When we were young, in early elementary school, having a substitute teacher was a little unnerving. We knew the regular teacher; we had certain expectations of her/him. We probably felt safe in his/her classroom and with the way that things were managed there. Later, in middle school and high school, we started to like having a substitute teacher, because it often meant that no work would be getting done, assignments/tests would be put off, and some of the kids would misbehave in (possibly) entertaining ways – with very little consequence.
In the yoga classroom, from what I can tell, most of us return to that early school frame of mind. As I consider my own reaction to finding a substitute in my classes, and what I see on the faces of other students (when I’m sharing the class with them, or when I am the substitute), it seems that having an unexpected yoga instructor creates concern and possibly even annoyance. I know that I have thought to myself, “but I came today specifically to take a class with ________,” or “I hope that this class isn’t more/less challenging (or zen or calming or fun) than __________’s class.” When I took over a class a few weeks ago, about 50% of the students who entered asked, with some fear and stress in their voices, “Where is ________? Will he be back next week?”
It’s perfectly reasonable, because teaching styles can vary so widely in a way that goes beyond just what sort of language is used (is this teacher more anatomical or more metaphorical?), whether there is chanting, what kind of music is played, or whether there is more/less demonstration of poses. In a class that is labeled as vinyasa, for example, one teacher may have more of an ashtanga influence, while another may be more influenced by anusara, and a third Iyengar. Even for teachers who ostensibly teach the exact same style, the lineage of learning impacts how that style unfolds in a class session. Those are differences that make a difference to a student in the room. The first time I encountered a class that did not begin with sun salutations of some sort, I was completely confused. I didn’t know where we were going and I didn’t feel settled in the class. It’s normal to feel a little thrown. We do select particular classes and instructors because the style suits our individual needs. Sure, some of it is about the time of day and the location of the studio, but if the class doesn’t fit for us, we aren’t likely to keep going back. A substitute can feel like a wrench in the gears.
However, while having a sub in class can be a little unnerving, it’s also an amazing opportunity. We don’t always find the time to go try out other classes. Once we find a few that feel ok, it’s easy enough to just stick to them without exposing ourselves to the full range of selections. Having a substitute instructor brings that diversity of selection to us, instead of us needing to go seek it out. We can check out another way of practicing and another style of teaching while remaining in our comfortable time and place. Having a different teacher in class may also draw our attention more firmly to the mat. If we are really accustomed to a particular instructor’s style, we may feel like we can predict what is coming next in a practice, and that might allow the mind to wander a bit more. A new teacher in the room requires full attention to follow along. Last, but not least, having a substitute instructor is an excellent chance to work our equanimity. Can we maintain our focus on what brings us to yoga in the first place and avoid thinking about how different this teacher is, or that she seems louder (or quieter or more nervous or more bold) than our usual instructor? Can we let go of the critical chatter that might come up (“If that Lorin says ‘your edge’ one more time, I might lose my mind!” “Why in the world are we holding utkatasana so long?!”) and embrace our own unity with the substitute? After all, we’re all there from a love for yoga.
Like most everything, having a different yoga teacher from the one you anticipated can be a challenge, but it’s also a chance to grow and learn. In the end, we may conclude that the alternate teacher’s style just isn’t for us, that it is amazing and we can’t wait to take another class with him/her, or something in between. But, regardless, the experience has value if we remain open to it.