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Immersed in ‘Black’ness

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I had heard stories about Glenn Black for years. Many, many stories, that all highlighted two things about the legendary yoga teacher: he was tough (“he made us hold Navasana for 5 minutes!”) and he was mean (“he made fun of this girl who couldn’t do it!”). Needless to say, during my years on the East Coast, I wasn’t exactly seeking him out as a teacher. I was pretty sure that my own pig-headedness wouldn’t meld too well with what sounded like his.

But after I moved West and Jill Miller, Glenn’s protégé, became my teacher, my attitude changed. She is not mean, and she’s the right kind of tough, so I figured maybe the stories about Glenn were overblown. When I heard that Glenn was making a rare teaching trip to Los Angeles, I decided to spend a weekend immersion with the man/myth and make up my own mind.

(Something else about Glenn that I picked up from the years of stories: don’t talk to him. In fact, don’t talk at all. Glenn demands a silent classroom – he does not take questions about what you’re doing (or anything else), and he’s not interested in hearing about your process or your breakthroughs. I found that kind of awesome.)

Jill and Glenn.

Armed with this information, I was deeply surprised when I walked into a room full of chattering students on the first night. I looked around – surely Glenn Black wouldn’t permit this transgression? But there he was, wandering between yoga mats, hands clasped behind his back, silently eyeing his students. I put down my mat next to fellow YTU teacher Tiffany Chambers-Goldberg and cautiously said hello. Perhaps age had softened the edges of this notoriously gruff man.

“I’m supposed to teach you yoga nidra and Do-In tonight,” Glenn said off-handedly, in a low voice directed to no one in particular. And that’s how it began. We bounced our knees, massaged our forearms, rolled our legs around. This is a synch, I thought. I got this. And then we stood up and held our arms overhead. For 5 minutes.

A lot of things go through your head when you’re holding your arms straight up in the air for 5 minutes. (If you’re reading this and don’t think it sounds that hard, go ahead and try it. I’ll wait.) It’s sort of like the stages of grief – you cycle through pretty much every feeling you could have about holding your arms overhead until finally you come to accept the fact that you will be holding your arms overhead until Glenn tells you “that’s enough.” I came, during the course of the weekend, to have a Pavlovian response of “Oh thank God,” to his “that’s enough.” My response was silent, of course, because Glenn later revealed that first night was a bit of a test: left to our own devices, he wanted to see what we did with our bodies and our energy. Turned out, even a room full of long-time yoga teachers like to hunch over and chatter mindlessly.

As a result, Glenn’s goal for the weekend was to make us more aware: of how we held our bodies, even in casual moments, of what our unconscious mental and physical habits were, and of our potentially unhealthy attachment to ‘traditional’ yoga poses. If someone unthinkingly stretched during a pause in teaching, we all suddenly had to do that movement. “This lady wants to stretch her hips,” he would say. “Ok, everybody come into a squat.” (We learned quickly: be still between instructions.) The point of that 5 minute arms overhead? To test the shoulder flexion and strength needed for Headstand, Handstand, Forearmstand, not to mention Wheel and Down Dog (and as Glenn ominously intoned throughout, “if you’re having a hard time keeping your arms straight overhead, you may need to rethink your inversions.”)

Finally on day three Glenn offered, “All right, you want to do a ‘real’ pose? Let’s see you do a yoga pose. Warrior 1.” As we all assumed the pose, he went into paroxysms of disgust at our terrible alignment. We giggled, for we had learned by this point that Glenn’s gruff exterior masked a sly, dry wit.

Glenn’s yoga teaching style is certainly an acquired taste, even in his evidently mellower later years. He doesn’t come adorned with flowery language and patchouli, and he won’t celebrate your emotional breakthrough in Paschimottanasana with you. But he brings instead a laser-like vision to seek out and release your physical discomfort with bodywork, and a brilliant ability to catapult a room full of people into deeper and deeper states of conscious relaxation via yoga nidra.

So if you’re not interested in testing your preconceived notions about yourself, your body, or yoga, don’t study with Glenn (and he would probably agree that he doesn’t want you there either). But if you’re willing to go past surface discomforts, to shake up your relationship to basic human movement, and even let go of that headstand that your joints maybe shouldn’t be doing anyway, get yourself in Glenn’s class. (And I have some tips: when you’re there, don’t forget to sit up straight. And stop chatting with your neighbor. And don’t move unless he asks you to.)

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