DOB relaxes rules on yoga studios

Unpopular regulations date back to a 1970s push to curb sexual massage parlors

Alison West, head of Yoga for New York
Alison West, head of Yoga for New York

Small yoga studios — those hotbeds of stress and angst — can breathe a little easier now, thanks to a city Department of Buildings change that allows some of them to skip getting a special permit before opening new locations.

Yoga studios with a single studio room and no showers will no longer be classified in a way that requires them to undergo an additional lengthy review from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals to obtain a permit needed for the building’s certificate of occupancy, the DOB said in a bulletin. (See PDF below.)

The change is seen as a minor victory for small studios, but will likely have little impact on larger establishments.

Last year, a number of yoga studios that were organized under a Manhattan group called Yoga for New York complained about government regulations, including the high cost to conform to the correct certificate of occupancy needed by health clubs and gyms.

The law regulating so-called physical culture establishments harkens back to the city’s seedier days in the 1970s, when local officials were battling sexual massage parlors in Midtown. To combat that, the city’s Board of Estimate in 1978 passed a law tightly regulating health spas, gyms and massage parlors, in an effort to restrict illegal sexual activity.

Today, the law governing those physical culture establishments continues to require a review by the Board of Standards and Appeals, as well as a rigorous background check of the principals of the health clubs and spas.

Despite the requirement, a review by The Real Deal earlier this year found that dozens of massage parlors providing sexual services were operating in Midtown buildings that did not have the proper special permit.

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Mitchell Korbey, a partner at the law firm Herrick, Feinstein and chair of its land use and environmental group, said the city occasionally issues such clarifications. In this instance, he noted that city zoning regulations – while voluminous — don’t include a definition for every possible land or business use, such as yoga.

“It is a help to the DOB and to the yoga studios out there seeking to open that need some guidance,” he said.

Since the bulletin only applies to the smaller studios, it remains unclear what rules governed the larger yoga businesses, and whether they would still be subject to the physical culture establishment law.

Adding to the confusion, a DOB spokesperson, Tony Sclafani, told the New York Times in 2012 that “yoga studios are not required to have” the special permit. At the time, he did not qualify the size of the yoga studio or allude to showers. Many of the larger studios, such as Soho’s Yoga Works, have shower facilities.

The DOB did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The BSA declined to comment.

Click here to see PDF.