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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Sarah Court

Sarah Court is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Yoga Tune Up® Teacher Trainer, and the creator of Quantum Leap. She teaches public workshops, anatomy for yoga teacher trainings, and trains Yoga Tune Up® teachers worldwide. She developed and teaches her Quantum Leap continuing education program to make sophisticated movement science easy for movement teachers to understand and apply to their teaching. Sarah received her doctorate in Physical Therapy from Mount St. Mary’s University. She brings significant clinical experience to her teaching, attracting clients and students with a desire to move intelligently, regain mobility, or manage chronic conditions. Sarah is an award-winning graduate of Princeton University, and edited the Yoga Tune Up® blog for 5 years. She has been featured on exercise.com and The New York Times. Find her Yoga Tune Up® schedule here or go to her full website.

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Emily

Wow, what an interesting experience. Thank you for sharing your insight and first hand experience.

Melanie Burns

Thank you for this article Sarah, it peaked my curiosity about this teacher Jill praises. I am grateful for Carolyn Philips’s comments too, which make me want to drive to Omega to study with him this summer. Thanks for opening my eyes to the potential for growth with this teacher.

Elaine Cheong

I was told to hold my downward dog for 7 minutes before I can consider seriouslyinversions. This has to be my longest seven minutes where my mind, ego body and integrity were trying not to pit against one another.

Mary

Jill Miller has done a great job of spreading Glenn’s message of being aware of how you hold and position your body throughout the day. While it is hard to let go of old habits, it is something I’m working on as we’re all a work in progress.

Sandy Gross

I loved reading this for several reasons, mostly because I love Sarah’s wisdom and humor, but also because I have always respected Jill’s willingness to share who her teachers were/are. I had heard of Glenn from my teachers Cyndi Lee and Joe Miller for years, so I was kind of unphased when the NY Times piece came out. And I am grateful for the excellent and balanced training I received with OM yoga and in my 12 years+ of mentoring with Cyndi. I did not expect Jill would reference Glenn so much this week in the Level 1 and now… Read more »

Cindy DeCoste

Since doing the Level 1 Tune Up training in July, I have been curious about who my teachers’ teachers are or have been. I came across Glenn Black’s name from reading the section of the manual where Jill talks about her own teachers and mentors. Not knowing anything about him but knowing that Omega Institute is relatively close to where I live, I immediately thought I will pop up there to take a class with him someday if he’s still there. It was enough to know that he was a mentor and strong influence to someone who developed a style… Read more »

Rose Washburn

Judging by the quality of practice and teaching Glenn’s students embody, he must be quite a teacher. I’m going to try keeping my arms overhead for 5 minutes and see what happens!

Lori Gunnell

I just had to hold my arms up over my head for five mnites. Yeah. Ouch.

Tracy L

This is so great. I’m relating so well to this and all of my many poor postural habits, the way I walk, carry my heavy gear, etc. On the first day of the YTU training, you asked us what our yoga breakthrough was, and mine was Handstand with no wall. Well, that was huge for me and now, I’m so humbled and that is undone, so not that my breakthrough matters to anyone but me, but they are happening now…

Aida

Ok, so now I can’t wait to ask you how you feel he has influenced your teaching style! Although I have my own perceptions of this from the last couple of days (i.e. Bad Cop), but I also can see were you diverge. : )

Alex Ellis

I’ve learned we should be sitting up straight anyways =) What an opportunity to get to study with him! Do you know if he’s coming to LA again in the future?

Luke Sniewski

Wow. This sounds like an amazing experience. I’m sure he would have a field day with me. Nonetheless, this somehow motivates me to focus on my own weak links. I especially enjoyed the part on holding your hands over your head. Good way of looking at it.

Maggie

That’s my baby brother…..

Christine

Hi Sarah- after you told us today about holding your arms over your head for 5 minutes in this class, I had to read. Sounds like quite an experience!

Jamie

I have been bringing more awareness to my of how I hold my body, and I also recently came to terms with the fact that I can’t force myself into asanas my body isn’t capable of handling safely. Body awareness and respecting our own body’s limitations are critical!

Christine

I spent a weekend at Omega this summer with Glenn. It amazed me how 2 hours of such simple (I didn’t say easy) joint mobilization work could make you sweat and shake and be such a clear lens into your own body–at so many levels. Also, never have been a huge fan of savasana before, I completely fell in love with nidra under Glenn’s guidance and his ability to take you into your tissues and beyond.

chau

I’m using my Mom’s laptop and the font is really small. I thought the opening sentence said Glenn Beck and I was extremely confused for a moment! LOL

laura mcintire

Thanks for sharing. I haven’t had the pleasure myself but instantly recalled being required to hold my arms aloft for far longer than they wanted to be there in a high school gym class years ago.
I appreciate the reminder about how stressful even down dog can be when the joints just aren’t ready.

Keith Wittenstein

Studying with and getting body work from Glenn is truly an honor and a privilege. I have never found him to be anything other than kind and generous… but I have low standards when it comes to that. 🙂 I have always believed that yoga, like life, is experiential. Thus if you want to understand it, then you have to experience it. Glenn has experienced a lot and understands a lot and he doesn’t bother trying to explain things as much as he tries to get you to experience them for yourself. Nobody can explain to you what holding your… Read more »

Sandy Byrne

Thanx for sharing in the article. I will going up to omega institutes next week to spend a whole week with Glen Black and I was a little nervous. Well I’m still a little nervous but am more optimistic in what to expect. I can’t wait.

Carolyn Phillips

Sarah: You bring back great memories. I actually think about what we learned from Glenn all the time, like Tia. I actually really appreciate Glenn’s personality. I feel as if I can be assured of always being told the truth by him. I learned some tough things about my neck and other areas of focus and AM STILL PRACTICING what he taught two months later. The no-nonsense approach is very comforting and refreashing in the world of new age psychobabble which unfortunately can sometime surround yoga and any alternative practice. But when Jill talks about chakras, we know it’s a… Read more »

Tia Ukpe

So funny, just as I was reading your blog article, I was all slumped over reading on my computer and then it made me think of Glenn reminding us during our breaks or when we walked in the morning about our posture and the way we sit or stand and how we should be an example to our students, it had me sit straight up again! Thanks for the reminder 🙂

Bonnie

Enjoyed reading this Sarah, since I couldn’t be there. What, no patchouli? :0!

Your report helped me stay more aligned at this dang computer. Thanks!

Natalie Nazihi

I liked this article. I especially like how the teacher pointed out the correlation between the should/arm strength and inversions. He sounds like he gives the engineering perspective on practicing yoga and this teaching style is just as helpful in increasing a student’s awareness.