No substitute for subbing

There's no substitute for subbing

Andrea Marcum explores the lessons you can learn from being a substitute teacher (or 'guest star')

When you read '(sub)' next to the name on a schedule, what's your reaction? Are you excited about trying someone new? Or devastated that your beloved teacher isn't there? Do you skip class? Or go anyway – albeit with a bit of a chip on your shoulder? Subs have their work cut out for them. It's hands down the hardest and most humbling teaching we do.

Typically, new teachers climb onto sub lists aspiring to secure a spot of their own on a studio or gym schedule. Is this sub expected to teach like the teacher whose spot they're covering, or do they teach like themselves? How best to navigate the negative bias of being a substitution for the 'real thing'? My friend who's an actress likens this to guest-star syndrome – nobody on or off the set knows if they really want your character in their story.

I got my start subbing for someone who ended up gone months longer than expected. I didn't really teach like him, but then again, I barely knew how to teach. I learned early on that no matter what or who you teach like, you can't please everyone... even if you become a season regular.

How rich these guest-starring days are though. They challenge us to discover our own character and voice, The vulnerability of being new is a blind date/audition haunted by Oscar Wilde's, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."That is, of course, until you do it all over again to sub for someone else.

Somehow in the jumble of self-doubt, botched sequences, and name of poses and people you forgot you discover who you are. You begin to realise that the role of a teacher is that of an ongoing understudy. Yes, people become your 'regulars' and there's comfort in them knowing your bad jokes and tendency to mistake right from left, but the truth is we're asked to begin again and again as we stand in front of a room or a camera throughout the years.

Andrea Marcum (1)

When I closed the studio I'd owned for nine years in Los Angeles (twenty years into my teaching career) I became a sub on the YogaWorks schedule. "Who's the sub?" an intimidating back row of regulars murmured. I wasn't sure who I was either – I'd fallen from headliner on my little independent stage, to walk-on in someone else's play. But I'd also had the opportunity to teach internationally at festivals where people mostly had no idea who I was, and on camera for companies like Gaia and Udaya. And I'd built a community and a business out of nothing at U Studio. Teaching yoga means flying by the seat of our yoga pants when it comes to where and how we might be asked to show up. To prepare for that there's no substitute for subbing.

Change is inevitable, and though I murmur like the back row when it shows up, I know larger hands have sent it to direct my scene. Just when my ego was juiced on full classes requiring that I move mats around to make room for students at YogaWorks, the world shut down, and the word 'pivot' meant more than stepping out wide on our mats. So I cobbled together inaudible, poorly-lit online classes – a technology neophyte, I called up the curiosity of my inner-sub to help me learn a new way. It was one audition after another, but the extraordinary international cast of online students assembling reminded me of who the real stars of the show are. Yoga is an ensemble undertaking it unites and connects us in creative and evolving ways. We never really know what the next act will hold, but if we are nimble apprentices, we can play any number of supporting roles.

As the world opens back up and IRL classes feel real again, personal-life plot twists, and my dedication to my website and retreats have me looking at subbing in another new way. No longer am I hopeful for a permanent spot, I am choosing to be a day player. I hope when you see '(sub)' next to my name, you will become a character in my story and I in yours. Nothing says 'real thing' like collaboration and ongoing inquiry, and there's no substitute for synergy.

Andrea Marcum

Andrea Marcum is a yoga teacher, retreat leader & author. You can find her online classes at