They weren't expecting you. They may not even want you. But you have an entire yoga session ahead of you—and that's all the time you'll need to help a new group of students get over their reservations and get deeper into their practice.
Like being the new kid in school, serving as a substitute yoga instructor puts you to the test. But it's also one of the best ways to hone your teaching skills and boost your burgeoning business.
"Subbing means you have different students all the time, and that helps you learn to work with a variety of skill levels and personalities," says Kristen Boccomini of State College, Pennsylvania, who has subbed extensively and now teaches regularly at the Penn State Yoga and Meditation Society. "You learn to be a good communicator who gives careful, easy-to-follow instructions, adapting to the unknown and making the most of every opportunity."
Want to learn how to assess students' needs and respond to them quickly? Want to know how to adapt poses to every conceivable body type, working with yoginis who are overweight, rail-thin, stiff, and/or flexible? Want to gain experience teaching in a community center, a conference room, a church basement, and a classroom—as well as a regular gym or studio? Subbing is your opportunity to do all of that, expanding your horizons, pushing your boundaries, and gaining invaluable experience that you wouldn't have if you just taught in a single setting.
Along with these chances to grow as a teacher come chances to grow your business. The more connections you make with teachers for whom you sub, the more inroads you'll make at all the places where they teach. Subbing can help you land regular classes, and it can allow you to market yourself to studios and students who have never encountered you before.
For certain types of teachers, subbing can actually be a better fit than holding down a regular class. Maybe you're recently certified and not sure how much time and energy you want to devote to being an instructor. Maybe you're working a busy full-time job and never know when you'll be able to teach. "During the three years I served as a sub, I was raising two little kids," says Denise Davidson, a vinyasa teacher in Chicago. "When a studio called to offer me a class, I loved the freedom of being able to take it or not, depending on my schedule that day."
As we move into peak subbing season—the cold-weather months when regular teachers get sick or take time away for the holidays—how can you make the most of every subbing opportunity? Experienced subs—and those who hire them—say these are the tips you should follow:
If you want to fill in for other instructors, visit the studio where you did your training and ask to be put on the sub list. Approaching studios where you practice regularly—or that are convenient to your home and work—is also a good place to start. You'll likely need to provide a resume, references, and a headshot—and do a teaching demo. Having a website and business cards may help. Having the right attitude definitely does.
"Whether we pick someone to sub depends not just on their qualifications and experience, but on their character, their energy, and whether we sense they are living their yoga and practicing regularly," says Amy Caldwell, co-owner of Yoga One in San Diego. Her studio, named by local publications as the best one in the city for six years running, hires 40 percent of its subbing applicants—and eventually gives 10 percent of them regular teaching gigs.
When you do land your first subbing gig, you may feel equal parts exuberant and terrified. But check your anxiety at the door and let your knowledge of yoga—and your love of it—shine through. "It all comes down to confidence," says Hany El Diwany, a hatha instructor in Manhattan who teaches private classes and who has subbed at Om Factory and Club Fitness New York. "Students will follow your cues, and if your cues say, 'I know what I'm doing and I'm enjoying it,' students will take pleasure in their practice and get as much out of it as they possibly can."
When you sub, be true your personality—and your training. "Don't playact or experiment with new ideas," advises Romina Rodriguez-Crosta, the yoga program coordinator at Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn. "Don't teach an advanced class if it's too challenging for you. And don't teach prenatal or kids' classes if you don't have the right certification. Subbing in these cases will only backfire and could even cause your students physical harm."
"If you have the opportunity, take the class that you'll be subbing when the regular instructor is leading it," says El Diwany. "Also check in with that teacher and find out what the students are expecting."
Which way do the mats usually face? How should you adjust the lights? Does the class usually flow from backbends to forward bends to inversions, or does the sequencing vary? If the teacher or studio manager isn't available to answer these questions, ask the students when you arrive—ideally 15 to 30 minutes early, so you have plenty of time to get grounded and adjust to the new space.
Since you've likely never worked with these students before, introduce yourself and inquire about their injuries and concerns so you can adapt your teaching to their needs. Without asking, you won't know that the woman in purple is two months pregnant and should not be doing Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) or other asanas that put pressure on her belly. You won't know that the man in green tore the ligaments in both his knees during a skiing accident and needs extra padding in Ustrasana (Camel Pose). "Ask students to verbally express their needs, and take nonverbal cues, too." says Casey Duncan, a New York City vinyasa instructor who has subbed at Crunch and New York Sports Club gyms. "Watch how students greet each other, set up their mats, and move through the poses. Study their expressions to gauge whether they're straining and where they need to ease up."
Come with a game plan, but be prepared toss it aside. Are "beginner" students doing Handstands in the middle of the floor before class? Maybe you should rethink your plan to teach Sun Salutations with simple lunges instead of Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose). Are "power vinyasa" students looking lethargic and falling behind? Maybe you should slow down the pace and keep the sequencing simple.
Take the Middle Road
"When I teach my regular classes, I play music ranging from the Pretenders to Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding," says Duncan. "But when I'm subbing, I stick with instrumental music—preferably of the traditional Indian type—and lower the volume a bit." When it comes to subbing, it's usually best not to push, either figuratively or literally. "Instead of leaning into students and making them deepen their poses, go light on the physical adjustments and just focus on correcting alignment," advises Andreas Fetz of Seattle, a one-time sub who now teaches regular classes at Yogalife and 8 Limbs Yoga Centers. "Remember that your job as a sub is to be supportive without being forceful."
If you have the opportunity to talk to students after class, ask them what they thought of your teaching—and be open to constructive criticism. When the regular instructor returns, ask him or her about the feedback students gave, and let that feedback inform and improve the classes you teach in the future.
"If students compliment you, ask them to tell the studio manager how much they enjoyed your class," recommends Abbie Chowansky of Havertown, Pennsylvania, who leads regular classes at YogaFit and subs at four other gyms and studios. If the place where you've just subbed feels like the right fit for you, you deserve more opportunities to teach there—and its students deserve more opportunities to deepen their practice with you.
Molly M. Ginty is the managing editor of Our Bodies, Ourselves and a freelance writer and yoga instructor in New York, where she teaches at the Integral Yoga Institute and at Bayview Correctional Facility. For information on the book she is writing about how yoga practice can help people overcome trauma, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.