Yoga in the GDR – in secret, in prison and eventually tolerated

Using two tall stacks of Stasi files, it can be told in an exemplary way: the story of yoga in the GDR. Berlin author Mathias Tietke elaborated on them a few years ago for his book of the same name. The first 800 pages of the file represent the systematic repression of a yogi, Tietke says. That’s the case with a sporty young musician from Cottbus. His name: Gert Scheithauer.

He knew there were about 15 IM planned for him. Then I could send him everything. Then he broke down in tears. What was planned: Intervene in the family so that his parents get a bad picture of him. He took language courses and was not allowed to continue. All measures of degradation to destroy his personality.

Mathias Tietke

Scheithauer got copied and sent a yoga book from West Germany chapter by chapter. But when, after disciplined self-study in the early 1980s, he wanted to go public with the skills he had learned – he wanted to lecture at Urania and travel to India – it became too much for Cottbus officials loyal to the line: Scheithauer had to stay in jail for almost two years until he was bought out of the BRD. Yoga was banned for him in prison – as was generally the case in the GDR. After yoga was taboo for the first 30 years since the founding of the state and only a few people had mostly secretly and independently engaged in yoga, the German Gymnastics and Sports Federation decided in 1979 to officially ban it.

Tietke: “There was a right decision: we do not want it because it does not agree with the GDR’s scientific worldview. And on the other hand, it is completely contrary to what we actually want: namely to be competitive in sport.”

Forensic pathologist believes that yoga is a mental illness

The well-known forensic doctor Otto Prokop laid the groundwork for the ban in the 1950s. In his publications, he described yoga as something esoteric and occult, and the practice of yoga as an expression of a mental illness. Nevertheless, Herbert Fischer, the first GDR ambassador to India to have contact with Gandhi, was able to practice yoga.

And ethnologist Heinz Kucharski was even able to found an association for scientific research in yoga in Leipzig in 1979, the year yoga was banned. However, the scientist also had a special status in the GDR – as a so-called “victim of the Nazi regime” and as party secretary of the SED.

These were the other 800 pages of Stasi documents about Heinz Kucharski, who worked for MfS from 1964 to November 1989. This means that someone else could not have just established a yoga club like that.

Mathias Tietke

Kurcharski organizes a yoga congress in Leipzig once a year. Like doctors in the Soviet Union, who are much more open in this regard, he and his colleagues primarily wanted to research how yoga can help against certain diseases – or in the space of the Soyuz missions. In activities like these, Tietke sees a certain openness in the GDR towards yoga.

Losing my place in college because of yoga

However, he could not benefit from it himself. As a conscientious objector and construction soldier, Tietke was already an outsider in the mid-1980s and was monitored.

When he was able to borrow a Bulgarian yoga book from acquaintances and decided to practice this “secret doctrine”, he lost his place at the Johannes R. Becher Literary Institute in Leipzig, which he thought was safe.

Mathias Tietke was unable to study at the Johannes R. Becher Institute of Literature in Leipzig due to yoga.© Private

But there are also other examples, such as physiotherapist Inge Schönfelders. She is invited to yoga by a colleague. Schönfelder: “So I asked: What is it? And then she explained to me you can come over and join. And that’s how I got into yoga, or what we used to call yoga back then. ”

In the early 1980s, the small group at a polyclinic in Leipzig had no real teacher and no yoga books, but Schönfelder was fascinated. As a former swimmer, she wants to return to physical activity without having to compete or join a sports club. After a lecture by ethnologist Kucharski, she contacted him. At a meeting, the scientist asks the young woman to demonstrate exercises during her lectures and to set up a yoga group in Leipzig. But it is not easy:

I had an intermediary who provided me with the gyms. And I did not get that for yoga, we said hours for relaxation or relaxation gymnastics.

Inge Schoenfelder

Yoga’s triumphant march in the late phase of the GDR

Yoga gymnastics was also a popular term, under which a series of exercises could even appear in the women’s magazine “Sibylle” in the late 1970s. Physiotherapist Schönfelder later appears in a first detailed booklet on yoga – it is quickly discontinued. But she still had to have her books brought to her by retirees from the West, which cost a lot of money.

But the triumph of yoga can no longer be stopped in the late phase of the GDR. At the turn of the century, the first books were published, Inge Schönfelder and other yoga practitioners were invited to television.

After the fall of the Wall and with the freedom to travel, the yoga scene in the former GDR quickly adapted to that in the West. Yoga author Tietke observes that impulses no longer come from the East, but above all from the United States.

Tietke: “If you want to get through school, you can not stand somewhere in your triangular swimming trunks and say: ‘We have to make Boris Sakharov’s style’. It is there, of course, but it is the rarities.”

Inge Schönfelder is still a sought-after teacher. In Leipzig, the GDR yoga pioneer offers several courses a week at the adult education center.

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