The News Agency of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Is Yoga Really About Exercise?

By: for on Oct. 2, 2014
World News
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Thousands practice yoga in front of the Washington monument in Washington D.C.'s Yoga Week.

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.

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