The Healing: a yoga retreat gone wrong

Posted on 21 June 2023 By David Henning

The great German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, was my inspiration. ‘Never write your conclusion in a familiar place,’ he wrote. ‘You’ll never find the necessary bravery there.’ Which is why I packed my bags and landed up in Germany studying something pretentious. 

Germany was not only my shot at being brave and my attempt to write my thesis somewhere unfamiliar, though. It was also my renegade moment, that time when we’re young, slightly dumb, and obsessed with being far from home.

Ultimately, though, the small student city of Münster, known for the pealing of its church bells and for the rain, soon grew too mundane, no match for my budding pretentiousness. 

So, with my coursework out of the way, I opted to take Benjamin’s advice to the next level and set off to write my thesis on the road.

From one rainy country to the next: I hopped on a train to the Netherlands where, first, there was an encounter with some trippy truffles that put me on a first name basis with God. And, secondly, a decision to get my hands dirty, by signing up for a menial job shovelling cow poo at a Dutch eco-village. 

The work was humbling, sure, but I yearned for something, well, more meaningful than shovelling sh*t. Something that was less a pretentious metaphor for life, and more likely to spark some serious shifts.

My quest pointed me towards a live-work-learn opportunity at a “yoga retreat”, the advert for which noted a few conditions: no drugs, no alcohol, and compulsory yoga each morning. 

Given the incompatibility of postgraduate studies with the forbidden fruits, it seemed like a necessary respite from many of the distractions that had a tendency to lead me astray. Something spiritual, I presumed, perhaps a shot at enlightenment.

And so I hopped onto another train, this time heading east. 

The landscape changes as you enter the former German Democratic Republic. Wide open, undeveloped stretches of forest and abandoned villages were a breathtaking contrast to the vast metropolitan places I’d arrived from. 

I got off at Rathenow, an unassuming station on the line to Berlin. It was after dark when I arrived and the lack of development also meant that there was less light pollution which meant that for the first time in more than a year, I could see the stars and make out a few constellations. 

A short walk from the station and I was at the 19th-century Art Nouveau building where the retreat was happening. 

At the helm of this fledgling retreat was an architect turned property developer, who had subsequently styled himself as a spiritual guru. He’d made his fortune during Berlin’s property boom, travelled to India and returned with a degree in life. He preached humility, wore only white, refused to cut his hair… And he drove a rather snazzy Range Rover. 

His ambitions were now on transforming a dilapidated heritage building into a spiritual centre. Because, he said, ‘Rathenow needs healing’.  

The town certainly needed something with its countless dilapidated buildings and its strong support for Germany’s alt-right nationalist party, AFD. The surrounding forest is thought to be the final burial ground for much of Hitler’s remains. 

The town’s small contingent of neo-Nazis aside, I imagined I would find some peace in this village, reconnect with myself. I wasn’t alone. There were other volunteers, all seemingly normal young folk like myself. 

Illustration by Jess Nicholson

Together we settled into a routine of sun salutations in the yoga hall, and listening to our guru singing meditation mantras. 

Yoga sessions were interspersed with labour intensive tasks like mixing cement. Not quite an ashram in the Himalayas, but you get the idea: I was sloughing off pretentiousness, doing “proper” physical work, and exercising my mind, coaxing my spirit to new dimensions.

But then the weird stuff started to surface. 

It began with a sermon on numerology that seemed to stretch the limits of belief. Initially I played along, nodded and smiled politely, did my best to keep an open mind. “Give it a chance,” was my mantra.

But with time, the chinks in this latter-day guru’s armour began to show. He preached of humility, yet bragged about his accomplishments. He made claims that it was the ego that held people back from seeing things clearly, but became highly defensive if ever he was questioned. He spoke of the dangers of being tied to earthly possessions, yet he loved his Range Rover more than anything else on Earth. 

And he trotted out his dubious philosophical “truths”, his interpretation of the pandemic as a battle between the dark and the light, his strong anti-vax stance on one hand and his deep belief in the power of kundalini and its sexual energy on the other. 

Yes, like quite a number of gurus before him, this guy had developed a deep and unusual interest in “sexual energy”. There we were: eight young women and one pretentious male student mixing cement and wheelbarrowing rubble while our 60-year-old guru watched from his window, planning his next yoga session.

As the weirdness edged into something more akin to abuse, one “disobedient” member of our cult was expelled for her “negative sexual energy” – and we all packed our bags in a hurry.

From the isolation of the retreat, I slipped into Berlin as quickly as the next train would take me. It had been a long time since I’d left home in search of bravery in an unfamiliar place, and I felt like I’d gone backwards: I was in a cheap hostel, jobless, directionless, possibly clueless.

But at least it was a cheap hostel in the real world: beers, supermarkets, strolls in the Volkspark, techno blasting out of apartments. I was initially  dazed by the noise, by the ceaseless buzz and bustle, by the back and forth of people going about their lives rather than trying to grow their minds or find enlightenment. 

And then I settled, got over myself, and remembered that life is for living.


A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2023 print issue of Getaway

Illustration by Jess Nicholson

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