Sub Does Not Mean Sub-Par: The Case for Giving a Substitute Yoga Teacher a Chance

January 14, 2016    BY Karen Shelley

Asana is often tied to rhythm and familiarity. There are moments in our practice—sun salutations, for instance—where repetition and familiarity can feel like offerings that allow us to drop into a moving meditation. That which is familiar provides a gentle embrace. Remove what’s familiar and we need to work a little harder to accept new or different experiences. Perhaps this is the case when, as a practitioner, you check your studio’s online schedule and see a name with the designation “sub” alongside it. It may be the name of another teacher from the studio. Or it may be the name of someone who isn’t on the studio’s permanent schedule. Regardless, it’s a sub.

I am a yoga instructor who plays both roles—teacher and sub. I’m also a yoga student who tries very hard not to judge a class by the name of its substitute teacher. Admittedly, I wasn’t always this open-minded. Before I was a teacher, I cherry-picked every class I took and I almost never took a class if there was a sub’s name on the schedule. Not to mention a sub I knew nothing about. Now, as a teacher, I have regularly scheduled, well-attended classes of my own at studios in New York City. And as a sub, I frequently fill in—both at studios where I’m on the permanent schedule and at studios where I am only a sub. I share this information to point out that even if you see the designation "sub" next to a teacher's name, there's a good chance that the person who's stepping in for your regular teacher is herself a full-time, quality yoga instructor who's agreed to teach this extra class. 

Admittedly, I wasn’t always this open-minded.

Many teachers will already understand the struggles of subbing, as will many studios (particularly during certain times of the year, such as summer, when many teachers are on vacation or leading retreats). For many students, the challenges of this situation may be news to you. Teachers may or may not jump up and down for the opportunity to sub a class that is not their own. It can be tough to shift one’s schedule or sleep rhythm—think subbing for a 7:00 am or 8:15 pm class, which can be a lot on the body-clock if this isn’t a teacher’s usual time to teach; or a holiday weekend; or a summer Friday—but subs do this willingly so they can step in, help out, and play an important role in your studio’s community.

While some may step up so they can add a bit more to their weekly incomes, I usually find this isn’t the primary reason that teachers offer to sub. As a student, you may notice that subs’ classes tend to have lighter attendance than classes where the regular teacher is present, regardless of who the sub is. Given that the pay structure for a majority of yoga studios is such that teachers’ earnings are reflective of the number of yogis in the room, a light class translates into a light paycheck. Similarly, a light class translates into a monetary loss for the studio. Showing up and being present through your teacher’s absence allows you to keep your weekly rhythm, experience a teacher who may be outside of your habitual practice, and support your studio. I’m sending this message both to yoga students and yoga teachers. "Sub" does not need to mean sub-par.

"Sub" means that someone has offered to step in and teach yoga while your regular teacher is sick/on vacation/leading a retreat/at a training/taking care of family. Sub is (hopefully) someone who has been carefully vetted by your yoga studio, and may even have been hand-selected by your regular teacher. Sub is someone who has prepared a class experience for you, and who really wants to share that with you. And overwhelmingly, Sub is someone who is honored to be a part of your yoga studio’s community. 

Those subs who are in it less for community and more for the money may be quickly discouraged by the financial return when there is low attendance. And generally speaking, students seem more inclined to attend a sub’s class when it’s someone who they know as part of their community, often trusting that sub to be someone who knows and understands their studio’s regular vibe. A sub’s regular presence at the studio, both as student and teacher, can make a difference.

A sub may be someone who practiced on the mat next to yours yesterday. She may be someone who can offer you something very different from your regular practice. And more importantly, a sub is someone whose presence offers you the opportunity to practice yoga, support your studio, and move and breathe in unison with your community, despite your regular teacher’s absence.

A sub may be someone who practiced on the mat next to yours yesterday.

In the first chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, we’re introduced to the principles of abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment). We read in 1.12, “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah,” which Sri Swami Satchinananda interprets as “These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.” Three verses later in 1.15 we read, “Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam,” interpreted by Satchinananda as “The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.” These two principles work hand in hand. My own interpretation here is that as we practice, asana or otherwise, with a sense of balance and "okayness" (or acceptance) in mind, we may be satisfied with (or even at peace with) shifts and changes. Non-attachment is not to suggest detachment. Non-attachment is the ability to settle into a state of "okay," without getting pinched by anger, bitterness, jealousy, or envy. Not easy stuff.

Years ago, before I became a yoga teacher, I had dinner with one of my teachers and mentors. She was about to leave on a vacation and expressed her concern that she’d recently been taking a lot of time off. "Time off" meant time away from her students. What I realize now, as a teacher, is that time off also meant a sub would step in—and that meant students might not attend their usual class, losing the momentum and sense of community my teacher had worked hard to build. As she spoke, I felt I had something to offer the discussion. I told her I thought it was healthy for her to have time off, and I hoped all of her students would realize that time away would give her some space to rest and focus on her practice, and it would also give us some space to expand our own practices. And that a few days (or even a few weeks) of vacation were just a blip in time. In truth, I really missed her classes while she was away, but her occasional absences were good practice for what was to come, as she later moved away. I still miss her classes, but I continue to learn from her—from what I can recall from her previous lessons during those years when she actively taught in my own city; from the words she still writes and shares; and from my own reviews of our previous conversations (and particularly our conversation about her vacation, her need to go away, and my need to practice abhyasa and vairagya in her absence).

So let's say in your teacher’s absence there’s another teacher's name on the schedule. You may be familiar with the name, or it may be new to you. If the sub is a permanent teacher at your studio, you may be able to click on their name and read their bio. If the sub is not on the permanent schedule, you could be left in the dark (perhaps with no last name to even plug into Google) and feel you don’t have enough data to make an informed decision about them as a teacher. It could be that some of you who are reading this have begun to roll your eyes. Who in their right mind would go through this much trouble to look up a teacher—sub or otherwise? And others of you are nodding your heads because you’ve been such a discerning and curious student. You have limited time for yoga within your schedule, and you deserve a practice that will resonate with you.

Just as not all teachers are the same, not all subs are the same. A student’s willingness to treat each sub as an individual, as opposed to a mirror image of your regular teacher or a rubber stamp of a sub you may have experienced in the past, is an important element in the sub’s ability to share her teachings, as well as a studio’s ability to sustain itself through the absences of regular teachers.

What I have learned, both from attending subs’ classes and from frequently subbing classes, is that it’s healthy to leave "home." Healthy, as a student, to let go of habits. And healthy, as a teacher, to experience the differences of working with an unfamiliar group.

The teacher/mentor I mentioned earlier who had moved away recently returned to New York for a vacation. While she was here, she subbed a class at one of the studios where I used to practice with her. By the time I knew about the class, I’d already agreed to sub a class at the same time at another studio. Truth be told, I was a little heartbroken, but I had to be okay with it. The only alternatives to okayness would have been anger, bitterness, jealousy, and envy. No good. So I signed myself into a different class that day, taught by another sub. And I listened and moved and learned and breathed and practiced. Which, ultimately, is what yoga is all about.

Karen Shelley
Karen Shelley is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor who leads group classes throughout New York City and creates epic, global yoga retreats. She weaves energy, fluidity, play, and tons of hands-on assists into her teaching. Prior to teaching yoga, she earned a master’s degree in English and worked in advertising, publishing, and nonprofit management. Today, with business in the background and yoga in the foreground, Karen delivers breath-centered instruction to her students, but she continues... Read more>>

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