by Jillian Barton

August 17, 2015

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Is the practice of yoga a form of exercise or the exercise of religion? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask. This question has stirred a great deal of controversy in the United States recently, raising constitutional concerns for public schools and resulting in an uproar from taxpayers in Washington, D.C. Yoga might be “for everyone”, as one critic noted, but “it doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone.”[1]

The General Public’s Position

In the United States, the general understanding is that many consider yoga a form of exercise, rather than a religious practice.[2] However, some of yoga’s practices have “been incorporated into several different belief systems, most primarily Hinduism.”[3]  Due to recent controversy over the integration of yoga into educational curriculum, this article will look primarily to a form of yoga known as Ashtanga, which translates to eight-limbed.[4] The eight limbs represent the eight spiritual practices that lead a person on the path to “revealing the Universal Self through internal purification.”[5]

As yoga has immersed itself into Western culture, specifically in the United States, its popularity has grown and triggered the debate in question. As one commentator argued, “for . . . 99% of the Americans who practice yoga, yoga is a form of exercise – at the most, a hybrid of exercise and meditation.”[6] The poses and recitation of “namaste” have become “culture niceties that have no religious connotations whatsoever.”[7] Not everyone shares this secular viewpoint, however. A poll by HuffPost Religion revealed that its respondents were actually divided, with some answering that yoga is “spiritual with health benefits.”[8] With such differing individual interpretations of the practice, and a need to accommodate yoga in fitness studio and schoolroom alike, the need to clarify just what yoga is has pushed the debate to the forefront.

Yoga Is Not “Inherently Religious” …    

This question was placed before the California Fourth District Court of Appeal in April 2015, with the case of Sedlock v. Baird.[9]  In that case, two parents fought to remove a newly implemented Ashtanga yoga program from their child’s public school curriculum, alleging that it violated the Establishment Clause.[10] The Court noted that the curriculum was carefully written to strip away any religious references, practices, or poses, in order to avoid any constitutional issues; indeed, the original curriculum had been modified after receiving complaints for its use of common yoga phrases.[11] Instead, the program focused on “mind/body wellness” to teach the students “life skills built around key themes of yoga instruction such as self-discipline, balance, and responsibility.”[12] The poses were given secular and child-friendly names, such as “criss-cross applesauce” for “lotus” position.[13]

In determining whether or not the school had truly implemented a secular program that would not violate the Establishment Clause, the Court turned to the three-part Lemon test as precedent for the issue.[14] The Court found that, ultimately, the school’s yoga program satisfied the test. First, the yoga program was secular in purpose, as the curriculum had been redeveloped in order to strip any religious references or interpretations (such as the eight limbs or religious names of poses).[15] Second, the primary effect of including yoga in the curriculum was not to advance or inhibit religion.[16] The Court emphasized that “[a] practice’s mere consistency with or coincidental resemblance to a religious practice does not have the primary effect of advancing religion.”[17] Further, as the Court noted, “contemporary yoga is commonly practiced in the United States for reasons that are entirely distinct from religious ideology,” such as stress relief, physical healthiness, and flexibility.[18] Finally, the yoga program did not foster an excessive entanglement with religion, as the school district was directly responsible for the curriculum; the Jois Yogi Foundation was merely involved to provide yoga instructors.[19] Thus, the Court concluded that the program was permissible in the school district as non-religious exercise, and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

… But Not Just Exercise Either          

As discussed, the Court in Sedlock highlighted the difference in contemporary practice in the United States as compared with the origination of yoga and its Hindu roots. With the Court’s decision, the school district had apparently succeeded in showing that yoga is not an inherently religious practice. However, yoga studios in Washington D.C. are now arguing against this assertion, in an effort to avoid D.C.’s newly implemented “yoga tax” for the 2015 fiscal year.

While commonly referred to as the “yoga tax”, this tax applies to “a fitness club, fitness center, or gym the purpose of which is physical exercise”.[20]  The argument from yoga studios and their advocates is that yoga simply does not fall into this strictly physical definition. One studio owner stated that “to lump yoga in with exercise is a case of simple misinterpretation.”[21] Another, the president of the Yoga Alliance, stated the purpose of yoga is “the union of mind, body, and spirit.”[22] These advocates point to the religious, specifically Hindu, roots of yoga to demand exemption from a tax on what they perceive to be mere fitness clubs.

However, their arguments remain unconvincing to taxing authorities, and the tax remains in place.  Tax policy experts have stated that it would be unfair for these studios and clubs to be exempt from sales tax while other retailers are not, and that there is “no economically justifiable or desirable reason to exempt [them].”[23] Outside the capital, the answer remains divided. For example, Missouri’s viewpoint is aligned with that of Washington D.C., while New York and Washington fall on the other side of the spectrum.[24]

So What’s The Precedent?

While the Court in Sedlock found that the school district’s yoga program did not violate the Establishment Clause, it did note that “context is determinative.”[25] This answer seems to suggest that an all-encompassing tax does not fully consider the varying studios in order to determine whether the context is primarily religion or exercise. Of course, it would be unreasonable to require every studio in Washington D.C. to be monitored, just as the Court in Sedlock stated it would be unreasonable to monitor even one school district’s yoga program.

Though the Sedlock case focused on schools rather than retailers – a key element of the “yoga tax” – neither that case nor the tax has set clear precedent for future issues without requiring some form of in-depth analysis. The answer to whether yoga is religion or exercise remains unclear, and this ongoing debate demands a clear answer for schools, consumers, and policy experts alike. As yoga becomes increasingly popular, and as studios and schools attempt to align themselves with yoga’s popularity, the line between physical and religious exercise continues to blur. A “context determinative” system may be effective for one California case, but this answer leaves the discussion open for a continuing controversial debate.


[1] See Richard Kapel, Exercise or religion? Yoga is for everyone: Column, USA Today (May 20, 2013, 12:50 PM), (explaining that specific context of each yoga practice changes meaning and purpose).

[2] See Alisha Ebrahimji, Is yoga too religious for schools?, CNN (Aug. 22, 2013, 9:24 AM), (noting that while roots may be religious and some may practice for religious purposes, the majority in United States do not).

[3] Id. (providing background of yoga’s origins).

[4] See Ashtanga Yoga- The ‘Classic’ Yoga, (Dec. 13, 2013), (providing detailed explanation of eight-limbs and their individual meanings).

[5] Id. (explaining purpose of eight limbs in Ashtanga yoga).

[6] See Sedlock v. Baird: when is a religion not a religion?, Skeptic-At-Law (July 3, 2013, 2:52 AM), (arguing that even with some “verbiage surrounding yoga, like bringing out one’s ‘inner spirit’ or reciting ‘mantas’” yoga is mostly secular in Western practice).

[7] Id. (noting that practices that appear to have religious roots are no longer understood that way in United States).

[8] See Antonia Blumberg, Criticism of Washington D.C. ‘Yoga Tax’ Raises Questions About Spirituality vs. Fitness, Huffington Post (Oct. 9, 2014, 1:16 PM), (highlighting that HuffPost Facebook readers are also divided on issue). The poll question did not differentiate between responders who have actual knowledge of the practices through their own experiences and those who do not.

[9] 235 Cal. App. 4th 874 (Cal Ct. App. 2015).

[10] See id. at 881 (explaining that curriculum was implemented as result of a grant received for amount of “$533,720 for the implementation of a district-wide yoga program” by Jois Yoga Foundation).  In the grant proposal, the school noteed that the purpose of this program was “to deliver a world class mind/body wellness program at all nine Encinitas elementary schools.”  Id.

[11] See id. at 882-83 (noting anything religious components, including Sanskrit language was removed).

[12]Id. at 881.

[13] Id. at 883 (demonstrating changes that were made to popular components of yoga in effort to avoid controversy).

[14] See id. at 885 (applying Supreme Court test adopted in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), to determine if yoga program violates First Amendment’s establishment clause). The Court noted that the Lemon test, though not applicable in every case, is used as a “structure for [its] analysis.” Id. at 886.

[15] See id. at 886 (highlighting school’s efforts to ensure secular program).

[16] See id. at 887 (finding that program satisfied second prong of Lemon test).

[17] Id. at 887; see id. at 887-889 (analyzing weight given to resemblance between religious and secular practices in context of yoga). The Court emphasized that resemblance is not enough, but rather a reasonable observer must see the resemblance and view it as secular in order to satisfy the second prong of the test. See id. at 889-90.

[18] Id. at 895.

[19] See id. at 896-99 (rejecting Sedlocks’ claim that religious roots “excessively entangled” curriculum due to failure to provide adequate proof that religious components still remained after revisions made).

[20] D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 9, § 427; see D.C. Yoga Tax Pits Health Clubs Against Tax Policy Experts, State Tax Today, 2014 STT 115-3 (June 13, 2014) (providing District of Columbia’s 2015 fiscal budget plan, including controversial yoga tax).

[21] See Vicky Hallet, The big question about D.C.’s ‘yoga tax’: Should it apply to yoga?, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2014), (arguing on behalf of smaller studios fighting “uphill battle” of tax). This statement was made by Ian Mishalove, a yoga studio owner who claims his students “[talk] about stress relief, mental health and spirituality,” not about exercise.  Id.

[22] Id. (discussing shared frustration among yoga professionals).

[23] See D.C. Yoga Tax Pits Health Clubs Against Tax Policy Experts, supra note 20 (rejecting argument that yoga studios should be exempt due to insufficient evidence to show good cause why entitled to such exemption).

[24] See David Brunori, Taxing Yoga, 54 State Tax Notes 507 (Nov. 16, 2009) (looking to states’ differing views on practice of yoga and whether it should be taxed).

[25] See Sedlock v. Baird, 235 Cal. App. 4th 874, 899 (Cal Ct. App. 2015) (citing Newdow v Rio Linda Union School District, 597 F.3d 1007,1019 (9th Cir 2010) (concluding that while a practice “may be religious in some contexts,” it does not make it religious in its entirety; it is determined based on its context).


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