Substitute Solutions


By Dan Charnas  |  

My Saturday morning class at Golden Bridge NYC had become the most successful I had ever taught. After just a few short months, I had a bunch of regular students and enough newcomers to make finding an empty spot on the floor difficult.

But after teaching less than a year, I had to give it all up.

I was already working full-time. Then I sold my as-yet-unwritten book to a major publisher. I knew that meant that I’d have to write, research, and report during weekends, and sometimes travel for weeks at a time. Finding the occasional substitute teacher for normal absences was already a chore. This new situation would be impossible. I realized there was no way I could maintain the level of commitment necessary to serve my students and my studio properly.

So I called Hari Kaur—the Director of Education and Training and the person responsible for wrangling the teachers at Golden Bridge NYC—to give her the news. I suggested that perhaps I could share the time slot with another teacher, but the notion didn’t go over well. And frankly, I had no I idea who that person would be anyway. I resigned, feeling I had let everybody down.

It’s been about six months since my last class. During that time, I’ve thought a lot about what it takes for modern teachers to build a solid yoga class. Continuity and commitment are obviously the most important factors in building a strong practice, a regular clientele, and a relationship with a studio. But once yoga teachers become popular, they’re often called to serve a greater student body, one that lies beyond the classroom—whether their service is through traveling, devoting more time to the business side of yoga, or investing time in creating DVDs, books, TV shows, or other products. Call it the “success conundrum.”

How do successful yoga teachers balance the needs of their original students with their far-flung ones? For many of us, sometimes the normal course of a busy life outside the yoga studio can create havoc with the teaching schedule. How do we deal with being absent from our own classes? How much time is too much time away? What’s the best way to pick substitutes? How do we deal with the dreaded drop-off in attendance that accompanies each absence and haunts each return? Above all, how do we create a balance that serves our needs and that of our students?

Desperately Seeking Subs

While I taught my Saturday class, even the casual weekend trip out of town to see family or friends became fraught with the tedious search for someone to cover for me. I didn’t know many teachers at the center and, at the time, Golden Bridge NYC didn’t have an official list of substitutes. I had to get the numbers of prospective subs a few at a time from the center. When I got a “yes,” it was usually from someone I had never met and whose teaching style I hadn’t experienced. Sometimes, when no one returned my calls, I’d have to call the studio again to get more contacts, or throw my hands up and ask for Hari Kaur’s help, which she always gave without complaint. In each case, I felt guilty.

Recently, I went back to Golden Bridge NYC to take Hari’s class and found that, like me, she had been thinking about the issue of substitutes. “We have a sub list now,” Hari told me. “Everyone will have it. If there are any changes, we’ll update it. If &#91teachers&#93 get to a point where they can’t find &#91a sub&#93, they’re not on the hook for it.” Although some studios take care of arranging the substitutes for their teachers, Hari says that it would be difficult for a smaller studio to handle that workload. “I’m trying now to cover a teacher whose leaving for five days,” she says, “and it’s been about four emails and two conversations already.” In a bigger studio, she says, marrying teachers with subs could be a full-time job.

But at what point is a teacher gone too often? “Once a month would make me think,” Hari replies. “Twice a month would make me say, ‘We have to reorganize this situation.’”

To Tell or Not To Tell

When popular teachers miss their own classes, their substitutes often face students who are surprised, disappointed, and sometimes angry.

“Your heart’s a little broken at first,” says Linda Banes, a student at Golden Bridge NYC.

For many years, it was the policy of yoga studios like Golden Bridge NYC and its namesake, the original Golden Bridge in Los Angeles, not to inform students when teachers would be going away. Megan Shaw is an entertainment lawyer who used to work Golden Bridge’s front desk as a volunteer. She explains, “They would say, ‘It’s not about the teacher, it’s about the practice’”—despite the fact that many students were upset when the teacher they came to see wasn’t there.

Spiritual justifications aside, there is a more practical reason why many yoga studios feel they have to remain silent about substitutes: the financial ramifications of drop-off.

Anna Getty has been a Kundalini and pregnancy yoga teacher at Golden Bridge in Los Angeles for many years. As a regular substitute for Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, the center’s owner and main draw, she saw Gurmukh’s class numbers dwindle during her frequent trips. But now that Getty’s own profile is increasing, with her new books and DVDs scheduled to arrive on the market this year, she’s dealing with drop-off too. “A lot of great things are happening with my career,” Getty says. “So I go and do what I need to do. When I’m gone for three weeks, I come back and I have three students. And it’s like, ‘Here we go again, we have to start from square one.’”

Bryan Kest, the founder of Santa Monica Power Yoga in California, has found that even though studios fear the repercussions of informing students about substitutes, hiding them is even more shortsighted. “It’s a control thing,” Kest says. “We’re afraid of losing their business, so we don’t want to tell them. I used to never tell my students when I traveled because I realized if I told them, they wouldn’t come, and then there would be nobody for my substitutes to teach.”

Kest continues, “But many of my students come from far away, and so often they are angry that they came and I wasn’t there, and they’ve expressed it so often, that I’ve decided to post my travel schedule and substitute teachers on the website. The bottom line is they wanted to know, and I just decided to honor that.”

Once he did, Kest found that things didn’t fall apart. “There’s a drop-off,” he says, “but not a significant one. Maybe my class is 150, and when I’m away it’s down to 120. So what? The substitute teacher is happy to have a big class to teach. The 30 people who didn’t want to come are happy. The 120 people who did come are happy, because they find out the substitute is kick-ass, and I’m not stupid enough to pick a teacher who’s not kick-ass.”

Like Kest’s studio, Golden Bridge in Los Angeles has reversed its policy and now posts its substitute schedule online as well.

The Teacher or the Teachings

The drop-off phenomenon coveys the degree to which personal connection matters in the teacher-student relationship.

“People are coming in not just for the teachings, but because they resonate with certain teachers,” says Getty. “Part of people doing yoga is finding a voice they connect with, and having that person be the conduit for that information.”

For many teachers who aspire to a world in which the teachings always trump the individual teacher, this can be a hard pill to swallow. Hari Kaur said she sees the need for a balance between talented, lesser-known teachers as well as more experienced ones who have a track record. “This gets to the heart of where business meets yoga,” she said. “Ultimately, we have to decide whether this is a business or an ashram.”

Yet there are some yoga practices and yoga centers that have been able to transcend personality and avoid drop-off. Author/teacher Baron Baptiste founded at least three yoga studios and travels to affiliated centers across the country, and yet he no longer experiences that 30 to 40 percent drop in attendance when he travels. Baptiste says he did it by cultivating teachers geared toward holding a space for practitioners. “We all had a shared mission and common vision,” Baptiste says. “So no matter who was teaching, their personality became more irrelevant and the practice became more the focus. I could step out and travel, and step back and the practitioners were totally happy.”

Accept No Substitutes

Balancing a full life with a teaching schedule can be difficult even for seasoned instructors. Here are some suggestions for holding the space for your students when you can’t do it yourself.

Get to know your subs. If you have to handle finding your own stand-in, what’s the best way to do it? Baptiste identifies the most fundamental rule: Your substitute should teach from the same school and in a comparable style.

But to truly care for your students when you’re away, you may have to do some rigorous preparation while you’re home. “Try to go to other teachers’ classes,” says Getty, who also cultivates a stable of possible substitutes by paying attention during teacher trainings. “I’m there for that entire week, and I get a sense of all the teachers who are graduating.” Getty herself was once one of those trainees, plucked by Gurmukh to fill her shoes. “I was frightened,” Getty says. “But Gurmukh said, ‘You’re not me, and you can tell them you’re not me.’ She wants people to experience other teachers.”

Make it about the teachings. Newer teachers may try to cultivate their charisma because they think that great yoga teachers are successful because of it. And experienced teachers can get hooked on being charismatic for the same reason. But, in the long run, the charismatic approach may be cheating yourself and your students. “Always deliver the person to something beyond yourself,” says Hari Kaur. “If you’re delivering the student to your preferences and your ego, they will become attached to you, and then you will always have a drop-off. Deliver your student to wisdom, and your drop-off will decrease.”

Stay put. Bryan Kest has perhaps the simplest suggestion for the substitution blues: “Don’t go anywhere. I didn’t take one damn trip in my first eight years as a teacher. If you want to build something of value, you can’t be traveling around. Now that I’ve built this freight train, my leaving for a couple of days doesn’t stop it—but there was a point when it would have.” Currently, Kest limits his travel to once a month, because he sees his home-base students as his primary responsibility. “Everything I do is based on not screwing that up,” he explains. “They’re the foundation of my reputation and everything else that’s happened.”

Ultimately, your presence and commitment to your own yoga class must be the fundamental example to your students to cultivate presence and commitment in their own practice. Hari Kaur says it best: “Nobody can ever really substitute for someone else.”

Dan Charnas has been practicing and teaching Kundalini Yoga for almost 13 years, and he has taught at yoga centers in Los Angeles and New York City. He’s currently taking a leave of absence from teaching to write a book, The Big Payback: How Hip-Hop Became Global Pop, due from New American Library/Penguin in 2009.