By Robert Schware, PhD
Executive Director, Give Back Yoga Foundation
There are many stories to tell of Give Back Yoga Foundation (GBYF), each inspired and limited by its narrator’s involvement with the organization since its inception in 2007. The particular story that follows is my version, crafted for the purpose of describing the origin and intent of our work, and how that continues to guide the growth and expansion of our mission in the world. Another story might highlight the vital contributions of the dozens of board and advisory members, program directors, staff, yoga teachers, yoga therapists, yoga practitioners, behavioral health specialists, healthcare practitioners, donors, sponsors, and yoga practitioners who collectively have made Give Back Yoga what it is today. That story is a much longer one!
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 fact that I likely wouldn’t make a good yoga teacher.
Answering the call to give back…together.
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. 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.”
Our second project request was to support the Prison Yoga Project, founded by James Fox, who has been teaching yoga, violence prevention, and emotional literacy classes at San Quentin State Prison since 2002. His book, Yoga, A Path for Healing and Recovery, which GBYF published, has now been sent free of charge to 30,000 prisoners. The practices are designed to improve mental and physical well-being, which can directly lower healthcare costs among the incarcerated. Prisoners mostly hear about the book by word of mouth, and then request a copy. PYP has trained more than 2,500 prison yoga teachers in 25 states and 7 foreign countries.
For the next ten years, we began fiscally sponsoring other programs with lead teachers transforming the lives of people affected by incarceration, war, addiction, eating disorders and cancer: for example Mindful Yoga Therapy for veterans and people affected by trauma, Yoga of 12-Step Recovery designed to support addiction recovery and relapse prevention, Yoga 4 Cancer that integrates yoga into cancer treatment plans to assist with managing the side effects of treatment. Each of these is led by internationally renowned yoga teachers who have been working “in the trenches” of their communities for at least a decade, usually longer.
There is one program under GBYF’s umbrella that was launched in a different and sensational way: the Eat Breathe Thrive (EBT) program. Its founder, Chelsea Roff, quit her job in 2013 and launched a crowd funding campaign to raise $50,000 to start a nonprofit organization. 44 days into the 50-day campaign, the campaign was at $19k—a lot of money, but not enough to start an organization. Chelsea knew it was time to do something drastic, so, she climbed onto a roof on Main Street in Santa Monica, set down a yoga mat, and vowed to remain on that mat until the rest of the funds were raised! For five days, Chelsea held the widely-publicized rooftop yoga strike, #OccupyYouAreBeautiful, until the campaign reached $50,000. EBT thrives to this day.
Growing, with the help of community.
GBYF has continued to grow. Over the past four years we’ve distributed 13,000 yoga mats to 46 US states, nine countries, to support over 400 yoga service projects in partnership with Gaiam and lululemon. Growth of any organization is an ongoing process of gradual improvement and assessment that every successful institution and business experiences in some way. In GBYF’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.
GBYF will expand in 2019, and my hope this coming new year is that we continue working together to offer yoga as a tool for healing and transformation in our communities.