If you ever want to know what your ego looks like, try relief teaching. Since moving back to my home town and leaving the comfort of my own yoga business behind, I’ve been taking lots of relief classes in order to get a foot in the door of my local yoga industry. It’s been a wonderful opportunity, don’t get me wrong. But wow. I’ve had to learn pretty quickly, the art of taking nothing personally. Thing is – students love their teachers. When they walk into the yoga studio, they want to be greeted by the comfort of their beloved teacher. Not this strange sasquatch whose gonna turn their routine upside down and do… WEIRD stuff they’re not accustomed to (not that I’m hairy – they just look at me as if they’ve never seen something like me before).
It’s hard to walk into a relief job and not feel as if you should apologise somehow. ‘Sorry guys, you’ve got me today. I know it sucks. Try to bear with me.’
Sounds paranoid, right? Let me paint you a picture using REAL experiences I’ve had.
Students start filing into the yoga studio, see me there on my mat, ready to take their class. Not their usual teacher. An infiltrator, no less.
‘Is Pete not here today?’ I’m asked with a tone impregnated with barely-concealed disappointment.
‘Not unless he had a sex change,’ I respond (not really, just one of those crackers hindsight provides you with some hours later.)
Most students are ok with it. But there’s always one – at least one – whose face shrivels up like a fermented prune and who maintains the same expression of distaste throughout the entire class. Always that one who likes to slam the nail in your coffin by very deliberately packing up their stuff and stomping irately from the room ten minutes early while everyone else is still lying on the floor in shavasana. They’ve tolerated as much of you as they can. Messaged received, loud and clear. I’m Satan.
Actually, I got off lightly with this one, compared with my teaching friend Sara, who, during a relief class had a student walk into the room, see Sara there, and then sigh loudly and walk straight back out again, not even bothering to take the class.
Where do these rude people come from? Brat camp?
When you’re relieving, your mission becomes to find a way of building rapport and trust in a very short space of time. Often, you’re pushing shit uphill because reality is, you’re NOT really wanted. Somebody else is. And that’s ok – it isn’t really personal. Yet, still you somehow feel as if you’re threatening to wilfully infect people with pustulous warts, such are some of the responses to your presence.
One day, I turned up at a gym class to relieve my teaching friend Vicky, who has been taking this very well established class for years. It’s a seniors’ class. I love teaching seniors. They’re good fun. Before I make it into the yoga room, one student informs me that they’ll be ‘testing’ me today. It’s said with a Cheshire grin. The teeth are smiling but the eyes don’t quite match the face. I’m looking into the eyes of a snake. I force a nervous titter. The eyes narrow while the smile remains fixed.
It’s a big room. I decide to use a microphone so I don’t have to YELL AT EVERYBODY TO RELAX AND BREATHE. I feel a hushed grumble swell, like a covert Mexican wave, around the room. The microphone is not the norm. Who is this young upstart? This is not how we do things around here.
Tentatively, I begin. Tentative being my second mistake.
As we prepare for one-legged prayer pose, I give the students the option to (a) use a partner, (b) use the wall, or (c) go it alone.
‘Just tell us what to do!!’ comes a shout from a disgruntled older gent who clearly finds options confusing. They’re accustomed to working as partners. My options are disturbing their equilibrium.
Around the 45 minute mark, wouldn’t you know it? – the microphone starts farting intermittently at loud decibels. Oh great. I’m failing the test AGAIN. I persevere. If I ignore it, maybe it isn’t really happening. This tactic works for about ten minutes… until the farts get so loud and frequent they threaten to perforate the collective eardrum. So, I surrender, turn the dastardly thing off, and remove it from my being. I commence yelling.
‘Can hear you better WITHOUT the microphone!!’ comes the smug heckle from another gent at the back of the room. Murmurs of agreement flitter around the room.
Why has God forsaken me?
I have a very clear thought, at this point, about what I could do with said microphone. It’s lucky said gent isn’t in downward dog, if you get my drift. Instead, in a desperate attempt to appease them, I publicly vow not to use the microphone next time. I have acquiesced. Lost control of the mothership. And they can smell it.
Finally the torture… I mean class, finishes. I’ve sweated my ring out. But not from exertion. Just from the mental picture of 30-odd seniors in lycra charging me with pitchforks.
But it’s not over yet. As I’m packing up, other students approach me to tell me they heard me better WITH the microphone. Oh good lord. I have another 4 weeks of relieving this class. How will I resolve this dilemma? To microphone or to not microphone? How on earth am I going to keep these people happy? Maybe I can have cosmetic surgery and come back next week looking exactly like Vicky? If I was Vicky they’d let me use the microphone.
A female student then approaches (these students are like terminators, they never die).
‘Excuse me, but can you give us more yoga poses next time?’ she requests, ‘we like yoga poses.’
I’m not sure what she thought I’d been giving them but there wasn’t a pose in the sequence that wasn’t yoga. When she mentioned the word ‘Warrior’, it clicked. They wanted the mainstream classics.
‘We don’t like all that lying on the floor stuff,’ she says, ‘I thought it better that you knew. Everyone’s talking about it outside but no one else wants to say it to you.’
I thank her for her feedback. I have no fight left in me. I head home, eat a block of Lindt, and kid myself it doesn’t bother me.
Next relief class is Pilates. I’m working in a studio I haven’t worked in before – a really popular one. Before I begin the class, a student asks me if I can turn the fans on – it’s a little stuffy. I approach what looks like a switchboard of buttons designed for flying some kind of high-tech space rocket thingy and attempt to find the controls for the fans. I turn a few knobs. The fans kick into gear.
Another lady enters the room. She’s cold. Can I turn the fans down? I go back to the star trek motherboard and fiddle a few more knobs. I do my best. But really, I’m clueless. However, it’s time to start and I don’t have time to find someone to show me the ropes. We sit for opening settling and as compensation, I offer cold lady (who is cold in more ways than one) a blanket to wrap around herself. She poo-poos me away with swat of her hand and that prune-face expression (what is it with the fermented prune?). I figure we’ll get warm enough soon, with all the heating core work.
Class commences. I keep her in my peripheral vision. She’s not taking any instruction, instead doing her own sequence of postures. I leave her to her own devices. What am I going to do? Wrestle her to the ground? (tempting).
Class goes what I think is SWIMMINGLY. Everybody seems to have enjoyed it. From my end it’s flowed successfully. And then… (cue terminator music)…
Cold lady calls me over and embarks on a five minute tirade about the fans. There’s no attempt at a Cheshire smile this time, just an icy hatred seeping from her pores as she fires verbal abuse seemingly intended to psychologically burn every last ounce of skin from my body. I attempt to interject with an apology. In fact, I apologise to her no less than three times and try to explain that I’m new to the room. But she’s not interested in sorry. It dawns on me that she just wants to punish me because I’m not her beloved teacher. When I finally decide I’ve had enough and walk away, I notice that she heads out to complain about me to the staff. I don’t even imagine what she’s saying. I don’t really care. I confess, I only wished it was my yoga school so I could politely, yet firmly, instruct her never to bring her toxic self back. Ahimsa? That is for the super-human, not for the lowly relief teacher.
Here’s the lovely ending to my story.
I went back to that seniors’ class the second week, ambivalent about how to approach the lesson. Microphone? No microphone? Warrior? No Warrior? And here’s how it played out.
I’m not anybody else, I’m Jen.
I’m not going to TRY to be anybody else, I’m just going to be Jen.
I’m going to trust in Jen that she knows what she is doing; that she doesn’t need the approval or acceptance of anybody else; that she can accept feedback and modify her class plans to accommodate students’ needs without compromising her own style, knowledge and expertise.
And so, I did. I walked into that gym class. I picked up the microphone. I turned it on. I explained to students that it made sense to me, in a room this size, with this many people, to use a microphone. I suggested that if hearing was not a student’s forte, they could come down to the front of the room. I began the class. I started with a standing sequence of classical yoga postures, including warriors and other well-known mainstream poses. I challenged them, rather than treating them with kid gloves. When it came to the balance, I instructed them to try it solo, with modifications for those who might struggle. I saw a sea of beautiful one-legged prayer poses before me, and expressions of surprise from students who had previously relied on supports. The class flowed. There was nary a heckle within earshot or a fermented prune in sight. I stood firm and grounded within myself. I did what I know how to do. I wasn’t Vicky. I didn’t try to be Vicky. I just be-ed Jen, in all her Jennish glory – whatever that is.
End of class? Thank yous from students. Polite and positive feedback. A full class again the next week. A comment at the close of class from my oldest student: ‘You’re a very good teacher,’ she said, ‘You’re not Vicky – but you’re as good as Vicky. Just different.’
© The Yoga Experiment, 2013