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How Teaching Yoga Is Like Multilevel Marketing // My Longest, Least Lucrative Side Hustle

Living in our post-reveal life (but not quite our next life) means I can finally share some of the details of our story that would have been a dead giveaway for anyone from our work circles stumbling upon this blog.

For more than 10 years, in addition to working my primary consulting career, I also taught yoga. (I taught spinning for part of that time, too, but that’s less controversial.) I did my teacher training back when I lived in DC, and taught for almost a year there before moving to LA, followed by nearly eight years of classes in LA, and then teaching for our first two years in Tahoe before work travel got too busy to keep making it work.

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What’s up dog?

But that’s not the only reason I quit. I also quit because the downsides of doing it just became too great to keep going, and no amount of upside could overcome them. (Not that there was much financial upside to speak of.)

This is a story of what’s behind one popular side hustle, but also a call to take a closer look at non-traditional jobs in the gig economy, and whether they’re really worth your while.

How teaching yoga is like multilevel marketing // My longest, least lucrative side hustle // Yoga teachers, teach yoga, side hustle, fitness instruction

Here’s the first thing you need to know: I loved teaching yoga. I still love it. I was good at it — both the teaching, and the yoga.

If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have stuck with it for more than 10 years, despite crappy pay and sometimes unacceptable working conditions. (Because I only work for free when I love something.)

But the love that so many instructors have for both the practice and the teaching of it is exactly what makes them so exploitable. And I for sure got exploited by lots of people, sometimes in direct ways like being paid unfairly, and other times with the social pressure to maintain your yogic persona and not to complain about things.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems.

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It’s fun! I swear!

Yoga Teacher Training Programs Are Expensive

When I did my training in 2004, many yoga teacher training programs cost around $2000. I got mine for slightly less than that, but also supplemented it with fitness certification so I could teach at gyms, so was all-in just north of $2200. Today, I see teacher training programs going closer to $4000 for weekend trainings and much, much more to attend a retreat at some exotic resort, accompanied of course by a hard sell about how much more you’ll get out of it by removing yourself from your normal surroundings. There are more costs involved than just tuition, like the books and gear you need, as well as the right clothes you might think you need, costs of getting to and from the training and perhaps lodging, and the opportunity cost of not being able to work during all those days in the studio. All told, most aspiring teachers now are in for close to $5000 at least.

As far as a grad degree goes, five grand is a bargain. But a basic yoga certification, known as an “RYT 200” (registered yoga teacher, 200 hours training), doesn’t get you a six figure job. It gets you a job that the data show pays, on average, under $25 an hour. Which sounds great until you consider that it would be a lot to teach it for 10 hours a week. (Which I know, because I taught 10 classes a week for years, and it was nuts.) It’s not a job you could actually do anywhere close to full-time, and you virtually always have to travel for each and every class, so subtract travel expenses from that hourly rate. I figure when I taught that I spent about 90 minutes in transit for every hour I taught, shrinking my effective hourly rate by 60 percent.

Assuming it’s similar for others, that now means that $25 average hourly rate is really more like $10 an hour when you factor in transportation. Before taxes and expenses (liability insurance, gear, registration with the Yoga Alliance to get to claim your RYT status, etc.) even kick in, you’re looking at having to work 500 hours just to earn back the investment in your training, something that would take a year in the absolute best case, but which most people who take a yoga teacher training actually never earn back. Oh, and that’s not even counting the continuing education you have to take (and pay for) regularly.

Tanja Hester yoga

My back hurts just thinking about doing this now

Teacher Training Programs Knowingly Train More Teachers Than the Market Can Bear

So we already have a program that’s expensive for students but a cash cow for yoga studios. And those studios themselves are constantly turning away people who’d like to teach there, including students who trained at that very studio and now feel misled, because they thought training there would get them preferential hiring treatment.

What do these studios, who see this teacher saturation each and every day, do? They keep offering more teacher training. Yoga teacher training is so profitable for studios that they continue offering it, knowing that most of the people they train will never be able to work enough to earn back what they spent.

And the would-be teachers themselves spend all this money with every intention of earning it back and making more, with the sheen of spiritual enlightenment and six-pack abs attached.

Sound like MLM yet?

Yoga Teachers Themselves Support Teacher Training Programs

Teach for any length of time at a studio of any size, and you’re bound to get asked about joining the teacher training program in some capacity, even if it’s just as an assistant. This is a nice ego boost to a teacher, and a stamp of approval that you’ve been deemed good enough to train other teachers, so no one turns it down. But of course by becoming a part of the training machine, you now ignore your own gut that tells you maybe the system isn’t so ethical, and start spreading the word about the program yourself. Instead of retaining any skepticism you might have had, you’re now providing the studio with free marketing for its program.

Yoga Teacher Pay At Studios Is Exploitative

A big part of why yoga teachers will say yes to anything is that pay for teachers is lousy at best, exploitative at its worst. I’ve taught at a range of different studios and gyms and have seen just about every system, but studio pay tends to go one of two ways:

  1. Either the teacher gets paid by the head, usually a higher rate for the first several students, and a lower rate for higher numbers, or
  2. The teacher gets a flat fee per class.

In the first pay structure, it seems like there’s greater earnings potential, and some superstar teachers truly do make big money teaching. But most classes in the world aren’t packed with sweaty hipsters, and that $25 average is about right. (Except that yoga classes tend to be 75 or 90 minutes, not 60, so that rate may very well be lower in reality.) And there is always the possibility of earning even less for a class, if fewer people show up. I’ve taught classes to one person before, earning effectively less than minimum wage. But because I was a 1099 contractor, I wasn’t guaranteed a minimum, and had to stay and teach even though I would have happily paid the studio the $5 they were paying me for the 90-minute class so I could go home and take a nap.

In the second structure, the teacher has the guarantee of a flat fee, which is great if you’ve taught for less than minimum wage before, but yoga studios make more money when more students attend because most have a per-class pricing model, and this structure gives the teacher no reward for building up a loyal following. So the studio lines its pockets, and the teacher makes only a little bit.

There are a few studios in the world that pay teachers as they should — guaranteed minimum flat rate with added pay based on number of attendees — but not nearly enough.

Tanja Hester yoga

There are like 80 ways you can hurt yourself doing this pose. Not worth it.

Studio Helpers Get Free Classes — Often At Teachers’ Expense

This is my biggest complaint about how yoga teachers are compensated, and while it’s not universally true, it’s a widespread practice: the folks who volunteer at yoga studios in exchange for free classes — signing students in at the front desk, sweeping the studios, emptying trash — there is a good chance that the “free classes” they are receiving are free on the backs of the teachers. Every studio where I taught treated service students as comps, and I received nothing for them. Most of the time it was no big deal, because it was just one person out of many. But I did have several classes over the years where — I am not exaggerating — I had to teach a room of six to eight people and get paid zero. How is this even legal?, you might wonder. Because I was a contractor, not an employee. And sure, I could have said no and refused to teach for free, but then I would have gotten a reputation as being difficult, which is not very yogic (and, like, it’s also not very yogic to care about money), and in a world where studio managers decide who gets the best classes and time slots, you have every incentive to appear cooperative and like a team player, not like someone who cares about money more than people. (The studio where this was by far the worst and most blatant was also owned by a woman who is famous around the world for being a beacon of enlightenment — she’s also incredibly wealthy from her studios.)

Tanja from Our Next Life doing yoga with Kathleen Celmins at #FinCon17

I still bust out the skillz from time to time, like at FinCon

Teachers Have Every Incentive to Create Their Own Pyramids

Given the cost of attaining and maintaining a certification, the lack of workers’ compensation when you get hurt and can’t teach, the low hourly rate and the exploitative pay structures, teachers are often on the lookout for any way to supplement their income. And this often means delving into the world of workshops and retreats.

When I taught a class, I got a tiny slice of what each student paid to attend, but if I taught a workshop, I generally got more than half of their fee. And workshops cost more than classes. So in a few hours on a Saturday, I could easily earn a few hundred dollars in a workshop. Multiply that several times if I’d ever started doing weeklong yoga retreats to Pura Vida and Tulum and all the places teachers like to take folks now (in addition to a free trip to somewhere beautiful). I’m now looking to my most dedicated students to come to my add-on services, and inviting them to be part of my special club — for a price.

The problem is that you don’t need workshops or retreats to have a strong and consistent yoga practice, but these workshops are all sold as ways to deepen your practice, implying that attendees must purchase their spiritual enlightenment (or those six-pack abs) for an ever-escalating price. And don’t think for a second those workshops and retreats aren’t intended as a slippery slope to yoga teacher training. Teachers quickly develop a conflict of interest between wanting to help their students live their best lives (which should not include spending tons of money needlessly) and needing to make a living themselves.

What To Do If You Simply Must Teach

My advice to those who wish to forge ahead despite all of this? Teach at the gym.

Don’t waste your money on an RYT 200 program based on questionable science. (I don’t know of a single program that uses The Science of Yoga as a text, despite it being hugely revealing about the lack of science in most yoga instruction — did you know, for example, that your blood doesn’t actually get any more oxygenated during meditation and deep breathing? How many teachers have you heard say that?)

Instead, get an overall fitness certification like ACE Group Exercise Instructor, and then take a fitness-based yoga supplement that you can jazz up with your own personal knowledge form your “real” yoga practice. Study kinesiology and physiology at your local community college. At the gym, you’re an employee, you know what you’re getting paid, you’re covered by workers’ comp, and you’re never expected to work for free. I taught at the gym for years, in addition to my studio classes, and I loved both knowing exactly what I was earning and being able to serve those who couldn’t or didn’t want to shell out 15 bucks a class. It was a win for everyone. Sure, there might have been clanking weights right outside the glass, but learning to relax and focus with background noise is a whole lot more useful in real life than learning to relax in lavender-scented silence.

Your Turn!

Several of y’all have expressed interest in this post, so tell me: what other questions do you have? Anyone else taught yoga and want to share if your experience was like or unlike mine? Any other side hustlers who’ve been similarly exploited who want to share your parallels? Just want to send condolences to my poor back for years of doing those ill-advised poses? Let’s go!

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129 replies »

  1. I had no idea, but I’m not surprised, that yoga teachers got paid so unfairly. Our own studio is small, with just four teachers, so I hope the pricing structures are different, but that may just be wishful thinking. I love the practice so it’s a shame teachers, who are the most important part of the experience, get the short end of the stick.

    • It’s worth asking! A studio like yours might be more of a collective and might be a better deal for teachers. Plus, I think if paying customers start asking this question more, it would force the industry to change!

  2. Interesting behind the scenes look into yoga teaching. I’ve done yoga off and on ever since I was a teenager. Most of it has been at home through DVDs, books, magazines and YouTube, but there is a specific studio I like to go to when I can. I had no idea the teachers were paid so little, though. Maybe I’ll just stick to YouTube yoga classes.

    • I’m not trying to make it even worse for teachers by taking away their business! ;-) I think you should just ask the studio how they pay teachers — worst case, they’ll refuse to answer and then that’s your answer, and best case, they might be one of the rare good ones! But either way, it tells them their customers are paying attention, which is the only way this will change.

  3. This is interesting. I’m going to have to read it a couple of times to get my head around it. I find that an MLM is like a gas station that prices gas at $15/gal, but gets money for recruiting more people. So one person at the top may make money, but it is on the backs of a pile of people losing money.

    In MLM the sales are almost all made to other people people in the business looking to make money. They ensure that sales are being made by requiring people to buy so much product to qualify for commissions. I was super interested when you teased this about yoga, because most people are taking and paying for classes with it being tied to growing their own yoga business.

    All that said, you have some great points here. It certainly has some similarities to what I’ve seen called a “fake hustle”, meaning a side gig that sounds good, but is mostly a waste of time. Some of the worst of these are flipping house seminars where people can pay $25,000 for information on how to flip houses. Many of these people are encouraged to put that money on their credit cards as “investing” in themselves or in their future.

    The other day I read an article about ZinCon (no relation to FinCon or Zinfandel wine unfortunately) about how it is the cult convention of Zumba instructors. I couldn’t help but think that it sounded like the MLM conventions.

    I especially liked that you pointed out the creation of more teachers than the market can bear. That’s the hallmark of MLMs. The companies would consider it a great success to have a billion product salesmen selling pocket lint as long as each salesman had to spend $200 a month on them themselves to be involved.

    • I’ve always thought that the hallmark to an MLM was that salespeople had to buy their own supply, which is what fueled the rest of the system. Since you created more salespeople than demand could support, the salespeople themselves created demand by buying it themselves. So it was more than an exploitative system on time, it cut into the money directly too.

      • This is true. The MLMs get salespeople to buy more every month by creating a quota they need to reach to be eligible for commissions. A vast majority of the time people are encouraged to buy the quota amount for personal use. They get stuck buying what I like to call “$15/gal gasoline” as the price of admission into a “business” that really just funnels the money to the top of the recruiting hierarchy.

        • That’s definitely the technical definition of MLM, and most yoga programs do not fit that model. But in spirit there’s much similarity. ;-)

      • Some yoga studios require teachers to take classes there, which fits the technical definition of MLM. But it’s more an MLM in spirit than technicality. ;-)

    • Oh, those other branded fitness formats like Zumba and Body Pump, etc., are suuuuuper similar, though they have a lower bar to entry in the first place — but you have to pay for all new choreography, music, training, etc. Total scam.

  4. This is a super interesting post! Thanks for calling out how people get “sucked in” and then potentially lose a lot of money on something that they enjoy and believe in. I am TOTALLY being exploited in a side hustle right now too. I am supervising student teachers for a local university and they are paying me $250/student. But I thought I was just going into the school three times to watch, evaluate and conference with the student and cooperating teacher. Then they let us know we have to hold three seminars and deal with the grading of 15 assignments (four of which have ridiculously long rubrics…) This is the only time I’ll be doing this, but it is absolutely crazy. I guess as long as people keep doing it, they’ll keep exploiting them.

    • Oh man! I’m bummed to hear that you’re being exploited at the moment! (Though good, I guess, that you know it and can make a different choice as soon as this one wraps up?) Good luck getting to the run… and then running far, far away!

  5. What a great and interesting post confirming some of the suspicions I had for the industry. I say this because earlier this year my wife decided to purchase a Groupon deal of unlimited yoga for 30 days at many gyms and studios across our city for something like $20. And she took full advantage going at least 20 of the 30 days. Also, at times apparently the classes would be in the teachers’ apartment. I always thought how the heck does anyone make a profit doing something like this? Also, is it even possible for someone to teach a full class out of their own home? It seemed a little sketchy to me, but was curious if you ever came across this.

    • It is *possible* that the teachers where your life got that Groupon were getting paid a flat fee. BUT, when studios where I worked did a Groupon, the teachers usually had to absorb the cost of it, not the studio. So my per-head cost would get cut in half, or I wouldn’t get paid for Groupon students at all. Sigh. And many teachers do host classes outside of studios to avoid that system, but it’s usually in a park, not in their apartment. ;-)

  6. So far I’ve tried two potential side hustles. About 8 years ago I signed up for a Piano Tuning class that ended up being a complete waste of money. (I’m still waiting for my grade on my first tuning tape). The other was land flipping last year when I was driving myself insane trying to figure out how to shave months off our retirement calendar. In both cases, I thought I did my research and picked reputable sources, but in both cases I walked away feeling burned. I think the only way I’d do another side hustle would be if it were something that materialized organically. There are just so many people out there making money off of others optimism and naivete. :(

    • Ugh! Sorry you got burned on both attempted side hustles. I’m definitely NOT anti side hustle. But it does seem like things specifically marketed as side hustles have a special way of being scammy. We really should just be talking about part-time jobs!

  7. Interesting post! I started my yoga practice at a studio that had “Yoga Hour,” an intense flow class with specific alignment instructions, for only $5. It was amazing for me because I had just graduated college and was on less than a shoe string budget. Yoga never would have been accessible to me without those classes. Now I’m hoping the teachers were fairly compensated for those classes! They were usually quite full, so I’m hoping that helped to balance the low price. (As an aside, I just went and looked up this studio… It’s been 8 years since I was there. They definitely seem to be pushing more trainings now, and yogahour is now a registered trademark??? Interesting….)

    The other thing I really liked about the classes was the focus on alignment. The teachers offered lots of helpful tips and adjustments that I could really tell helped my body to best get into the poses, and they also walked around the class a lot and helped individual students. When I later went to some classes at other studios, I was dismayed to be given almost no direction about how to get into the poses. It does seem that yoga can be pretty dangerous if a lot of beginners are just shown a pose and expected to replicate it. One wrong twist of the knee, and you could be in a lot of pain.

    So I’m curious: you made several references to poses not being worth it, or hurting your back. Do you think that yoga how it is generally taught to the masses is actually dangerous? Do you still practice yoga on your own, and do you avoid certain poses if so? My practice at the studio I started at definitely made me stronger and more flexible, and I felt safe doing it. I’ve never found a studio or teachers since then that taught in the same way, so I don’t take classes anymore.

    • Hard to say how teachers at that studio were paid, but very full classes certainly make it easier to give the teachers a smidge more!

      And great question about safety — the truth is that I think a ton of the way yoga is taught is dangerous, even with great alignment instruction and hands-on adjustments. (And the latter is of particular concern because most teachers receive sketchy or highly unscientific training in hands-on adjustment if they receive any. Mostly you’re taught to give adjustments that feel satisfying, if that makes sense.) But the book The Science of Yoga looks at how dangerous poses like shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and many of the backbends are in a macro sense, and was a big part of what convinced me to stop teaching the way I’d been trained…. plus I just know a lot of those poses made my back hurt! ;-) I do still do some back bends, as well as headstand (but no shoulderstand), but I’m suuuuuper cautious now!

  8. I was getting nervous… but I feel better knowing that the better situation is a gym. The only yoga classes I have attended are at the local YMCA (a rare supplement to my newbie youtube yoga at home).

    This is fascinating. MLMs always bug me, but this is a new level due to the disguise of it all. The incentive to push for workshops and the pressure to keep your yoga-cool compounds this. Yikes!

    • The “yoga cool” pressure is a HUGE part of the problem in this stuff. Being seen as a pushy money-grabber is a sure way to end your yoga career, and you could get that label for very reasonable requests. But have no fear about taking yoga at the gym (except that the teachers probably have less training and it might be less “yoga-y”), but at least you know they’re being paid as promised!

  9. What about those of us who just want to learn yoga (not teach it)? Any recommendations about the best, non-exploitative way to learn?

    • Absolutely! There are great classes at community colleges (often in a beginners’ series, which I highly recommend!) and community centers, in addition to gyms, YMCAs, churches, etc. I’d definitely check those out before paying big bucks at a studio of questionable ethics!

  10. What a coincidence – Mrs. FF also teaches yoga! She’s also a Personal Trainer and Boston Marathon Runner. When she was younger, she used to do Bodybuilding and Powerlifting. It was odd moment seeing my wife on stage posing in a bikini. :)

    When I first met her, she was a mild-mannered Librarian who barely exercised. I was the one who did most of the exercising. I still exercise, but now do it just try to keep up with her!

  11. The last place I would’ve expected to see this was in yoga but when you start introducing “systems” and other things to buy, it starts to become a little clearer. Wow… thanks for sharing this!

    • Yeah, it’s suuuuper disappointing because the practice itself is so helpful and healing for folks, or at least mostly. ;-)

    • Lots of guys getting exploited in yoga, too! And I did technically get free classes, but teachers do not generally want to be a burden to other teachers, so when you know you’re taking up space in someone else’s class for free, it’s a lot less enjoyable.

  12. Fun fact: my YTT program did use The Science of Yoga! As far as studios go, mine was incredibly rigorous in terms of making sure the teachers had a really solid foundation in the science and anatomy and knew the difference between what was truth and myth in the Yoga world. New teachers (like me) made $34 a class, and established teachers made a flat rate plus a per head fee. When I did teach, it wasn’t the only thing I did, but I did rely on the money and really loved teaching. My YTT was incredibly reasonable and included free classes for the whole year that it took to finish the program (and I would have spent that money on classes anyway). I know my situation was very unique – and I’m very grateful for it. I definitely did fall into the “I need all the yoga clothes” trap, but, that was my fault, not the studios.

    • It sounds like you got one of the rare ETHICAL TTs, which makes me soooo happy to know that they exist! And that you got paid much more fairly than most places. I never once got paid a flat rate at a studio, despite teaching on both coasts and in the mountains!

  13. I had no idea that some places charged per head. That makes SO much sense, thinking back to certain studios where people were packed in with a mere inch between mats. I always wondered why they kept letting people in, even after the class was supposed to start. No way legal per fire code either. (I never went back to those studios)

    • So places that charge per class at least have the POTENTIAL to pay teachers much more fairly, and there’s a good chance that those teachers were some of the few making good money. The packed classes might be less pleasant for actually doing the yoga, but they tend to be better for teachers — it’s the medium and small classes that are a guarantee the teacher is getting peanuts.

  14. I fell so in love with yoga when I first started doing it, and was, predictably, pressured to take a teacher training for $1800. I did consider it because I loved yoga, but in the end just couldn’t see it paying off financially, at a time when it would have been hard to pay for. Someday I still might do it, but only when paying for it is easy, and likely just for my own benefit! Especially after reading this post. :)

    • Wow, that TT was a comparative steal! I wonder if you could still find anything close to that price anymore. But if you truly want it for your own benefit, seek out “deepening your practice” immersions or similar, and do lots of reading — tons of great books out there that are much cheaper than training!

  15. I just listening to a cousin explain why getting her Pilates license was going to lead to great things and could not shake the feeling this was all like selling Cutco knives all over again. Thanks for the ‘insider’ article.

  16. Woah I had no idea yoga teachers were so horribly compensated. I also never knew that the free classes in exchange for working at the studio setup meant the teacher didn’t get paid for that student, although I guess that makes sense (for the studio, that is). I’m wondering now if pay for instructors at my barre studio is set up the same way, especially since I’m on an unlimited monthly membership (and a heavily discounted one I got as a special. The usual unlimited memberships are $200 a month!!!!) so if I go a lot they can’t be making that much money off of me per class. I’m not giving up barre, but this definitely makes me think if I ever get into a regular yoga practice it’ll be one at home using YouTube videos!

    I’m a contractor at my side job, but it’s a pretty fantastic hourly pay, plus I get tipped out as well. I was doing the math this weekend and realized some weeks have actually approached my 9-5 hourly pay, which makes me feel incredibly grateful I found this job! So needless to say I’ll be keeping this second job and working as many weekends as I can for as long as possible.

    • You should ask them at your barre place! Chances are good that the pay structure is similar (or worse), and if more people start asking, it could actually make the studios change their ways. Glad to hear your side hustle is much more fairly compensated!

  17. It’s not like MLM unless you also flood my Facebook feed with before-Yoga and after-Yoga pictures where the person looks sullen in the first photo (taken under fluorescent lights) and radiant with a slight smile / smirk under the soft glow of an iridescent bulb.

    There should also be time-limited Yoga teaching discounts and pictures posted from Aruba after you’ve been rewarded by Yoga-in-Fields for being a top Yoga teacher of other Yoga teachers (who will go on to teach more Yoga teachers).

    Great post.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  18. Fascinating to see the inside of the yoga business model. Definitely sounds like MLM to me!

    I participated in taekwondo for several years (a long time ago! and have the achy joints today probably because of it!). Lots of similarities in the business model. Charge $150/month for your attendees. Train them to black belt. They teach for free and in exchange receive discounted/free tuition. But you as the dojo owner juice them for special training, workshops, retreats, tournaments, testing for the next belt level, special weapons training, etc etc. The owners got filthy rich while the instructors got a good workout and not much else. You might end up cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping, vacuuming, sorting inventory (you have to sell gear and books to lower level students, you know??).

    I quit taekwondo right before reaching black belt (interests moved on). But my brother stayed and ended up teaching. It was a big cult. The dojo owners roped him and all the other instructors into Amway and some other real MLMs. Same mindset I guess. Now some of the former instructors have started businesses training other owners and instructors how to make more money in the taekwondo business! It’s a genius business if you’re the one making the money.

    • Wow, that’s super eye-opening about Taekwondo — I had no idea! But of course a lot of that sounds all too familiar, so I totally buy it. So much in the fitness world exploits those good endorphin vibes people get to rope them into spending more. It’s so shameful.

  19. Man, the MLM principles are everywhere.

    I wonder if going the truly self employed route, and hosting classes in your backyard, might allow an away around these practices. The gym is surely a good option, too, as you noted.

    I figure you’re better off being an employee, or being a full on entrepreneur who owns the business. Being a contractor often involves the worst of both worlds.

    • If you can get a following without a formal studio or gym to promote you, then absolutely, teaching at a park or in your backyard would work out way better financially. (Though you’d probably need business-level liability insurance for that, to be safe, which isn’t nothing.) So true that being a contractor in this case really is the worst of all scenarios!

  20. Thank you for sharing your insights! I’ve toyed with the idea of becoming a yoga teacher for a few years but am resisting because of all the work that is required to build up a following and actually make money. I also have a friend who is a yoga teacher and she’s been very honest about how difficult it is to make money, and how unfairly she’s been treated by some studios despite being a popular instructor who brings in business. Being a yoga teacher is hard work and it’s unfortunate that so many talented people are being exploited. Thank you for bringing this to your readers’ attention!

    • You’re welcome! And yeah, as your friend told you, you can be popular and bring money into the studio and still be treated as disposable. Such a huge bummer! If you truly love it and want to do it, go the gym route. Most gyms need better yoga teachers anyway! ;-)

  21. Very interesting, Tanja. I’ve considered becoming a group fitness instructor as a side hustle before, but it always seemed like it would be very draining, time-consuming with travel and class prep, and limiting as to the number of hours you could work such a physically demanding job. I never realized the MLM elements yoga instructors deal with, though. I wonder if the same is true for other branded fitness programs, such as Zumba.

    • I didn’t talk about the other fitness classes I taught, but I don’t think those are all bad. Spinning cost relatively little to get trained in, required less continuing ed, didn’t force me to buy music or choreography from them as a lot of the newer branded formats require, and always paid a flat rate. (Though I’m sure the cycling studios out there pay similarly to yoga classes.) And I got paid to work out! So if you can find a way to do it that doesn’t involve a ton of time driving around, or preferably if you can teach back-to-back classes, then it’s actually a pretty great side hustle.

  22. Hmmm, I am not surprised at all by the MLM style of yoga teaching. It just seems ripe for it. I haven’t been into any crappy side hustles yet, but I did just find out that getting certified as a Master’s Swim coach only costs $180 and stays current as long as you are a memeber which is only $30/yr. Not sure how to spin it just yet, but I remember Mr. SSC taking some swim classes from someone that got certified and taght at our Lifetime gym 2 days a week. I figure the pay can’t be that great but maybe I can leverage a membership or maybe some grocery money or something while doing it. The bar is set pretty low, lol.

    It’s mainly to find a way to stay active without too much solo open water swimming, although maybe I’ll just get a pull buoy and forego the swim coach. It also seems like it could be fun and I like teaching. Banjo teacher is another lower pay sort of gig, about $20-$30/hr but typically cash and a fairly flexible schedule. The biggest issue would probably be finding people that want banjo lessons, lol.

    I’m sure in a few years I’ll have a different take on crappy side hustles. Until then though, I’ll pretend they’re all nice fun, rewarding gigs that will be worth it. Ah, the optimism, lol.

    • I mean, you can totally see the appeal of getting paid to work out, right?!?! ;-) The trouble with anything that goes in one-hour increments is finding enough of those increments to make it worthwhile! I’d assume banjo lessons fit in that same category. ;-)

  23. Love this article. Thanks for sharing and being so open about the experience. This comes at a great time for me as I’m considering several side hustles.
    P.S. I can’t wait for the podcast!

  24. Whoa, super interesting post.

    I’ve been doing yoga for years and once applied to get into what was marketed as a very exclusive teacher training course with a competitive application process and limited spots available. I remember working really hard writing all these essays as part of my application package and wondering if I had any possible chance of being accepted…and then I got an email back the same day that I sent in my application, saying that I had been accepted and that they needed a $600 deposit right away. I remember I sent them the $600 but started to feel sort of uneasy about the whole situation, like maybe it was less about me being a promising aspiring teacher and more about my willingness to pay the studio thousands of dollars. I ended up backing out shortly thereafter and was super lucky that they agreed to give me my money back. I don’t mean to suggest it was a scam or anything like that — I’m positive that it would have been a really legit and interesting course and I bet I would have loved it and learned a lot…but I’m still glad I didn’t do it. (But I still love yoga and I still go to yoga studios. :) )

    • Your story is soooooo classic! They all try to make their TTs sound super exclusive, but you saw yours for what it really is. I’m sure you would have loved it and learned a ton, because yoga itself is wonderful! It’s the exploitative culture that has sprung up around it that is the problem.

  25. Interesting and insightful post, as always!

    What also concerned me whenever I tried to look around for maybe trying a yoga class (I’ve just used youtube the last couple of years, and it suits me very well) is the cultural appropriation that is often quite rampant (https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/03/yoga-without-neo-colonialism/). Interesting to see how many frugal bloggers also are into yoga. I’ve got to jump on the mat again soon (well, first I have to acquire a mat of some description)! :)

    • Thank you, Kristine! The crazy thing about yoga and culture appropriation is how many people I met from INDIA who said some variation of, “I was excited to come to California to do real yoga!” Like, whaaaaaaat?! We have this idea that yoga is a super ancient thing, and while the meditation part is, much of the physical stuff that we know to be yoga is a more modern invention, much of it invented in the U.S., not in India at all.

  26. Tanja

    Interesting, I never knew that the Yoga business operated like this

    As for all the comments here it seems that there is a difference between side hustle (it’s about the extra money) and side hustle (it’s something fun to do to keep busy and I could make a buck I don’t need).

    During my 30 years of work I never had a side hustle – my time was always more valuable than anything I could gain from doing something else – especially if it meant encroaching on family time when not at my 9-5 job

    I would be interested to know how many put the side hustle into either of the two camps. For me it would definitely be the later, it’s not about the money. What are your thoughts?

    • Hi Phil,

      I agree with you. I’ve never liked the side hustle thing. To me, I felt that it took my focus away from my primary job/career. It was fine when I was in an entry level position which didn’t require heavy focus but not a good thing thereafter, at least for me. The moment I stopped side hustling and focused on my main job/career, I got promoted faster and made far more money (easily covering the side hustle many times over). I also agree that my time is too valuable to spend on that. When I just started working, money was the primary driver. As the money just grew, time became my primary driver. The only thing you can’t make more of is time. So precious and I cherish all of it, more so every day.

      Hobby side hustles are fine. Side hustles primarily for money that don’t provide a proper return (that return needs to be very high for me these days to the point my answer is 99% no thanks) and are exploitative are not.

      • Stone

        You and I feel the same way about time – one thing I think this blog does well is that it focuses on life experiences and what being financially independent means. Most blogs focus on saving and while FI means never having to worry about losing your home or lifestyle because you lost your paycheck, I find the frugality mantra of many FIRE blogs that leads to the appearance of “sheltering in place” as if you are living out the zombie apocalypse are missing the point. Like you I believe a long term focus on my career was the reason why I accomplished my goals (as I outlined on ESI Moneys millionaire interview). Running around squirreling away money anyway you can, in my opinion dilutes your opportunity to invest in yourself.

        Thanks for sharing

        Phil

        • Thanks for that nice compliment, Phil! :-) You know I’m all about valuing time and not living a miserably frugal existence. (Not that I think frugality must equal misery, but some folks do take it too far.)

    • I do think there’s an important generational difference in that entry- and mid-level salaries now pay less on average than they did when you entered the work force, and housing costs relatively more of people’s income, plus college grads are coming out with loads more debt. So while it’s great that you’re able to value your time so highly, many folks today don’t have that luxury! (I know I did NEED that side hustle for a while, though obviously I still did it even when it didn’t pay so well.) I know in the future, side hustles will definitely be fun things we’d do for free anyway, but I think a lot of folks truly do rely on them nowadays.

  27. Thank you for a very interesting article that’s good food for thought from someone who has experienced this first hand. I’ve been doing yoga for a number of years with a wonderful teacher at a great yoga school. Working directly with a good teacher is a very different experience from working with videos or books. I’ve never seriously considered yoga teacher training, because I just don’t have the time with my full time job and I’m quite familiar with the fact of low-earning yoga teachers. But I did consider “yoga immersion,” which was about half the teacher instruction class. But so pricey and a huge time commitment, so it never made it to the front burner.

    My experience with classes at gyms is not good at all, as in terrible, although we shouldn’t generalize based on random individual experiences. Taking yoga at a yoga studio is a much different experience and one I wouldn’t trade for such a half baked (at best) experience. I don’t want people to think yoga classes are all interchangeable. I also want to say what an important experience being a student at a great yoga school has been and continues to be for me. The school and my class are also a great community.

    • I totally hear you on having had mediocre yoga experiences at the gym, but I really wouldn’t paint with broad strokes like that. It’s totally teacher-dependent, and I developed large followings at multiple gyms for teaching “real yoga” there. It definitely takes a bit more commitment to trying different classes and finding teachers you connect with at the gym, but the mindset that yoga at the studio is one thing and yoga at the gym is another is a big part of what allows this exploitation to continue, because studios get teachers to agree to their outrageous terms by telling them that they wouldn’t possibly want to slum it and teach fake yoga at the gym. Of course, I totally get your perspective, and the community aspect at a studio can be quite powerful!

      • I would definitely have taken classes from you at the gym! And, as I said, we shouldn’t generalize from one-off, random experiences, such as mine. People should definitely shop around and not be turned off by lone encounters.

        • Well said! ;-) I think you’re right that finding a good gym yoga experience takes more work than at a studio, but the good teachers are out there! ;-)

  28. Your experience with yoga teaching definitely resonated with my own! I taught through student clubs at the college I worked at, and got an AFAA credential in yoga instruction through them, but I always felt as though I wasn’t a “real” instructor because I hadn’t gone through a 200 hour RYT type training. I started volunteering at a donation-based studio thinking that it might be a good way in to paying less for a teacher training cert, and learned there that they relied on their teacher training workshops to turn a profit, and that they had a long list of people who wanted to teach for them even though they were only paying their teachers a flat $20 a class…It just sounded like a (totally un-yogic) racket!

    • Yes! The un-yogic-ness of it all is perhaps what’s most upsetting. Like if it was teaching people how to get rich quick, you’d expect that. But they all talk a big game about being ethical businesses, and it’s just not so. (Plus, the fact that you were made to feel not like a “real” teacher is just silly.)

  29. Great post Tanja and wow – your pictures are amazing and make my back hurt too! I’m a big cyclist and am wondering how much (if anything) you got paid to teach spinning classes. I really don’t enjoy riding inside but if I could turn some of my cycling workouts into some income that would be ideal. Thanks in advance!

    • If you’re looking to make income with cycling, I’d recommend signing up to do deliveries on some food delivery apps! That’s my way of getting paid to exercise, and while obviously not lucrative by any means, you’re essentially getting paid to bike – which has some health benefits that aren’t easy to quantify! And you don’t have to ride inside either!

      • Are you doing Postmates? I’ve looked into it and thought about it. Some reviews I read said that if you’re in an urban area most folks use it for lunch at peak times so they spent tons of time waiting in line at say, Chipotle. I’m open to the idea but want to maximize my riding

        • I am – have been doing things like Postmates for over 2 years now. Waiting in line used to be a problem, but these days, orders are placed in advanced so you just pick it up as soon as you arrive (example – at Chipotle, you just go to the front and pick up the order, no line waiting).

          The way I see it, worst case scenario, you find out that biking around delivering food isn’t fun and you just stop doing it. What do you lose? The tiny amount of time it takes to sign up and download the app?

        • I actually have written about this before, last year – back when I was a very, wee baby blogger. One of the first posts I managed to get up on Rockstar. It’s definitely due for an update though!

    • Spin classes (not counting at new studios popping up in the cities) are virtually always paid a flat rate that varies by region. I would say if you LIKE teaching and being in front of people, then do it. If you just want a workout on a bike, find a different side hustle. ;-) (The spin teachers who are really just serious cyclists are the worst. Hahaha. You have to want to do the actual teaching.)

  30. Great post. I always wanted to try Yoga for the stretching aspect and increasing my flexibility. I always held back as something didn’t feel right but this explains what was bugging me. Part of it was that I’m not very flexible and the other was that it seemed you had to have a certain look (the right body type, the right clothes, the right mindset, all the extra costs are appropriate – don’t question it). If it had been a thing of just wearing some sweatpants and a t-shirt, I think I would have been on board. The MLM component was pretty much always just hanging there and I always wondered how anyone can really make money doing this. I just don’t like handing over money for something when I have the feeling people are getting exploited. I still do my own stretching though (as safely as possible) but I’m still stiff like a board. LOL

    It really is eye-opening. In a way, this feels like people who work in retail clothing stores having to buy the store’s clothing on a regular basis and thereby cutting the employee’s actual takehome pay. That just raises my hackles.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Your post strikes me as making a big distinction between the yoga itself and the U.S. yoga CULTURE that has sprung up around it, and which is the problem. (Like the difference between work, which is not bad, and work CULTURE, which has gone too far into the unhealthy zone these days.) Yoga itself is wonderful, and you don’t need to be flexible or have the right clothes to do it. And you’re more likely to get yoga without the cultural artifice around it at a place like a community college or community center — that kind of yoga I totally recommend!

  31. Wow this is shocking to me. I would have no idea! I just met someone the other day who works as a yoga instructor as her main job. I didn’t ask about the details. But I never would have thought that such a seemingly innocent sport would become a ground for MLM. @_@

    • Just like in MLM, there are are few folks who can actually make a decent living with it. So maybe the woman you met is one of those folks. But it’s not true for the majority!

  32. Thanks for detailing this! I’ve only dabbled in yoga, but I always found it strange how many people seemed to be in the TT program, and how often it was mentioned. I’m surprised the pay is so little when the classes are still pretty expensive. :/

  33. Thanks so much for sharing your story! I have a few friends who went the Yoga Teacher route, and pretty sure all of them are still as broke or worse than when we were grad students.. glad I didn’t do it myself. I love the free YouTube workouts, that’s pretty much the only way I get my fix now. Good to hear the backstory, if I go back to classes I’ll have to make sure to do my research and ask the instructors how they are compensated. And definitely try to find a grassroots thing like in a park or public space where the teachers keep all of the admissions price.

    • Yeah, your friends are the norm on this, not the outlier failures! And please do ask teachers or studios what the pay structure is — we need that pressure on studios coming from customers for things to change. But also fully endorse seeking out the grassroots classes!

  34. I went to a national brand yoga studio for a while because it was conveniently located close to my house. I stopped going for other reasons, but I also didn’t like that they pushed teacher training every single class. My barre studio has never even mentioned teacher training, so I feel somewhat better about it, though I do still wonder sometimes how the teachers are paid exactly.

    • Yeah, pushing the TTs is FOR REAL at some places. And at your barre place, it’s worth asking the studio how they pay teachers. If more studios get this question from more customers, they might actually feel pressured to be more fair about pay.

  35. ha. glad you blew the cover off what i’ve suspected for some time. reminds me of the cross-fit cult/scheme. you ever wonder is somebody is in cross fit? don’t worry, they’ll tell you all about the “sport” in the first 5 minutes after you meet them. am i cynical?

  36. This is really interesting, but not too surprising to me. When I see people launching a business or side hustle, I often think in my head, “How does that business model work? Can you make money doing that?” I used to frequent a couple yoga studios near my house, and I couldn’t figure out how it was profitable for the teachers. Sometimes I even wondered how one of the studios made enough money to sustain the owners.

    PS I love the wheel pose!

    • You raise a great point, and something I did not address here is that yoga studios are not universally cash cows. There are some big ones raking in the cash, but most are barely scraping by. And that’s why they push the teacher trainings, which economically I understand. But doing it by exploiting teachers and people who love yoga is not okay.

  37. As a yoga teacher, I agree with everything in this post! I teach at a government facility, and my bosses let me “teach from the mat” (i.e. I get a little workout too). Otherwise I probably wouldn’t bother. Lots of the teachers I know look down on gym-style classes, but I get to bring yoga to people who otherwise would never try it. That said, I think it took 2 or 3 years to pay off my teacher training, so not a great financial investment by any means!

    • The yoga snobbery helps no one — bringing it to as many people as possible, as affordably as possible, is an obvious social good. So I’m glad you are able to teach as you do! I never enjoyed teaching from the mat so didn’t get the workout myself, but I looooved that about teaching spinning, that I got paid to work out. :-)

  38. Thank you so much for sharing this! I currently teach yoga as a side hustle and have experienced so many of these things… teaching a 90 minute class for $5, after taking my 200 hour training being heavily pressured to them take a 300 hour training (thank goodness I said no!)… the list goes on. Right now, I only teach two classes per week at a climbing gym, where I earn a generous flat rate, and a free climbing membership. Plus it’s close to my house, I’ve spent way too many hours in transit to teach! My favorite is teaching donation- based yoga in the park, I keep a percentage,and donate the rest to local non-profits. I keep teaching because I love it, but I think it’s important to shine light on the darker side of yoga teacher training. It makes me especially mad when studios advertise training as “A New Career!” when in reality very few yoga teachers can actually make a decent living. Thanks for your insight!

    • I’m so glad on your behalf that you ducked that 300 hour TT! Those things are such a scam — I don’t know of anyone who gets a higher base rate for having more training, unlike in “real” professions with “real” education. I’m glad that you get a flat fee and a gym membership for the classes you teach now! That’s part of why I loved my gym classes, too. And yeah, I totally taught for the love of it, as you do, but we need to be honest with people about its crappy earnings potential for all but a tiny minority.

  39. I learned this while talking to a friend I met at a hostel who did a yoga certification program. She didn’t like the extremely low pay and having to work for free sometimes. Like you, there were instances where she had basically work for free but she didn’t want to say anything and be considered difficult.

    We need to start putting more pressure on studios to better treat the teachers!

    • The pressure not to be considered difficult is legit — the whole “yogic attitude” thing is such an oppressive tool that studios exploit to their benefit. And you’re totally right about pressuring the studios — everyone who goes to them should start asking how they pay their teachers, and what the exceptions are. That’s the only way things will change!

  40. Dear Mrs. ONL, this is my first visit to your website (after your interview with ChooseFI guys) and, of course, the first post that catches my eye is about yoga. I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years. Started in Results Capitol Hill (you may know that place). I have had many great yoga instructors there. Now I practice at OneLife in suburbs. All yoga instructors there are amazing, too! So it is a stereotype that gym yoga instructors are somehow inferior to the studio ones. In addition, I also frequent various yoga studios in DC and suburbs because I’m a true yoga addict. But thanks to ClassPass and sales/promotions I don’t feel that the fees are unreasonable. So here are my observations, studio instructors are not necessarily better than gym instructors. I have already made this point but to add – if you get a mediocre practice at the gym, oh, well, it’s just part of your monthly membership. To pay for a mediocre class in a studio is a different story. It is wasted $10 or more. Then I also noticed that studios can be divided into two categories depending on how much freedom/discretion instructors have in teaching classes. The first category I would call corporate chain studios, like CorePower, where instructors are trained in one specific routine and are literally required to teach that specific routine. So there is not much room for growth for a student but great for a novice who wants some predictability in the beginning or as an occasional practice, more like a workout. The second category I call independent studios where instructors come from different walks of life, experience, training. In such places I usually learn a lot from different instructors. But those seem to struggle. The studios are usually small due to high rents but even they don’t always fill up. I have always wondered how instructors in those studios make any money or even the studio owners themselves. Now, you confirmed my suspicion that the pay is low. But I’m beyond grateful that there are so many great yoga teachers out there who are still willing to teach. What would I do without them?! Thank you for a great post. I look forward to reading your blog.

    • Woot Results on the Hill! I taught at Results in Adams Morgan for a hot second, but was mostly a Gold’s and Washington Sports Club instructor when I lived there. ;-) I didn’t even go into the branded format model, and while I can’t speak specifically to how CorePower operates, a lot of other branded fitness formats require instructors to PAY for new routines, choreography and music, which is the biggest freaking racket considering that clubs also have to pay a licensing fee to offer the classes. I also appreciate your shout-out to the high quality gym yoga instructors out there! ;-)

  41. My wife was a certified personal trainer and we saw almost all of this first-hand. There’s as much (or more) of an industry around the programs, training, books, and certifications as there is around the actual teaching of “regular people”.

    It was disheartening to see that the best way to be successful in the fitness industry was to sell your knowledge and services to other instructors – not to become the best darn fitness instructor possible.

    I see a lot of parallels in other industries – even blogging. So many bloggers find mega success by teaching others how to optimize pinterest, twitter, search engine optimization, etc. Certainly, those of us looking to grow are appreciative of the resources, but there’s a point at which it starts to smell like the late night commercials promising to teach you how to make millions a year (hint: you do it by selling a book to people telling them how to make millions a year).

    • Oh my gosh, yes. All so true! The continuing education and specialty certification side of things is a whole ‘nother beast. And while continuing ed is important and is rightly mandatory, there’s a way bigger industry built around it than is necessary just to keep people current.

      And re: blogging, YES. I won’t belabor the point because we all know what you’re talking about, but YES.

  42. This reminds me of a discussion on the Freakonomics podcast recently about how PhD programs (specifically in some liberal arts) can get away with charging so much to train and churn out so many more grads than the market needs – most of whom will never make tenure or even make a meaningful return on that investment via a higher wage than they could otherwise earn. The economist’s take on it was that there is a factor there that warps normal supply/demand effects, and that is the consumptive pleasure (I may have mis-remembered that term…) that some students get out of the degree.

    I think this totally applies to yoga teacher training too. Basically, there are plenty of people (not unlike yourself perhaps) who are passionate about the subject and willing to pay some amount for the experience of getting the training alone. They don’t necessarily need or expect a great ROI – and that skews the market dynamics for those who DO by effectively creating false demand for the program.

    • I think you’re completely right that this applies equally to PhD programs and yoga teacher training — both feel like personal enrichment as much as career training. (Though at least most PhD programs end up being fairly affordable for students because of grants and getting paid to TA, etc. Not many yoga TT scholarships.) I also think there’s a privilege aspect to both that people who are poor and desperately need work typically wouldn’t shell out for either program, so you have above-average livelihood folks doing these programs and further skewing the market dynamics.

  43. THANK YOU for writing something honest about this field. “Getting paid to work out” is the tagline that draws folks into these exploitative arrangements. This is one of the better personal finance posts I’ve read in a long time. I’m coming off of a two year side gig as a group fitness instructor (not naming names, but it’s not Zumba). After paying $1500 for the training, plus $20/year for CPR, $120/year for insurance, $150/year for choreography, buying branded apparel, buying music from iTunes, paying for childcare….) I had to get out. Most instructors in my niche get $10/class (and they come out ahead of studio owners who are on the hook for larger franchise fees) and those expenses are in no way worth it. I hear you 100% on just getting the group fitness cert and teaching at a gym – for now I’m enjoying just being a student again, but if I go that path again I’m staying away from any “branded” fitness programs. And if I ever make it to a FinCon you’re the first person I would want to meet :) Thanks again!

    • I bet I can guess which company’s program you taught! ;-) I stayed away from that branded stuff only because I’d already been burned by yoga stuff and could see that it was a similar concept with having to pay for new choreography. (Like, seriously, who does that?! Don’t they WANT you to mix up your choreography so students don’t get bored? Why do they give you such a strong economic disincentive not to?!?!?! Is that enough exclamation points and question marks?!?!?!?!) ;-) Good for you for stepping away for a bit. I could see doing classes again in the future when we’re ready to park in one place and not travel a ton, but I’m definitely doing non-branded classes only, and at the community center or gym rather than a studio. (Or maybe the park or something.) ;-)

  44. I was a massage therapist for many years and can pretty much check off every point you raised as being applicable to the massage industry as well. When I stopped working full time I always thought it would be something I could do as a side hustle but it’s just not worth the effort.
    To work for yourself you need to be constantly marketing and the schools keep churning out grads willing to work cheap so pricing your services fairly makes your rates look exorbitant. Working for others means giving away sometimes 60-80% of the fee so you have to touch more clients to make money but doing much more than 15 sessions a week puts you at risk for injury.
    People think you should be grateful for the chance to work for free to ‘promote’ yourself. Whenever someone asked me to do a free event I asked them why their massage therapist wasn’t participating, the answer was always “Oh I don’t get massages”.
    It’s sad to hear that it’s not much different for yoga teachers. I had no idea, thanks for the insight. I think this is a worthy topic to discuss among all holistic lifestyle practitioners. The aromatherapy game isn’t much different. It’s never a good sign when the money in a job is teaching others how to get into the job. I cringe at the comparison to MLM but its not an inaccurate description.

    • My massage therapist friends have said the same thing. It is crazy. I’m glad you’ve stood your ground and not agreed to all the free work. And yeah, I think you’re right that holistic practitioners are especially susceptible to this given our interest in helping people and our natural generosity of spirit. Even after I knew how badly I was being exploited, it was still hard to walk away because I loved the people who came to my classes so much!

  45. Oh lordy, it has definitely looked like a scam from the outside. I’m struggling to see many avenues for employment that don’t involve a small few succeeding wildly while most are lucky to break even. Strange systems we have in place.

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