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Christoph Harrach: "I knew it couldn't go on like this"

Christoph Harrach: "I knew it couldn't go on like this"
Foto: © Thomas Kierok

Christoph Harrach studied business administration and aspired to a stellar career - then he got burnout. Today, he lives as a transformation researcher and yoga teacher in the rural Teutoburg Forest. An interview with a man who sees retreat as progress - and who wants to reform the approach to sustainability.

INTERVIEW  Jens Thomas


CCB Magazine:Christoph, you launched the KarmaKonsum conference 15 years ago. In 2010, you won the German Sustainability Award for it. Why does the conference no longer exist?

Christoph Harrach:The format had worn out a bit over the years, I do other things now. The spirit in it lives on, and many social innovations came out of it. That's why I like to look back: We had brought together up to 1,000 members of the German sustainability industry at the conference every year from 2007 to 2014. Activists from Thomas D (Fantastische 4) to the founder of the common good economy Christian Felber to Utopia CEO Meike Gebhard came together at the conference. The starting point at the time was the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) movement, which fascinated me. The topic was still totally new back then. Today I work as a sustainability economist and integrate my long yoga experience into my work. Because sustainability and yoga are directly connected for me.

CCB Magazine:Yeah? How?

Christoph Harrach:It's about an inner balance, let's call it inner sustainability, which I think is unnoticed in the current sustainability discourse. Because when we talk about sustainability, we usually talk about protecting nature. But we also need to talk about inner protection, about a healthy relationship with ourselves - only those who are at peace with themselves can also be at peace with their environment. Yoga can be an important tool for this: Yoga wants all beings to experience happiness and harmony on all levels. Yoga in its direct translation from Sanskrit means "oneness". In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important scriptures of yoga philosophy, verse 50 of the second chapter emphasizes "skill in action," referring to intelligent decision-making in crisis situations. And from the perspective of yoga, everything is connected to everything else. If we transfer this principle to all areas of life, to interpersonal relationships, to the world of work, and thus introduce it into the sustainability discussion, we can act more responsibly.

CCB Magazine:You had a burnout in your early twenties. Was that the reason why you started practicing yoga?

Christoph Harrach:That's a longer story. I come from a middle-class household in Hessen. My father was an executive at a regional Coca-Cola subsidiary. Performance was always the focus for us. After graduating from high school, I studied business administration. After that, I went straight to Neckermann in marketing. Before that, I was a sprayer and partied a lot. At some point, the combination of an unhealthy lifestyle and internal pressure to perform became my undoing - I began to develop psychosomatic complaints. At Neckermann, I first took three months off. Luckily for me, I had already taken up yoga. In retrospect, that was my salvation: I found my inner balance. I knew that I couldn't go on like this.

My suggestion is: Let's add another P for "Practice" to the 5 Ps of the 2030 Agenda - People, Planet, Prosperity, Partnership, Peace: Let's get into action. Or as the SDG initiative calls for: Let's add a path of inner transformation to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

CCB Magazine:You then moved years ago to the Teutoburg Forest in Bad Meinberg, in the neighborhood of the Yoga Vidya seminar house. Was that a way to find yourself?

Christoph Harrach:That was the decisive step. But first I started blogging about ecology, sustainability and lifestyle in 2007. The topic was totally new at the time. At some point, market research institutes approached me and wanted to do studies with me. Okay, I thought, I'll just do these studies. This time led to a complete change of consciousness in me: I wanted to get out of capitalism and into the eco sector. At first, I worked at Hess Natur, a flagship eco-textile company in Hessen. I even became head of department there. But I didn't have enough time to focus on the content. Ten years ago, I moved with my wife and two children to the Teutoburg Forest in Bad Meinberg, our previous vacation resort near Bielefeld. It was important to us that the children grow up in nature and that we have a good spiritual community in the place. My friends in Frankfurt said at that time: Are you insane? What do you want in such a backwater? You're dying from boredom!

CCB Magazine:And, what do you want there?

Christoph Harrach:I want to come down. I want to wake up in the morning with my children and have breakfast, and I want to be near Yoga Vidya, the largest non-Indian training and seminar center for yoga and Ayurveda. Thousands of practitioners are now drawn to the area. My wish is to be involved in urban development here and to build a model city for sustainability, health and spirituality. And my suggestion is: Let's just add another P for "Practice" to the 5 Ps of the 2030 Agenda - People, Planet, Prosperity, Partnership, Peace: Let's get into action. Or as the SDG initiative itself calls for: Let's add a path of inner transformation to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

CCB Magazine:That sounds all well and good, but not everyone can afford such a lifestyle. Many slave away around the clock and still can't live off their work.

Christoph Harrach:That is precisely the problem, and that is why change is needed. And it's not just the large corporations that need to maximize their profits. It is needed above all in the areas of culture and ecology. Here, too, the old meritocracy is still setting the pace. Here, too, people burn out because they identify so strongly with their work, because they have to work around the clock and put out their elbows - even though they want to exemplify values that run counter to this. In my opinion, we can only achieve this change through a new inner balance, through a culture of mindfulness, for which yoga can be a door opener. A research project at the Technical University of Berlin has just proven this: The importance of material values decreases through mindfulness practice after just a few weeks. People change their attitudes toward materialistic values when they are doing better. And when one is doing well, other studies show, values of mindfulness are cultivated. In addition, a sustainable life can be more favorable in many areas because, in the sense of sufficiency, one is willing and able to do without many things voluntarily - renunciation is considered a virtue in yoga, as in all world religions. It's not a weakness, as capitalism suggests to us.

My goal is to bring mindfulness practice into companies - it has to be about the ecological and social determining the economic and not the other way around

CCB Magazine:Since 2019, you've also been working as a common good consultant at the Foundation for the Common Good Economy. What is that all about?

Christoph Harrach:That was the next logical step for me. Work is becoming increasingly important in people's lives. My goal here is to bring mindfulness practice into companies - it has to be about the ecological and social determining the economic and not the other way around. And it's important that corporate sustainability is developed together with the employees. This is exactly what many organizations do wrong: They impose sustainability from above. They give themselves a sustainable image, but do not live sustainability inside the organization by keeping their employees in mind. But we only experience real sustainability in the external world if we find peace within, and that applies to organizations just as much as to the rest of the world. In my opinion, the common good economy is therefore an important approach: financial profit is supplemented by a common good balance sheet. The financial return is complemented by a common good return. In the end, it is always a question of whether what we do pays off or can be calculated.

CCB Magazine:Can you explain how a common good balance sheet works?

Christoph Harrach:As a company or city, you have to position yourself in a total of 20 balance fields in an organizational development process lasting several months. The results are reviewed by an external expert through an audit process. The Common Good Economy (GWÖ) was launched in Austria in 2010. In the meantime, around 2,000 companies worldwide and have implemented a common good balance sheet and around 8,000 people worldwide support the movement. Entire cities - including Stuttgart, Mannheim, Amsterdam, Vienna or Barcelona - are increasingly aligning their municipal actions with the values of GWÖ. At the center are the fundamental values of democratic constitutions such as human dignity, solidarity and co-decision, in particular Article 14 "Property obligates": The economy should serve the common good and not monetary-maximizing interests.

CCB Magazine:Sustainability researchers like Niko Paech see the risk that the common good economy will become an accelerator of greenwashing. There would be a danger of not moving away from growth, but greenwashing growth.

Christoph Harrach:I do not see this danger. Unlike the post-growth economy that Paech advocates, the common good economy is a management system. The post-growth economy relies on reduction and renunciation, which is initially desirable against the background of yoga. However, it is often not very attractive for companies. The post-growth economy is still stuck in niche thinking. It would have to become mainstream if it were to be accepted. However, I am not aware of any management system in the field of post-growth economics. In my opinion, the common good economy is therefore an important step toward evaluating the sustainability performance of companies and presenting it transparently. In addition, the accounting process triggers innovation impulses, i.e., concrete ideas are generated on how companies can improve in the socio-ecological sense.

CCB Magazine:Christoph, we currently have a war in the middle of Europe. For years, sustainability researchers have been arguing about whether sustainability has to mean radical renunciation or whether it can be compatible with the pursuit of growth. Is this conflict currently resolving itself because we will have to do without gas and oil in the future in order to harm Putin?

Christoph Harrach:That is a difficult question. Basically, the war shows us quite clearly how dependent the Western industrialized nations are on fossil fuels and globalized supply chains, but also on totalitarian regimes. And many people are only now becoming aware that it is not self-evident to always have everything permanently available. For me as a yogi, this crisis and the realization that has grown out of it represent a great opportunity to finally implement the long-discussed energy transition quickly. In the end, we have no other choice. If we want a sustainable society, we should shape it now. 

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