A yoga empire’s enlightened profits, by Massimo Bognanni and Simon Book.
Yoga has turned into a $80 billion global industry. Meet guru Sukadev, also known as Volker Bretz, who runs Europe’s biggest yoga empire.
Barefoot and draped in a yellow robe, The Angel of Bliss takes a few steps, strides to the middle of the stage, and slides down into a cross-legged position. To the Angel’s left is a photo of the Indian yoga master Sivananda. To his right, an icon of Jesus. He closes his eyes and hums deeply into the microphone:“Oooommmm.”
About 100 of the Angel’s followers sit beneath him on colorful foam mats, rocking from side to side as incense wafts through the rows. They join in.“Oooommmm.”
Meet Volker Bretz, who calls himself Sukadev. That’s Hindi for “angel of bliss.” The 52-year-old German is the self-styled guru behind Europe’s largest yoga chain, Yoga Vidya. The market is booming. One in 10 non-fiction books sold in Germany this year will be on esoteric subjects. Two in three Germans describe themselves as spiritual and 40 percent believe their lives are interlaced with mysticism. By 2020, sales related to meditative and spiritual disciplines are expected to bring in €25 billion yearly, or about $27.5 billion.
Yoga is driving the boom. In Germany, 2.5 million people do yoga regularly — and more than 12 million are considering taking it up.
For many Germans, their introduction to the discipline comes through Bretz and his chain of yoga schools. He has trained nearly 15,000 yoga teachers since 1992, a part of his business that has earned Yoga Vidya €105 million. But that’s just the tip of Bretz’ yoga empire. Across Germany, he runs seminar houses and offers yoga vacations for practitioners to fully immerse themselves in the discipline.
Bretz has come a long way from simple stretching and humming. Based in the town of Bad Meinberg, about 50 kilometers west of Hanover, Yoga Vidya’s headquarters is touted as the largest ashram outside India. There, in the middle of the Westphalian plain, some 1,000 devotees gather at any one time to practice together. Bretz’s four yoga hotels book 130,000 overnight stays per year, each for an average cost of €70. Most guests are German, but many travel from Austria and the Netherlands as well.
Bretz generates €10.6 million in yoga-related revenue each year. In Bad Meinberg, a former spa resort, Bretz also trains yoga teachers in courses lasting one or two years. The courses are partially funded by Germany’s state employment agency. In addition to yoga
From God to guru: Yoga takes over a Berlin church. Mass yoga events like this have grown in popularity.
tourists and government-financed yoga apprentices, Bretz’s yoga chain also looks after patients in health resorts, sent his way by health insurance companies. The chain operates out of a seven-story 1970s cement-block building Bretz calls the “Chakra Pyramid.”
On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen pairs of shoes are lined up outside the building’s cellar. Inside, their owners crouch, some draped in flowing garments, others in balloon silk training suits. At the head of the room, a man and woman, all in white, kneel over a tile basin in front of a bronze figure of the familiar Hindu god Ganesha, part-human and part-elephant. Lined up next to the basin are vessels containing water, rose petals and rice milk — ingredients for a puja, a traditional form of Hindu prayer ritual.
The man in white opens the ceremony, taking some water and spraying it around. In turns, the students crawl to the altar on their knees and pour rice milk at the feet of the Hindu god. The priest then sings Indianverses. All drink from the altar to absorb the divine.
Rituals like these help set yoga master Sukadev apart from the competition. Berlin alone has 300 yoga schools competing for clients, and Bretz believes he has a unique selling point.“We want to become more spiritual in the future,” he says. “That is what separates us from the others.”
The search for transcendence began early for Bretz, the son of sofa manufacturers from the Rhine Hessen region. His father’s mattress factory is a 2,500-employee operation that grew out of Germany’s economic miracle in the 1950s.
The father tapped young Bretz to inherit the firm. A bright student, he received his high school diploma a year early, at the age of 17. Then he went to Munich and graduated in business administration after only five semesters.
But Bretz never returned home to take up the reins of the family business; he had other plans. During a trip to India, he came upon the yoga center of an Indian master, Vishnudevananda. Within a few years, Bretz rose from student to the center’s director and, under contract to the guru, traveled around Europe and North America.
Wherever one of Vishnudevananda’s yoga centers ran into economic difficulties, Bretz took over. In this way, he quickly became the guru’s personal assistant. But Bretz didn’t want to take over as the guru’s successor. Instead, he set out to launch his own movement.
Meditating in an Indian temple in the early 1990s, Bretz had what he describes as a “vision and light experience.” It turned into his business plan. One day, Bretz says, he went into a deep trance and another yogi, Sivananda, who died in 1962, appeared before him. The yogi was larger than life and looked deep into his eyes. In that moment, Bretz says, his mission in life became clear: To lead a spiritual chain in the West as yogi Sukadev, the “Angel of Bliss.”
Today, 25 years later, Bretz’s enlightenment
In Germany, 2.5 million people regularly practice yoga.
machinery is running at top speed. But when one turns light into money, other things remain in the shadows. One dark area, for example, involves 250 so-called sevaka, or servants, who work in Bretz’s yoga centers eight hours a day, six days a week. They scrub toilets, cook meals, mow lawns and keep the books.
The servants come from all ages and social groups. They include ocean researchers, trained beauticians, long-time students and former managing directors. All have one thing in common:“They are at a turning point and looking for something more in their lives — and find it at Yoga Vidya,” says one long-time servant who asks not to be identified. Another describes Bad Meinberg as “a refuge of failed existences.”
But one former sevaka, who gave up the spartan life of servitude, warned: “Whoever feels good in life, does not need Yoga Vidya.” Indeed, Yoga Vidya can be a vanishing point for some. “For these people, the association is dangerous,” says a former Yoga Vidya manager who also asks to remain anonymous. Bretz, according to the former manager, is not a guru but an “ingenious entrepreneur.”
Naturally, Bretz sees things differently. “Yoga Vidya is not my empire,” he says.“Yoga Vidya is more of a non-profit association.” He might be the founder, chairman and head of a spiritual association with 300 members, but his role is clearly different from that of a traditional business entrepreneur, he says.
In fact, Yoga Vidya can claim non-profit status in Germany, thanks to local officials who have refused to explain why Europe’s largest yoga chain doesn’t have to pay any taxes. As a rule, such associations must prove their nonprofit status every three years. One plausible reason is that Bretz diligently brings in taxes from thousands of visitors for the local tax coffers. The mayor of Bad Meinberg recently told Stern, the weekly German news magazine, that Yoga Vidya was like a winning lottery ticket for his struggling, dwindling town.
Bretz has great plans for expanding his yoga association. He has plans for two new seminar houses — on the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean — and is considering establishing a Yoga Vidya university.
But what would happen if his community of followers decided against expansion? Bretz grows uneasy at the question. He uncrosses one leg, and then the other. He now sits with his legs straight and bends forward. “Growth is always controversial, there are always those who say, ‘that is enough,’” he says. “But if I were outvoted, then I would just go somewhere else. Then they could manage themselves.”
Apparently, even The Angel of Bliss has finite patience.
His life mission became clear — to lead a spiritual chain in the West as Sukadev, the “Angel of Bliss.”