Today I have the honor to share with you an interview with Rob Schware, the co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, someone who can really be considered a pioneer of social yoga. I’m not sure if such a term really exists, but what I mean by social yoga is a kind of yoga service that is a variation of a social work, something that involves providing yoga classes for the public good, making it available to the communities that don’t have a good access to it due to a variety of circumstances (financial, educational, environmental), with an aim to serve and empower the community.

When I sent the Questions of this interview to Rob, I knew very little about this field myself. Through this interview, I feel like I touched only slightly something that is much bigger than what I have been in touch with before: something that feels like a social movement, like a wave that ripples over into all directions, transforming everything it comes in contact with. Judging by Rob’a answers, the situations, people, and results of their work have a powerful and profound effect on humanity in general, and it looks like there are many amazing changes to come in the next few years, with social yoga improving the lives of thousands of people around the world, all of it, partially but not entirely, is a result of yoga becoming mainstream, popular, and commercialized.

So the critics of modern yoga/traditionalist among you, pay attention: when yoga becomes a normal if not a fashionable thing to do, that’s not necessary such a bad thing. Once the masses start seeing the value and the life-changing aspect of yoga, they will demand it not only from their gyms and studios, but also from their social institutions, governments and policy influencing nonprofit organizations.

Q: How long have you been practicing yoga and how did you first start?

A: Like others—men in particular—I started practicing yoga for my health, after I strained my back lifting my son Jordan out of a tree swing. My first yoga class was an Ashtanga Vinyasa “trial” class in 1996 at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in New York, with Beryl Bender Birch, Thom Birch, and Tim Miller.

After experiencing yoga’s benefits, I began a 300-hour Ashtanga Yoga teacher training, but eventually faced the fact that I likely wouldn’t make a good yoga teacher. I still very much wanted to serve in the yoga world, and encountered Beryl’s The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute. As part of her 500-hour teacher training, she required students to complete a “give back” project, which included writing it up, implementing it, and reporting back to the class. It was Beryl’s inspiration to turn that “give back” project idea into a nonprofit organization. The timing, as Mystery would have it, was perfect because I was seeking freedom from a stressful career with the World Bank in Washington, DC.

Give Back Yoga Foundation was established to serve yoga teachers of all traditions to bring their skills and knowledge out of studios and into their communities. We had a mission, an intention to serve, a tagline (“Awaken, Transform, Give Back”) and, honestly, little knowledge how to run a nonprofit organization. As Einstein said, “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

Q: When you first started your yoga path, the yoga scene was probably very different from what it is now. What are the major changes you have noticed?

A: Collectively, our yoga programs are bringing tens of thousands of yoga classes to those who need it most around the globe, to people affected by addiction, incarceration, war, eating disorders and cancer. Our Yoga4Cancer program has over 2,300 trained teachers worldwide, the largest network of specialized yoga for cancer survivor professionals. By the end of 2019 Give Back Yoga, in partnership with Gaiam Inc. and lululemon athletica inc. will have distributed 20,000 yoga mats to over 600 yoga service projects around the world. Yoga works! And so it’s spreading into mainstream society and social institutions.

Q: Do you find that people who practice yoga regularly sometimes have a tendency to become very self-involved? 

A: I don’t. The past few years I’ve interviewed around a hundred yogis around the world for the Huffington Post and Give Back Yoga blog series called “Yoga: How We Serve?” One consistent theme from teachers is that working in prisons, jails, rehabilitation facilities, homeless shelters, etc. allows them to make a difference in people’s lives–they see that every week. They want to continue giving back yoga to their community the benefits they have received. Rather than “renouncing” the world and becoming self-involved, I see more yogis awakened to the practice as a way of saving the human species.

Q: How did the idea for Give Back Foundation come about? What inspires you in your work till this day?

A: Our world is in a crisis. In many cases, the governments and companies that run the show have proved ineffective at providing timely access to the health care services to veterans, addicts, and cancer survivors who need to manage their mental and physical consequences of disease and trauma. Working with nonprofits that have demonstrable social impact combines doing well with doing good—a double bottom line.

Q: What are some of the challenging aspects of running a nonprofit organization? How do you overcome them?

A: Growth of any organization is an ongoing process of gradual improvement and assessment that every successful institution and business experiences in some way. In Give Back Yoga’s case, our growth could not have occurred without the partnerships with, and tireless dedication of, yoga teachers sharing the practice of yoga to transform lives. Give Back Yoga Foundation will expand internationally in 2019-2020, and my hope is that we continue working together to offer yoga as a tool for healing and transformation in our communities.

Q: Has it been difficult to convince the general public about the numerous benefits of yoga to a person’s well-being and the value behind your work with the foundation?

A: Not really. We tell stories. For instance, of John, a Vietnam War veteran who became a yoga teacher through the Mindful Yoga Therapy program. He became medication free for the first time in over 40 years, off of every med from Ativan to Zanax! Yoga is now his therapy and through yoga, he has had the opportunity to change his life for the better.

Q: As someone who has been a part of the yoga industry for a long time, what do you think is going to happen with it in the next 5-10 years?

A: I expect we’ll see some exciting breakthroughs: grant awards to nonprofit organizations to expand yoga into federal and state correctional institutions; yoga programs for the growing number of refugees; social justice inclusion training for yoga teaches and service organizations; national health organizations such as the UK’s NHS making significant movement toward social prescribing and allocating funds to community programs that increase social engagement and improve health and wellbeing. An increasing number of yoga service organizations have secured grants for their programs (e.g. Our Mala, The Minded Institute, Edinburgh Community Yoga).

More about Rob Schware:

Rob is married to his wife Alice for 34 years and has been practicing yoga for 23 years: “Showing up for both is always a practice. Striving to bring the yoga into the relationship is a constant challenge.”