A yo­ga em­pi­re’s en­ligh­te­ned pro­fits, by Mas­si­mo Bo­gnan­ni and Si­mon Book.

Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine - - Table Of Contents - 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.”

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