to look good,” Killian wrote to other New York yoga teachers. “Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, yoga is an industry. One need only leaf through the advertising section of Yoga Journal to know that.”

The state regulators cite laws that govern vocational schools — like those for hairdressers, massage therapists and truck drivers — to argue yoga schools that train instructors too require licences, with all the fees, inspections and paperwork that entails. (The new rules will not directly affect the drop-in classes attended by many of the 16 million American yoga practitioners, except that they may face a shortage of instructors.)

Officials say licensing the schools will allow states to enforce basic standards and protect customers who usually spend $2,000 to $5,000 on training courses. And, of course, it would provide revenue for cash-starved governments.

“If you’re going to start a school and take people’s money, you should play by a set of rules,” said Patrick Sweeney, a Wisconsin licensing official.

But yoga teachers complain the new rules could erode thin bottom lines and contradict religious underpinnings.

“It basically destroys the essence of yoga, to control and manipulate the whole situation,” said Jhon Tamayo of Atmananda Yoga Sequence in Manhattan.

In a way, the yoga teachers shot themselves in the foot. Ten years ago, as yoga’s popularity soared and institutes mushroomed, they had banded together to create a voluntary online registry of schools to establish teaching standards.

Now government officials are using that list, which includes nearly 1,000 yoga schools across America, for their crackdown.

In January, a Virginia official had directed regulators from more than a dozen states to the registry. In March, Michigan gave its yoga schools a week to be certified by the state or cease operations.

In April, New York asked about 80 schools to suspend teacher-training programmes or risk fines of up to $50,000 (Rs 24.5 lakh).

But the yoga community — “a group that doesn’t even always agree about how to pronounce Om”, according to a yoga website — united to fight the state. It enlisted a senator, Eric T. Schneiderman of Manhattan, to take up its cause.

Within days, the New York education department said it would suspend the licensing effort and instead lobby for legislation to exempt yoga from regulation.

That would be a bonus yoga doesn’t enjoy even, for instance, in Bengal — although many institutes there enjoy a tax holiday.

“We are registered as a charitable trust. But gyms combining yoga, aerobics or other fitness regimes are liable to pay tax,” Sanatan Mahakud of the Tollygunge branch of Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, headquartered in Bangalore, told The Telegraph.

Dibyasundar Das, founder-principal of World Yoga Society, which has four branches in Calcutta, said his centre too was exempt from tax since it was involved in “public philanthropy”, holding rural camps and treating the poor free.

“Our exemption has to be renewed every five years and we have to submit our audited papers every year,” he said. “And we do have to pay taxes to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.”

Das said he wasn’t against yoga centres being taxed if they were run with the aim of making a profit.

“Religious gurus may have introduced yoga but it is now used for health promotion. It’s a science as it is curative. There shouldn’t be claims of religious infringement if yoga centres are taxed,” he said, referring to the US states’ move.

Patricia Kearney, a health instructor in Virginia, said: “Once people get used to it (the licensing), it will ultimately benefit yoga. But it will not be without loss. Some good small programmes will close. But so will some not-so-good programmes that probably should close.”