Music thumped through Freedom Plaza one recent Monday as more than 100 spandex-clad figures held warrior poses under the unforgiving noontime sun.
“How do you tax energy, energy that’s moving through—left foot forward, step” the event’s MC exhorted, mixing political commentary and yoga directions. “Not taxing human beings for getting healthy—hands down low, push-up, up-dog, breathe in!”
Yoga devotees revel in combining Zen-like calm and tough-minded determination. That’s bad news for the Washington, D.C., council.
Washington’s government, whose John A. Wilson Building is a stone’s throw from the popular protest spot, is trying to expand its sales tax to include services such as yoga instruction and gym memberships. In response, yoga aficionados have united with gym owners, CrossFit trainers, cycling instructors and acupuncturists to unleash a no-holds-barred lobbying barrage.
“I think there’s a sense of easygoingness in the community,” said Ian Mishalove, a co-owner of Flow Yoga Center who attended the demonstration. “But it doesn’t mean that the community is filled with a bunch of pushovers.”
The 5.75% levy, variously known as the “Yoga Tax,” the “Gym Tax” or, as fitness activists prefer, the “Wellness Tax,” is one component of a larger budget package likely up for a vote before the 13-member council on Tuesday.
Proponents say the sales tax, a more stable source of revenue for the city than income taxes, needs to be broadened to cover a range of services, from carwashes to tanning salons, to better capture where residents spend their money. The package would also cut the city’s income tax, which they contend would more than offset the added cost of taxing yoga classes.
But taxing yoga services may be a difficult position to achieve. At least seven other state legislatures have proposed measures that would apply sales taxes to service industries. Most have died, or, in the case of Maine, passed the legislature only to be repealed by a voter initiative.
Some are mindful of the costs. “I just finished grad school, so I’m pinching pennies,” said Daniel Mason, a fitness enthusiast participating in the yoga protest. “That’s why I’m here, because I don’t want my healthy lifestyle taxed.” The D.C. tax would bump an average gym membership to about $74 a month from $70.
Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which favors the proposed package, said small tax levies don’t change consumers’ behavior.
“If I went out on the street today and said, ‘Let’s tax books,’ people would be up in arms,” he said. “They would be sending emails saying, ‘You can’t tax books! Do you want to discourage reading?’ And I’d have to remind them that we already do tax books.”
For years, yoga studios from across the city have coordinated several joint events a year, the largest of which, D.C. Yoga Week, culminates in an outdoor yoga class on the National Mall.
One of the uniting forces behind the campaign is Lane Hudson, a communications consultant, Ashtanga-style yoga practitioner and liberal blogger who broke the 2006 congressional page scandal.
“They pay me a small consulting fee, which doesn’t cover nearly what I would charge for a normal hour of my work,” he said, “so it’s almost entirely pro bono.”
Mr. Hudson convened a meeting of 20 D.C. fitness leaders on June 4, exhorting them to cook up a slogan and a strategy. The group settled on the “wellness tax,” styling themselves the “Don’t Tax Wellness Coalition.”
A Google group was quickly created, a Twitter hashtag settled upon and the group was ready to mobilize. Over the next two weeks, each member posted indignant Facebook statuses, fired off tweets and deployed their respective customer mailing lists to spread the word.
On the morning of June 12, about 35 members of the now-solidifying coalition showed up at the Wilson building. They moved as one mass, clogging the hallways and crowding into tiny legislative offices, Mr. Hudson recalled.
Not knowing how else to handle the mass of people, staffers asked each individual present to speak, inviting a series of impassioned speeches and pleas.
“These are people who work out a lot,” said Brendan Williams-Kief, chief of staff for council member David Catania, who opposes the tax. “They’ve got a lot of endorphins running through their systems, they’re pretty peppy.”
David Gordon White, a professor of comparative religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says ancient yoga, which dates back 4,000 years, finds its roots in warfare.
“Yoga” in the original Sanskrit means “celestial war chariot,” the conveyor that carried slain soldiers on the battlefield up to heaven. Poets who sang the praises of these warriors adapted the term for their own purposes, using it to describe the process of carrying creative energy to distant places.
“So that yoking of your mind,” Mr. White said, “becomes the foundation of meditation,” a term meant to describe focused determination, not tranquility. The people who lead the modern yoga industry are similarly aggressive competitors. “They have lawyers, publicists, they have entourages,” he said.
Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the council and the main architect of the city budget, has already delayed the vote twice. He said that wasn’t related to the yoga controversy, as some have speculated. Instead, the city’s chief financial officer was refusing to certify the budget as balanced. The effect has been to prolong the saga, giving the coalition more time to organize.
“A lot of the opponents have made a big deal about the fact that we’re taxing fitness,” said Mr. Mendelson. “In isolation, that argument might sound persuasive, but with regard to sales tax we don’t pick winners and losers.” He said the tax is too small to “measurably affect business activity.”
He explains the robust lobbying effort on health-club customer databases. “It’s very easy for them to organize people and start a campaign that way,” he said. “Often times with more controversial issues, there isn’t a ready-made database.”
If the tax makes it through the council, the yoga crowd says it has an alternative in mind to win back their tax-exempt status. Chief among these plans is to classify yoga as a religious activity, which by definition can’t be taxed.
Source: Wall Street Journal