What is the difference between Christianity and yoga? (part 3)

· author: Thomas · reading time: ca. 9 min.

The documentary “Cash & Karma” of the WDR reports about grievances at the large German yoga provider “Yoga Vidya”. As I used to be an employee in a yoga center myself, I give my assessment of some questions raised by the documentary.

This article is part of a series. You can find a short introduction to the religious worldview behind yoga in the first part “What is the difference between Christianity and yoga? (part 1)” You can read my personal story with yoga in the second part “What is the difference between Christianity and yoga? (part 2)”.

Question: Where did the data set with half a million internal messages of Yoga Vidya come from?

Right at the beginning, the film reports that an informant leaked a data set with half a million internal messages from Yoga Vidya to WDR. In the course of the documentary, the “data set” refers mainly to emails. Such an amount of information is enormous and forms a secure basis to prove the statements from the film. A data set of this size is practically impossible to falsify nowadays, although this could change in the future through the use of generative artificial intelligence.

Assuming a retention period of up to ten years for emails based on the German tax code, the number corresponds to about 137 emails per day; it is possible that emails are kept even longer at Yoga Vidya for internal traceability. A possible explanation would be that a member of the “management level” of Yoga Vidya received the sensitive emails directly from Sukadev (Volker Bretz) via a distribution list and accumulated them in his mailbox for years before finally forwarding them to the WDR.

Alternatively, it would be conceivable that an IT employee of Yoga Vidya has given the data set to WDR. From my professional experience in IT, I can say that certain authorized employees can usually gain access to all email accounts relatively easily, for example those of Sukadev (Volker Bretz) or the entire “leadership circle”. In both cases, the group of people who come into question for the leak is very small – the whistleblower probably risked his career at Yoga Vidya by leaking the data set.

Question: What happens to Yoga Vidya’s income, which is in the tens of millions?

The documentary states the annual turnover of Yoga Vidya approximately in the range of a double-digit million amount. There is no official information from Yoga Vidya about this. Older reports, from about ten years ago, give Yoga Vidya’s turnover as 10 million euros per year. “Cash & Karma” suggests that Yoga Vidya’s business model did not grow further during the Corona pandemic, despite private donations and government support. I would therefore assume that even today the turnover is still in the rather low double-digit million range.

It is striking that no research so far has been able to prove that Yoga Vidya spends its income on luxury goods. The founder, Sukadev (Volker Bretz), lives just like the employees in a building of the former health resort clinics in Bad Meinberg and produces new social media content for Yoga Vidya around the clock, as it seems. The WDR documentary quotes Sukadev (Volker Bretz) right at the beginning that he has inherited wealth and will not have to work until the end of his life. What motivates him to achieve a big income with Yoga Vidya anyway?

The circumstances indicate that Sukadev (Volker Bretz) is indeed concerned with the growth of Yoga Vidya in order to spread yoga as widely as possible, even though the working conditions of its employees suffer as a result. Unlike Sukadev (Volker Bretz), the majority of employees is unlikely to have any training in business economics. I can imagine that the people in charge simply spend a lot of money thoughtlessly and inefficiently. The yoga philosophy mentioned in the film “give everything you have” may also contribute to this.

Question: How do the seemingly harsh working conditions at Yoga Vidya fit with the yoga philosophy?

Yoga is often perceived as a path to harmony and peace. This is also how Yoga Vidya presents itself in countless social media posts. In Google search results, Yoga Vidya is always at the top. “Cash & Karma”, however, shows an unusually critical view of the lives of the employees who are permanently on site at Yoga Vidya: Working six days a week, having hardly any time for yourself – how does that fit in with the mindfulness and relaxation that many hope for from their yoga practice?

The description of the working conditions at Yoga Vidya corresponds to my own experience and is very understandable to me. (More about this in the article: “What is the difference between Christianity and yoga? (part 2)”) To me, the demand to work more and more shows the philosophical-religious background of yoga: Those who follow the yoga path and believe in karma assume that they have to work their way up to “enlightenment”. So it fits well into the picture that one should be working actively as long as one has not yet reached the final goal.

As Christians, we are also called upon to pursue work, if possible, to earn our living (cf. Genesis 3:17-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). However, there is a limit to this for Christians. The Bible says that whoever believes in Jesus Christ already has eternal life (cf. John 3:16). God accepts us even when we are weak (cf. Matthew 11:28-29; 2 Corinthians 12:9). In yoga, on the other hand, one tries to gain new energy again and again for daily work through the physical, breathing and meditation exercises.

Question: How can it be that hundreds or even thousands of volunteers participated in the construction project “Maha Meru” despite the hazardous materials?

The film shows how Yoga Vidya is renovating another building in Bad Meinberg – the former Lippe Clinic, later called “Maha Meru” (big mountain). Since the financial means for the renovation are not sufficient, Yoga Vidya relies on a lot of work by volunteers under the professional guidance of a long-time employee. Among them are also aspirants of the yoga teacher training, who are only temporarily in Bad Meinberg. They are required to help “voluntarily” so that their training is considered complete. Yoga Vidya argues here as well that “Karma Yoga” is a form of yoga.

This section of the documentary is followed by video clips published by Yoga Vidya itself, in which some of the “volunteers” are wearing no protective equipment or are not wearing it correctly. An expert opinion is shown, according to which many parts of the building are contaminated with mold, asbestos and mineral wool. These substances can be carcinogenic if not handled properly. Since I am not an expert in building biology, I cannot say for sure as to what extent the volunteers were actually exposed to a hazard. Yoga Vidya, on the other hand, maintains that the renovation was carried out professionally.

From my experience in yoga teacher training, I can say that the areas for “volunteering” (“Karma Yoga”) are quite diverse. For example, I had to arrange meditation cushions and blankets in a yoga room. The yoga philosophy describes a – so to speak – “supernatural” way to improve one’s health. One possible explanation is that some volunteers overestimated their physical resistance and therefore did not wear protective gear. However, this should not be generalized – the strong emphasis on the body in yoga makes some participants overcautious about their health.

Question: Why did Swami Padmanabhananda from the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh not continue the interview?

During production of the documentary, the film crew traveled to India to visit the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, on whose tradition Yoga Vidya in Germany is based. This speaks for the high quality of the documentary and shows the desire of the producers to really get to the bottom of the subject. In a second scene, however, Swami Padmanabhananda (General Secretary of the Divine Life Society) suddenly breaks off the interview. The film crew, and thus the viewers, are left perplexed.

At this point, one can only speculate. I know little about how the swamis (monks) in the Sivananda ashram actually live today. However, the founder of this yoga tradition, Swami Sivananda, wrote many books, and there are records of the ashram’s beginnings from his direct disciples. Originally, yoga in India was an ascetic practice. The human body was subjected to sometimes severe pain by fasting or standing on one leg for extremely long periods of time in order to attain “enlightenment”.

Swami Sivananda felt that these practices were too extreme. He reformed yoga with his style so that it could be better integrated into everyday life – a principle that we also see today at Yoga Vidya. Swami Sivananda always emphasized the necessity for Karma Yoga in his books, just as Sukadev (Volker Bretz) does in the video clips shown. To be completely absorbed in “selfless service” is not a novel invention of Yoga Vidya, but corresponds exactly to the life and teachings of Swami Sivananda, on which Yoga Vidya is based.

Question: Is there a connection between yoga and right-wing extremism or conspiracy theories?

Towards the end of “Cash & Karma”, a so-called Reichsbürger is shown who held seminars on the premises of Yoga Vidya for several years. The film accuses Yoga Vidya of not having distanced itself quickly and clearly enough from the seminar leader and his political views after receiving complaints from employees. Yoga Vidya had offered him a platform for years and thereby also profited financially from him.

There are certain connections between esoteric world views and right-wing extremism, which are summarized under “far right esotericism” or “right-wing esotericism”. The Neue Westfälische Zeitung recently described the region of East Westphalia-Lippe, where the Yoga Vidya headquarter is located, as a “hotspot” of the Reichsbürger movement. However, I do not see any direct cause for this in the yoga philosophy. People from all social contexts, including Christian ones, can be susceptible to extremist views.

Yoga is closely related to Hinduism, a so-called syncretic religion. This means that yoga and Hinduism do not distance themselves from other religions, as do Christianity (“You shall have no other gods besides me” – Exodus 20:3), Judaism and Islam, for example. Yoga Vidya offers a plethora of seminars that combine yoga with other topics, such as archery, memory training, or raw food. These seminars serve Yoga Vidya’s goal of spreading yoga among the general public.

Personally, I have met yogis who, for example, were critical of the public broadcasting fee in Germany or of electromagnetic radiation from cell phone towers. As a Christian, I am glad that I may call Jesus Christ my “King” (cf. John 18:37; 1 Timothy 6:11-16), who did not come into the world to bring about a political revolution. He said, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give back to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21) As the anonymous Yoga Vidya employee, who does not wish to be recognized in the film, also speculates, there is no such clear guideline in Yoga philosophy.

The documentary “Cash & Karma” was released as part of the format “ARD Story” on September 5, 2023 and is currently available free of charge in the ARD-Mediathek. It was produced by Nicole Rosenbach and Jana Heck on behalf of WDR. One day earlier, an accompanying article with the title “Yoga - um welchen Preis?” appeared on tagesschau.de in the “Investigativ” (investigative) section.