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Substitute Solutions

Top teachers tell how to care for your class when you're away.

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 [teachers] get to a point where they can't find [a sub], 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.'"

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Reader Comments


The reaction of the student does come down to being part of their practice, becoming attached to and having aversions from are always a valid reflection and valuable 'teacher' for us all.


A note to B William regarding comparing taking a class to seeing a play. There are many instances when students are signing up to study with a particular teacher and are disappointed when there is a sub, just as when you go see a play and expect to see the famous actor or actress that is on the program. It is just not the same when an unknown takes their place---unless that unknown rises to the occasion!


This is a problem I have not found a satisfactory solution to in thirty-five years!

I was fortunate for many years to work with a qualified teacher who was able to sub for my ongoing classes with the understanding that when she needed a sub, I would stand in her shoes. But in the long run I could not teach for her as often as she taught for me,, and after she moved I ended up cancelling the dates when I could not teach.

I now try to look ahead and teach blocks of classes (rather than ongoing classes) and note ahead of time on the schedule the dates classes will be cancelled.

There does not seem to be a good one-size-fits all solution!

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