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The big question about D.C.’s ‘yoga tax’: Should it apply to yoga?

D.C.’s Flow Yoga Center offers classes on movement as well as meditation. (Christopher Anderson/For Express)
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Funny thing about the so-called “yoga tax” that goes into effect in the District on Wednesday. The yoga community is arguing that it shouldn’t apply to yoga.

Here’s the Office of Tax and Revenue’s definition of health club businesses that fall under D.C.’s 5.75 percent sales tax extension, according to a press release: “a fitness club, fitness center, or gym the purpose of which is physical exercise.”

“But the purpose of yoga isn’t exercise. It’s the union of mind, body and spirit,” says Richard Karpel, president of the Yoga Alliance, a national organization based in Arlington. So, he reasons, yoga studios shouldn’t be subject to the tax.

Karpel made this point in a letter to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in July. He also noted that the state of New York, when dealing with a similar tax in 2012, ruled that yoga could not be considered a form of exercise. And it dealt with another key point: Media outlets dubbed this the “yoga tax,” but the legislation behind it never mentioned the word “yoga.”

Despite the letter and a follow-up meeting, the powers that be haven’t been swayed. “Yoga is included in it,” says David Umansky, public affairs officer at the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. “Are they charging for what they do? Then it’s taxable.”

At Flow Yoga Center near Logan Circle, owner Ian Mishalove is prepared to follow the law. But he’s still holding out hope that the government will change its position.

On Monday, Mishalove planned to send council members the results of a survey he conducted on the purpose of yoga in people’s lives. Not one student responded “exercise,” he notes. Instead, they talked about stress relief, mental health and spirituality.

To lump yoga in with exercise is a case of simple misperception, Mishalove says. But as a collection of small businesses without a lobbyist working on their behalf, yoga studios face an uphill battle.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call last week, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson dismissed the yoga community’s concerns. His view: Yoga studios were part of the wellness coalition that protested the tax this past spring, so that was an acknowledgement they were going to be affected by it. (Mendelson didn’t respond to Express’ request for comment.)

Karpel disputes this reasoning. The protests were part of a public policy debate, he says, and the yoga studios’ position was “don’t tax wellness.” They lost that one. “Now it’s a legal argument,” Karpel says. “You passed a law with specific words, and we’re saying those words don’t apply to us.”

Alison West, the studio owner who led the campaign against New York’s proposed yoga tax, has advice for Washingtonians now faced with the same challenge: “Never treat this as a fight. It’s a collaboration to enlighten.”

So maybe the next step is to bring yoga to a council meeting. The Wilson Building is not a facility for the purpose of physical exercise, so no one would have to pay tax.

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