I have not had the opportunity to study with Glenn Black, but his student/apprentice Jill Miller is one of my teachers.
I had never heard of Mr. Black until Jill mentioned him in a teacher training. I did some research and listened to her anecdotes about her years of practice with him. He sounded formidable and totally smart. My takeaway was that Jill started to develop her sense of safe practice and appreciation for individual anatomy/limitations with him. Her keen sense of kinesthetics, innate curiosity about human biomechanics and her smarts ultimately led her to create Yoga Tune Up®.
My own sense of that appreciation has been enhanced and focused by Jill but it started with my teacher Lena Madsen. Lena has been my teacher for eleven years. She teaches in our little village where there are many yoga teachers and yoga options. Over the years, she has developed a solid and devoted student following. There are many reasons for this.
The main reason, I believe, is that her teaching has always revolved around safe practice, around listening to your body and taking your time.
As such, her classes are very different from many in our community. In her beginner classes, we were not allowed to even try preparatory poses for handstand and headstand for a year-ish, maybe more; some people were never allowed. I could see her assessing our bodies in each and every class, making mental notes.
One moment that sticks out in my mind is when she checked to make sure we could all safely be in a headstand. By checking the relationship of our humerus bone to the top of our head
Easy to do: stand at a mirror. Raise your arm over your head, then bend it at the elbow to try to pat yourself at the nape of the neck. Look at your elbow and the top of your head. Is your elbow higher or lower? If it’s higher you are good to go, if it is lower you are not. Why? Head stand is done with the forearms and crown of the head on the floor, three points of contact. If your head passes your elbows you will not have the support of your forearms. Then all your body weight will be in your head and neck, not safe.
Two people who had previously practiced the pose were emphatically told “No” and were given safe alternatives for their anatomy. That simple test was a revelation for me. It was this ethic, this sense of safety and respect for one’s body that was instilled in me as a student and that is so intricately woven into my practice. Now, as a teacher, I am sure I could never untangle it.
So: to the NYTimes article, I will start at the end, quoting Mr. Black:
“My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
I think that says it all. Here is a point that I have made often in class and probably on this blog. This is not semantics. Asana (yoga postures) is only part of Yoga, it is not the entire system of Yoga. I like to think that I teach Yoga, not just asana. Yes, classes are about the body and working out, but I like to sprinkle in philosophy during practice along with the anatomy, positional cues and context.
If nothing else, I want my students to remember these words on the mat: Aparigraha, Asteya, Satya, and Ahimsa—Non-grasping, Non-stealing, Truth, and Non-violence. Do not grasp at poses that are beyond your reach right now, right here. Do not try to do your neighbor’s pose. That is their pose; your pose is your pose. Be honest when you feel too much stretch or play at the edge of pain. Be truthful about where your body is in this moment, as in every moment. Then, after doing all that, cause yourself no harm, in either body or mind. It is just a pose. Really. Doing a headstand does not make you a better person.
I have been fortunate enough to have teachers that taught me to have just that internal conversation every time I get on the mat.
It taught me that sometimes there is just stuff I cannot do and that I have to be okay with that. While at the YTU teacher training, I had a great conversation with a fellow trainee and teacher, Pat D. We were talking about the challenge of teaching different bodies in group classes. He said,
“There are two types of bodies, vikings and ballerinas.”
Sort of summed it all up. Stability vs. Flexibility.
In yoga, they work at cross purposes. The more stability in your joints, the less mobility you may have. The more mobility in your joints, the less stability you may have. It is awareness that keeps you safe in either case. Do too much to force something and you can hurt yourself. Do something because it is easy, but without thought to alignment and biomechanics, and you can hurt yourself. Lack of attention and ego, and not asana, are the cause of injury.
Keep it simple, keep it honest. Keep the internal conversation going. I want to teach my students to be students of their bodies, not just through asana but through yoga.
And If I am not teaching them that, I am just teaching a gym class.
Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul
Heidi Broecking earned her 200 hour teacher certification in 2010 and is a YA-RYT and Level 1 Yoga Tune Up® teacher. She started practicing Yoga after migrating north of New York City with her husband and then 10-month old son in 1997. Her yoga journey began with Kundalini, Iyengar inspired yoga and evolved to a committed Hatha yoga practice. She was drawn to both the physical aspects of asana and to the thoughtful and meditative parts of the yoga path that guide us in our daily lives. Yoga dovetailed perfectly with her evolving Zen Buddhist practice. Yoga has helped Heidi, an avid cyclist, develop her concentration, focus, balance, flexibility, patience and strength on the bike. Her continuing education, specifically in Yoga Tune Up®, has enhanced her base knowledge of body awareness, biomechanics and human anatomy. She is inspired by her teachers Lena Madsen and Jill Miller, all things anatomical, and her son and husband. Heidi believes that a sense of humor is essential in both life and practice. Laugh loud and often.