Is yoga religious?


At the beginning of November, Missouri began a sales tax on yoga studios. The only state in the nation to do so, the move is controversial because many folks in the Show Me State's yoga community believe yoga is not just exercise but, rather, a spiritual practice. At the time this happened, St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend covered the controversy. And I don't know who was responsible, but I still love one of the headlines that was used:

Yoga studios prepare for a downward dogfight with the state over sales taxes

Well, the Los Angeles Times picked up the story in this week's "Missouri's yoga enthusiasts go to the mat over sales tax."

Written by the awesomely bylined P.J. Huffstutter, begins by looking at a particular studio in Missouri:

The tax, which took effect last month, has roiled the normally serene yoga world, whose supporters maintain that their pastime should be exempt from sales tax as a spiritual pursuit.

"Is this only stretching? No," said Karen Jones, who opened the Marbles studio in 2003. "I think this is just another way for the state to get money."

Many yoga practitioners say they are confused about how their ancient practice, which merges physical and mental disciplines with meditation, could possibly be equated with aerobic pole dancing or Tae Bo workouts.

But the state -- one of the few in the country to tax yoga instruction -- argues that it is not infringing on religious practices and only levying a legitimate tax on businesses.

The story goes on for some 1000 words. But there's one word that isn't mentioned once: Hindu. Imagine that.

Variations on "spirituality" are frequently used, however. Now maybe it's because I follow the Hindu American Foundation, which sends out regular missives on the need for people to understand the connection between yoga and Hinduism -- but how can you talk about this fierce religious battle without mentioning from which religion we get yoga?

Yoga is based on ancient Hindu texts and has a goal of spiritual enlightenment. There are fierce debates about whether yoga is a way to spread Hinduism or whether it can be enjoyed apart from its religious basis. And we've covered these battles before.

But I don't see how you can have an article about whether yoga is a form of religious expression or not without mentioning anything about that religious expression. Speak with some Hindus who encourage yoga as a religious practice. Speak with some people who see it as a secular art. But it's really not fair to give short shrift to the religious dimension in a story debating whether the practice is religious or not.

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