State Of The Art Yoga Service | By Rob Schware

Last Updated: November 18, 2018By

Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2017 issue

When Beryl Bender Birch and I co-founded The Give Back Yoga Foundation in 2007, there were around a dozen non-profit yoga service organizations in the U.S. We wanted to support and fund certified yoga teachers in all traditions to offer the teachings of yoga to under-served and under-resourced people and communities, and inspire grassroots social change.

Teacher trainees at Beryl’s The Hard and the Soft Yoga Institute wrote up their project ideas for increasing access to yoga, either through community service or yoga classes in communities living with poverty and trauma. “Yoga Service” is now a much larger movement, with hundreds of organizations and thousands of teachers offering their yoga therapy skills and knowledge outside of the traditional studio setting.

We are now at a moment when the course of yoga service is significantly changing, a turning point if you will, for three reasons.

Institutional Adoption

Social agencies, including prisons and juvenile detention centers, treatment centers for addictions and eating disorders, and VA hospitals, among others, are now adopting, and in many cases funding, yoga programs.

For instance, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Hamilton County Veterans’ Court is treatment-based and creates a comfortable and safe environment where supports (employment, transportation, wellness activities and more) are the foundation of sobriety and treatment. Mindful Yoga Therapy is mandatory for veterans appearing in this courtroom.

Attendance is considered one of the three self-help meetings required each week.

“It is unlike anything I’ve experienced or seen in a traditional courtroom,” says yoga teacher Jennifer Wright. We hold Mindful Yoga Therapy prior to the docket. Feedback suggests that the pre-docket practice brings calm to the individuals and reduces anxiety. I observe it and I receive the feedback that we create a visibly calmer courtroom. It is worth mentioning that the national Veterans’ Court recidivism rate is 22 percent, and in Hamilton County the rate is seven percent.”

And in the middle of America, Omaha, Nebraska’s Correctional Youth Facility recently started the first-ever weekly yoga class for incarcerated young men ages 16 to 21. This location is the only adult correctional facility for young male offenders in Nebraska. And the progressive warden, Ryan Mahr, understands that “hurt people hurt people.” So this year he hired Phileena Heuertz of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, to launch the yoga program at Nebraska’s Correctional Youth Facility. This is just one restorative justice program in the local prison to help young men heal, stay out of the criminal justice system, and recover their best self.

There are two success stories here: the people being helped and the data being collected. Because of the track records of these cutting-edge programs, and because of the research that has proven the benefits to the populations served, in the future there will be opportunities to replicate these programs in other states.

Corporate Involvement

Gaiam, a consumer products and media company, has for several years donated thousands of yoga mats to kick-start yoga programs in schools, and for first responders, veterans, at-risk youth, the homeless, and people with mental and physical disabilities.

Gaiam is now sending Yoga Readiness Kits, including yoga products and video content featuring yoga and mindfulness, to military bases around the world, including, among others: Fort Campbell, Ft. Stewart, Fort Bragg, Shaw Air Force Base, the Southern Command, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Recently it launched a free video series for active duty service men and women.

In October 2016, lululemon athletica committed to a new community-based social impact program to create access to the healing benefits of yoga in at-risk and underserved communities, the Here to Be program. Its initial partners include the United Nations Foundation, Africa Yoga Project, Yoga Foster, LoveYourBrain, Give Back Yoga Foundation, and the Yoga Service Council. Here to Be will fund initiatives that make yoga service programs more accessible.  Over the next five years, it aims to help to build the community of yoga service practitioners among nonprofits, academics, and public sector institutions that are developing and applying yoga service programming. CEO Laurent Potdevin is making social impact investing a corporate priority. He made a commitment on behalf of lululemon at the Clinton Global Initiative of $25 million over the next five years “to bring the benefits of yoga and meditation to underserved communities around the world.” 

New Realities

In recent days, a growing number of teachers have reached out to yoga service organizations, such as Hands to Heart Center in Boston, to volunteer their services providing free and accessible yoga classes for people living with poverty and trauma. Other organizations, such as the Newark Yoga Movement, are developing teachers with language skills from low-income communities and minority cultural backgrounds that reflect the diverse populations they serve.

My organization, The Give Back Yoga Foundation, continues offering free resources to thousands of prisoners, veterans and active duty service members. Alongside these resources, we will be launching with a free online course with lululemon and Here to Be for yoga teachers around the world in June called How Can I Serve? and a 200-hr teacher training focused strongly on yoga service led by Beryl Bender Birch.

As uncertain as today’s reality is, the newly-sown seeds that I’ve described make clear that transformative change is sprouting and growing (if you invoke seeds, you need to match the adjectives) in the yoga service world, presenting us with inspiring opportunities for positive direction. Our work as yoga service organizations has never been more needed than it is today.

Photos courtesy of Give Back Yoga Foundation and Eat Breathe Thrive.

For more information on the foundation, visit

Rob Schware, PhD, heads the Give Back Yoga Foundation and is president ex-officio and advisor for the Yoga Service Council. In 2013, his work of co-founding and furthering the Give Back Yoga Foundation earned him the International Association of Yoga Therapists’ Karma Yoga Award for “extraordinary selfless service in reducing suffering and elevating consciousness through yoga.” And in 2016, he received Yoga Journal’s Good Karma award.
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