Barefoot and draped in a yellow robe, Volker Bretz, who goes by many names including Sukadev in Indian, or “Angel of Bliss,” took a few steps, strode to the middle of the gallery and slid down into a cross-legged position.
To his left was a photo of the Indian master Sivananda. To his right an icon of Jesus. He closed his eyes and hummed deeply into the microphone: “Ommmmmm … .”
About 100 followers on colorful foam mats sat beneath him, rocking from side to side as incense wafted through the rows. They joined in, chanting “Ommmmmmmm … .”
Mr. Bretz is the 52-year-old German behind Europe’s largest yoga chain, Yoga Vidya.
In Germany, 2.5 million people do yoga regularly — and more than 12 million are considering taking it up.
The market is booming. One in 10 non-fiction books sold in Germany this year will be about esotericism.
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 Mr. Bretz and his chain of yoga schools. He has trained nearly 15,000 yoga teachers since 1992, an areas that has alone earned €105 million. That’s just the tip of his yoga empire. Across Germany, he runs seminar houses and offers yoga vacations for practicioners to fully immerse themselves in the discipline.
Indeed, Mr. Bretz has come a long way from simple stretching and humming.
Based in the northeastern German town of Bad Meinberg, Yoga Vidya is touted as the largest ashram outside of India, where 1,000 devotees gather at any one time to practice together.
Mr. Bretz’s four yoga hotels book 130,000 overnights yearly, each for an average cost of €70. Guests typically come from within Germany, but many travel from Austria and the Netherlands as well.
Mr. Bretz generates €10.6 million in yoga-related revenue each year, Handelsblatt has learned.
One of his centers is in Bad Meinberg, a former spa resort located in a rural part of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In one- or two-year courses, Mr. Bretz educates trainers there, partially funded by educational vouchers from Germany’s state employment agency.
In addition to yoga tourists, his yoga chain 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 Mr. Bretz calls the “Chakra Pyramid.”
On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen pairs of shoes were lined up outside the building’s cellar. Inside, their owners crouched, some draped in flowing garments, others in training suits out of balloon silk.
At the head of the room, a man and woman, all in white, knelt over a tile basin in front of a bronze figure of the Hindu god Ganesha, part-human and part-elephant. Next to the basin were water, rose petals and rice milk — ingredients for a puja, a traditional form of Hindu prayer ritual.
The man in white opened the ceremony, taking some water and spraying it around. In turns, the students crawled on their knees to the altar and poured rice milk at the feet of the bronze Ganesha. The priest then sang Indian verses and they all drank from the altar — to absorb the godly.
Rituals like these help set yoga master Sukadev apart from the competition. Berlin alone has 300 yoga schools competing for clients, and Mr. Bretz believes he has a unique selling point.
“We want to become more spiritual in the future,” he said in an interview. “That is what separates us from the others.”
The transcendental search began early for Mr. Bretz, the son of sofa manufacturers from the Rhine-Hessen region. His father’s Bretz & Co. mattress factory is a 2,500-employee operation that grew out of Germany’s economic miracle in the 1950s.
The young Mr. Bretz was tapped 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 earned his business administration degree after only five semesters.
But Mr. Bretz never returned home to take up the reins of the family business; he had other plans. While on a trip in India, he came upon the yoga center of the Indian master Vishnudevananda.
Within a few years, he 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 was in economic difficulty, Mr. Bretz took over, quickly becoming the personal assistant to the guru. But he didn’t want to take over as his successor, preferring insead to launch his own movement.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Bretz went to India. Meditating in a temple, he had what he described as a “vision and light experience.” It turned into his business plan.
One day, Mr. Bretz said, he went into a deep trance and the Yogi Sivananda, who died in 1962, appeared before him. The yogi was larger than life and looked deep into his eyes.
In that moment, Mr. Bretz said his life mission became clear — to lead a spiritual chain in the West as Sukadev, the “Angel of Bliss.”
The transcendental search began early for Mr. Bretz, the son of sofa manufacturers from the Rhine-Hessen region. In that moment, Mr. Bretz said his life mission became clear — to lead a spiritual chain in the West as Sukadev, the “Angel of Bliss.”
Today, 25 years later, Mr. Bretz’s enlightenment machinery is running at top speed. But when one turns light into money, others remain in the shadows.
One dark area, for example, involves 250 so-called sevaka, or servants, who work in Mr. 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 age 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,” said one long-time servant who asked not to be identified. Another described Bad Meinberg as “a refuge of failed existences.”
But one of the sevaka, who gave up the spartan life of servitude, warned: “Whoever feels good in life, does not need Yoga Vidya.”
Indeed, for some, Yoga Vidya can be a vanishing point.
“For these people, the association is dangerous,” said a former Yoga Vidya manager who asked to remain anonymous.
Ultimately, people can quickly become lost in an eternal search for their selves, the former manager said. Many who come freely are caught up in the spiritual system and all its rituals.
Video: The Angel of Bliss – Yoga Vidya’s Volker Bretz.
That hardly interests Mr. Bretz, whom the former manager describes as an “ingenious entrepreneur.”
Mr. Bretz rejects that viewpoint. “Yoga Vidya is not ‘my empire,’” he said. “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 said.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Bretz’s organization has served, according to the association’s charter, in the “promotion of religion,” which qualifies as “adult education” in Germany.
As such, it pays no taxes on its €10.6 million annual income.
But as a “non-profit association,” it must spend exactly the same sum.
Profits are not allowed to accrue, according to the tax code, which, in return, grants Mr. Bretz complete discretion. Once classified as non-profit, his association does not have to disclose any balance sheets — no matter how much revenue it generates.
Yoga Vidya has this comfortable status 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 non-profit status every three years. One plausible reason is that Mr. 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.
But Hans-Peter Schwintowski, a professor of economic law at Humboldt University in Berlin, questions how much Yoga Vidya actually brings in locally. “I would put a big question mark on whether that actually benefits the community,” he said.
He also questions how Yoga Vidya can be classified as non-profit adult education, and believes authorities should rescind its tax-free status. “Otherwise, general storeowners around the corner could just as well be non-profit,” he said.
Although, as a non-profit, Mr. Bretz’s association saves a significant amount of money, he still pays his servants less than €1,000 a month. One manager, for example, earned €882.15 per month for working fulltime at the end of 2011, according to figures made available to Handelsblatt. Of that, €338 went to Yoga Vidya for the manager’s living costs and €184 to social security.
The manager’s take-home pay was €360.
Mr. Bretz defends the arrangement. “We see the work of sevaka as a service,” he said. “As such, the money that servants receive should not be considered earnings.”
Ultimately, it is not about gainful employment, but rather a “matter of the heart,” he said.
And German law allows this dubious arrangement.
Social insurance officials currently see Mr. Bretz’s servants as “social insurance obligated employees without employment contracts.” Under this status, he is not obliged to pay the €8.50 legal minimum hourly wage.
That also doesn’t make sense to Mr. Schwintowski. If someone in the yoga association would take over the duties of a normal employee in the economy, that would be employment. As it is, he said, “the minimum wage is being circumvented.”
When Mr. Bretz is confronted with such criticism, he merely laughs it off.
“Why should a ceramics course in the community college get tax benefits and us not?” he said.
When asked about the low pay, he explained that members of the spiritual association themselves determined that sum in their weekly meetings. Generally, almost everything is decided communally, he said, as in a Catholic cloister.
Besides, said Mr. Bretz, his association is serving a good cause: world peace. Its charter proclaims that “members feel obligated to serve the people by spreading the knowledge of yoga and related practice systems.”
Mr. Bretz has a catchier description: “I believe that all people should practice yoga,” he said. “That would see to it that there is peace in the world.”
Yoga equals peace. More yoga equals more peace. It’s that simple, he argues.
Mr. Bretz aims to expand his yoga association. He has plans for two new seminar houses – on the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean – and is considering a Yoga Vidya university.
But what would happen if the communal members decided against expansion? Mr. Bretz grew uneasy at the question. He uncrossed one leg and then the other. He now sat with his legs spread and bent forward.
“Growth is always controversial; there are always those who say, ‘that is enough,’” he said. “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.
Massimo Bognanni is an awarding-winning journalist who is a member of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. Simon Book is also a member of the team. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org