Moments With… Rob Schware of The Give Back Yoga Foundation
The mission of the Give Back Yoga Foundation is to bring the therapeutic benefits of yoga to people with limited access to this practice. The organization was co-founded by Beryl Bender Birch and Rob Schware and has since grown to include a large team of dedicated members. The Give Back Yoga Foundation helps yoga teachers, health workers, and charitable organizations offer yoga to those in need –including veterans, prisoners, and individuals facing mental and physical illness. They also work with community partners to increase access to yoga for populations that face systemic bias and prejudice.
How did you first discover the world of yoga?
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 Asthanga 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 Asthanga Yoga teacher training, but eventually faced the doubt that I wouldn’t make a good yoga teacher.
What is the Give Back Yoga Foundation origin story?
What originally motivated you to do this work, and what were the early years like? 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.”
What are the various projects and initiatives that the Give Back Yoga Foundation is involved with?
One of human beings’ most exceptional abilities is the power to drive social change. From world-changing movements like suffrage to civil rights to environmental, we have proven throughout history that we have the capacity to effect systemic change to vastly improve our world and positively impact individuals. At the Give Back Yoga Foundation, we know yoga is such a movement. We feel strongly that yoga, breath work, and meditation can play a critical role in addressing our health crises. This year (2021) we launched Give Back Yoga University, an educational arm of the Foundation. It’s a virtual campus where we host lectures, classes, workshops and symposia led by expert faculty from a wide array of yoga traditions and academic disciplines. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we co-hosted, with the Yoga In Healthcare Alliance, Wellness After COVID, an international symposium aimed specifically at yoga and healthcare providers.
How has your relationship to yoga evolved since you began your personal practice and your work?
I’ve been privileged to travel and study with a great number of master yoga teachers. One of them, Rama Jyoti Vernon, taught me that meditation is not just found in a cross-legged sitting pose, but lies within the center of every asana “if we allow the consciousness to go deep enough.”
What are your thoughts on the topic of sustainability and eco-friendliness in the yoga community?
Can yoga/mindfulness really reverse climate change? If you are rolling your eyes just reading the question, read Give Back Yoga Foundation’s White Paper on Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability! It is no longer a matter of scientific dispute that climate change poses real challenges for current and future generations and impacts of the changing climate are already evident in most regions of the globe. Today, nearly 100 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century can be attributed to human activity. It is fairly certain that increased demand on available resources is expected to be severe in regions with populations that are most vulnerable to climate change and that are already prone to conflict. We often rush to blame greedy corporations and self-centered nations for climate change, forgetting that individuals design systems, build organizations, and constitute nations. We are the corporations and self-centered nations. We are equally quick to look outside ourselves for solutions to climate change, but we often forget that our efforts to change our external environment need to be balanced by our efforts to change our internal environment, ourselves.
What would you describe as your most challenging moment with the Foundation, and what did you learn from the experience?
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 will expand in the coming few years, and my hope is that we continue building partnerships to help disrupt inequity in wellbeing! We do by providing: an accelerated path to yoga teacher training for historically underrepresented minorities in the yoga space; supplies and funding to yoga teachers working to create a more equitable and inclusive yoga culture; educational and financial resources to yoga teachers to offer classes to the communities they represent; amplifying and providing a platform for yoga teachers who are often underrepresented in mainstream yoga culture to teach (via Give Back Yoga University); and fiscally sponsor five small organizations working to bring yoga to people facing addiction, eating disorders, incarceration, cancer, and PTSD.
How has the organization’s mission, work, and programs evolved over the years, and where are things headed?
Give Back Yoga Foundation continues to empower yoga teachers, health workers, community partners and charitable organizations to bring yoga to those in need – including at-risk youth, veterans, prisoners, and individuals facing mental or physical illness. This year, we are launching a new program to provide 100 full scholarships to YogaWorks 200-hour teacher training. These scholarships will provide BIPOC facing economic hardship with training, mats, mentorship and funding to create new spaces to practice yoga in their local communities.
I would like to formally thank Rob Schware for his time, viewpoint, and wonderful commitment to the yoga community.