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Open Letter: Why I Don’t Care That You’ve Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga

in YD News, Yogitorials

Ashtanga-Primary-Series-chartThis article is an open letter response to Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga.

by Jessie Horness

I’m an Ashtanga practitioner. Every morning, I wake up before the sun, make my way to the shala, and dive into two hours of asana practice. Sometimes it’s blissfully easy, my body oscillating naturally with the breath like dance. Sometimes my mind and body are stiff, and every vinyasa is an effort. Whatever the day’s practice brings, however, it is always joyful. I often find myself laughing and smiling through my practice. And when it’s over, I’ve already achieved six impossible things for the day. Then I have breakfast.

I’m an Ashtanga practitioner. I practice six days a week (unless, of course the moon is full. Or new. Or I’m on my period. Or I have a fever), but I don’t look skinny and tired, and neither do my companion practitioners. I have practiced with injury, though never through it – and there is an important difference- and I’ve come out stronger because of it. The practice, under the advisement and guidance of a counselor, helped me heal from both sexual assault and disordered eating. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this method and this tradition. I recognize it as a tool and I know, as Ani Difranco put it, “any tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.” As a hammer can be used both to build a home and to commit violence, Ashtanga can be used for evolution or devolution. That doesn’t change my sense of awe and gratitude for what an effective tool it can be, or how blessed I feel to have it in my life.

I am an Ashtanga practitioner, and I don’t care that you stopped practicing Ashtanga yoga.

When I first read the somewhat viral “Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga,” I was, quite frankly, nonplussed. A year ago, I probably would have been incensed. I would have found the harsh words directed at my beloved tradition upsetting, never mind the suppositions that, as a practitioner, I must be missing something from my personal life. The practice, however, is constantly teaching me equanimity. So now, reading this piece or one like it, I find I simply shut the window when I finish and set the alarm for my next early morning. Just keep practicing.

You see, what Ashtanga has given me is so much greater than happiness. It’s equanimity. Life is not always going to be comfortable. In fact, many of the best things come from times of discomfort. Through its no-excuses methodology, its daily confrontational moments, its ever-present discipline, Ashtanga teaches me to take all things as they come. I find myself growing ever more even-keeled. No matter what happens on the mat, you just keep breathing. Whatever happens in life, just keep practicing. Through the practice, I know that all things come, and all things go. All you can do is take it one breath at a time.

So, when I read a piece like this, I no longer hold onto it. It’s not my circus, not my monkeys. I just keep practicing.

A friend of mine told me a Zen koan the other day, a favorite of her father’s. Two monks are about to ford a river. They see a woman struggling to cross the current Even though monks aren’t supposed to touch women, one of the monks picks the woman up and carries her to the other side. The monks continue walking. Ten kilometers down the road, one monk looks to the other in slightly scornful disbelief.

“I can’t believe you picked up that woman!” he chides.

His companion shrugs. “I put her down,” he replies, “You’ve been carrying her for 10 kilometers.”

So to the author of this piece, I say this: Ashtanga has taught me to put things down, to not carry things around that disturb my equanimity. I’ve put down the fact that you’ve made attacks not just on my tradition but my character and personal life as a practitioner of that tradition. I read your point of view, I processed it, and I kept walking.

I don’t care that you’ve stopped practicing Ashtanga yoga. I’ve already put this down. Why, six months after stopping your practice, are you still carrying it?

Jessie Horness is an Ashtanga practitioner and yoga instructor (though she is happiest as a student) proud to live in beautiful Northern Michigan. Off the mat, she loves playing with words, whether that means writing them or reading them, and exploring the world on as many adventures as possible.  The path to her heart is paved with witty conversation, quality music, and vegan milkshakes.

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58 comments… add one
  • See

    Soooo… If you’ve put it down, why does this article exist. Passive agressive much?

    • Morgan

      right. “putting it down” would be NOT writing this open letter.

      • neo

        Not to mention the incredibly smug and condescending tone of this reply. Why the snark? Can’t we keep just this one thing – yoga – a place of kindness? Why not reflect on your own experience in an article that inspires people rather than chastens one person? People who have truly done something (in this case, that *thing* purports to be “putting it down”) don’t usually feel the need to go around telling people that they’ve done it.

      • Jessie Horness

        I understand the confusion… To clarify: This is simply my experience, and I felt it was worth adding to the conversation.

    • Mango

      My thoughts exactly!

  • PAA

    Hear hear. You are absolutely right. BTW, why are we so scared of dedication?

    • jimmy

      Dedication to what? A practice that you don’t need and that may be injuring you? Dedication to a practice that uses this type of condescending attitude (and illusion) that if you don’t do it their way, you aren’t “dedicated”? Many of us are very dedicated to what we practice. We do it with intelligence and not to please a peer group.
      Use discretion when you “dedicate” yourself to something.

  • vq2

    That old Buddhist monk story has made the rounds, hasn’t it?

    When life gets in the way of your Astanga practice, you won’t be spending two hours doing it. You’d be on the 6:10 on the way to your job; or otherwise engaged.

    Otherwise, nicely said.

  • Oye Vey. The beauty of the Ashtanga practice is that even when you aren’t practicing asana the practice is with us especially for me the yamas and niyama. It’s the ahimsa towards myself if I practice or not and towards other earthlings this practice is showing me. Reading Yoga Mala and practicing Ashtanga Yoga opened up the world of Vedanta, sanskrit, mantra and a whole host of life supporting practices and philosophy. Very few people can practice without being attached to the practice and non attachment is what it’s all about isn’t it? Or maybe life’s a river or maybe not, lol. Either way it’s all healthy, positive time well wasted.

  • S.

    If I hear that Buddhist monk story one more time, I’ll vomit a rainbow. Doesn’t Ashtanga have a better writer on staff available for a rebuttle?

  • John Foster

    “Ashtanga has given me is so much greater than happiness. It’s equanimity” The two are not exclusive and settling for equanimity when deep, joyful, happiness is possible, is choosing the lesser (and far more boring) option.

    The original article made valid points. “I don’t care” may be an honest response but it doesn’t do anything to address them. The smart response would be to ask as much about the system as possible, read truthful accounts of its origins (Singleton is good on Astanga), test other systems of yoga, identify exactly what works in astanga and what doesn’t, and then have a better answer than “I’ve no response to your comments on Astanga but I’m so unconcerned about them I feel the need to publish a public statement denouncing them”

    Lots of yogis go through an astanga phase. Sooner or later most grow out of it and take more responsibility for and interest in their physical practice than conforming to the latest version of a fixed display routine six days a week, never mind all the rest of it. Others don’t – a rare few because it ideally suits them.

    • Dwayne

      “…read truthful accounts of its origins (Singleton is good on Astanga)…”
      Excellent suggestion. Singleton’s account towards the end of “Yoga Body” was quite, let’s just say, “eye-opening” for me.

    • Boodiba

      It’s been my experience that most outgrow it. It’s usually a combination of time constraints, impatience with the chronic injuries and teacher problems. Also, after awhile it seems foolish to continue paying so much money for rules & restrictions.

      And artist would never expect to spend their entire life in art school. Seems to me that yoga – so personal – might mature best as a truly solo endeavor.

  • The original article made valid points from the author’s perspective. However, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to detect the fact that the author is bitter and disillusioned by her experience with ashtanga or maybe defeated by a dream to become a yoga teacher gone sour. I do not know the author personally nor do I dare claim to have insight into her reasoning for departing from the ashtanga tradition, but I do see a few things here which I can identify with, and they have less to do with ashtanga itself and more to do with yoga culture as a whole – of which yes, ashtanga is NOT immune.

    First off, let me address the notion that yoga is not a career. Indeed it is. I am a 40-year old single mother. My husband moved out and removed me from the bank accounts and snickered, “good luck with that” as I stated that I would provide for my family by continuing to teach yoga…well, he who laughs first laughs last. I have done it. I was not easy, and I supplemented by waiting tables for 6 months, but I support a household in a relatively affluent area on my yoga teacher’s salary. I am not a rock star, I am not glamorous, and I’m outside the yoga ‘clique’ in my city. I don’t even have regular classes at a studio and I have more financial freedom now than I did when married. I love what I do, my desire to learn is ever-growing, and my business is ever-growing. I am about to embark on a teacher training as lead trainer, have taught yoga in a social work setting, have dedicated private clients, and a growing roster of students who attend my classes.

    It’s funny – I formed more meaningful friendships and relationships in my community AFTER beginning my ashtanga practice. Those friendships have endured to this day. When I did have the opportunity to wake and attend Mysore (single motherhood has ended that), I had my physical practice out of the way by 8 am and the rest of the day was devoted to my family and friends, infused by a sense of calm and completion. I was never looking for a relationship on my Manduka. I had a life. If anything, my dedication to the practice made me drink less wine at night, go to bed by 10 pm (I am a night owl), and eat a lighter dinner which aided my digestion for the better.

    While on the topic of digestion, let’s talk about diet. I became a vegetarian in 10th grade while listening to The Smiths on my Sony Walkman. I was a chef in a macrobiotic cafe at age 20, and have been vegan, raw, and everywhere in-between. The thing that is most telling about this blog is that the author preceded her rant on ashtanga with a statement about diet. It seems to me as though the author discovered the “Yoga Lifestyle” (quotes intentional as to indicate the shakiness and invalidity of such a solid and finite definition) and jumped in, became disillusioned, and jumped out. This isn’t a contest of ‘who is the most old-school’, but my digestion process of the “lifestyle” was a slow evolution of eating mushrooms and reading Ram Dass in my teens, sweat lodges, Rainbow gatherings, A Course in Miracles, and various yoga on-and-off for 15 years before I settled on ashtanga as my practice. I had burned through the layers of new age fundamentalism and fascination which are often present when one discovers a spiritual path, prior to finding ashtanga – which is why the practice resonated with me. It was no-nonsense, no rainbows and crystals (but I do love crystals and rainbows), and brought my ego to its knees. That’s what I had been looking for since age 15.

    In response, my ballet dancer’s tendency toward striving (I was a dancer) was humbled. My propensity towards perfection and achievement was cowed. My dancer’s habit to practice through and injury was replaced by a respect for my body and lack of care for who was watching me roll a towel up and place it under my thigh during a simple badda konasana,who watched me modify my practice through pregnancy, and disregard for who witnessed my willing abandonment of second series after the energetic demands of the practice became to great when my divorce became messy and devastating.

    I was never skinny and unhealthy while practicing, and if you like, take a view at the slideshow on the home page of my website for confirmation. Most injuries I worked with in my ashtanga practice were existing injuries which originated in my classical ballet training and overuse through teaching. By practicing ashtanga in conjunction with visits to a skilled Rolfer, I healed myself. As formerly stated, I have never ‘practiced through an injury’, felt pressured to do so, nor would I EVER advocate that a student to so.

    As far as ‘frquent flyer’ and what goes on in Mysore, I can’t comment. I haven’t been because I am too busy practicing seventh series. I do know that some authorized teachers are good, and some are bad. Some teachers who are not authorized are good, and some are bad. The tradition IS evolving. Please read these articles by Matthew Sweeney: http://loveyogaanatomy.com/tag/matthew-sweeney/

    I respect Sharath, but he’s just a man. Like everyone else. Like I stated before, I can’t comment on the activities in Mysore because I am not a part of that scene, but I do feel that the senior teachers we have in the States and in other countries have teachings and wisdom to offer, and I do not feel any less legit for having studied with Eddie, Tim, or David. Or whoever.

    I make my own practice schedule. I only have the energy to practice about 4 days a week. I take a vinyasa class here and there to keep my imagination free because I teach vinyasa as well as ashtanga. I also teach gentle. I have also adapted ashtanga for people with permanent physical limitations and the practice has changed their lives. I finished second series four years ago and have not moved on because my lifestyle as a single mom and teacher is so energetically demanding, I don’t have room for it. And I don’t care. Not one bit. I’m am ashtangi more now than when I was a 6-day practitioner, because my practice supports my life. It sounds as though the author was in a space where her life supported her practice. It’s a pitfall that we all fall into. Some climb out and run, and some climb out and inspect the reason why they fell in, and continue on the journey. I believe I made the kool-aid comment on facebook: don’t drink anyone’s kool-aid. Once you take a sip, it all gets murky.

    Ashtanga is not for everyone, but sweeping generalizations are short-sighted. The only reason why I have even taken the time to address this article is that I continue to find it linked by certain alarmists in the yoga community who would have us BUYING THEIR BOOKS AND DVDS on why what we are doing in asana is killing everyone and how gentle is the new advanced. I originally subscribed to those type of sites and pages because I am genuinely interested in injury prevention and am a stickler for promoting correct alignment and respecting the limitations of the individual in ANY practice, but good intentions seem to have become an agenda which borders on witch-hunt.

    I never intended for this comment to be so long. I’m genuinely sorry that the author had such a bad experience, and I get it. There’s a lot of cliquey-judgey hypocritical BS in the yoga world, but ashtanga does not have a monopoly on the BS. Your’e going to have to filter it out EVERYWHERE in life. Get used to it.

    • mary

      Never join a group.

      Why do you “ashtangis” have to always identify yourselves as “ashtangis”? I find that strange in itself.

      • Boodiba

        “I am an Ashtanga practitioner, and I don’t care that you stopped practicing Ashtanga yoga.”

        The fact that this post exists at all proves that you DO care!

      • Boodiba

        Cause they’re often crazy evangelists, that’s why. (I used to be one.)

    • Michelle

      Love this, Nadine. You beautifully expressed much of what I felt about this kerfuffle. Thank you!

    • vq2

      With all due respect to Sweeney cited above. Many hatha practitioners and practically all pilates practitioners got there first. I tend to use pilates anatomy knowledge as the gold standard on that. On the other hand, some of the so-called “witch hunters” actually have a more middle path take on the anatomy question … anatomy does not explain why an internal physiological problem (I have those too, and can attest!) can make asana unteachable in its anatomy-explained extreme: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update-20-the-kaminoff-matthews-interview-full-transcript/

  • Trish

    Hey to all you with a 6 day a week practice. Let me know how that is working for you when you turn 65. Like me.

    Newsflash – your body may not make it if you overwork it now.

    Just sayin.

    • lol. Computer autofilled the website field with my email address on my previous post. 🙂

      Trish, ashtanga is an evolving practice. It ain’t all asana. That’s the whole point of 8-limbs.

      “It took me ten years to learn the asanas well, then two children to forget about it, but the Yogic experience I got from that was more than any asana could ever give me.” ~ Saraswathi

  • There seems to be a lot of need to bash or critique each others traditions and practices in the yoga community. I love what an Indian person said to me recently (and it wasn’t a monk and he wasn’t crossing a river :)) …. he said, we go on the carpet we do our practice and we’re done with it. There seems not to be this high intensity, rigid segmentation of the practice nor the competition within it. This appears to be a very Western development that comes from the particular way the Western mind is conditioned. Namaste…. off to find my flying carpet.

  • Melissa

    Lovely to hear a calm and thoughtful response from a regular practitioner! Thank you for responding with such grace and eloquence to what was, to me, a hurtful article.

  • Mary, it’s easier to say “ashtangi” than it is to say “Individual who practices ashtanga vinyasa yoga as set forth by Sri K Pattabhi Jois”. It’s not a huge identity marker or self-defining proclamation. But thanks for being so sweet about it.

  • jopray

    To me, this seems like exactly the type of condescending and dismissive “rebuttal” that scares people away from Yoga. The author of that article offered an opinion about her practice and her experience. She made some valid points. It certainly wasn’t an attack or your tradition, character, or personal life as an individual. Ego much? That said, reading your rebuttal disappointed me as it points to how the Western mainstream interest in Yoga has devolved what could otherwise be a simple, quiet, and peaceful practice into just another trendy and egocentric competitive sport. Its like watching a bad commercial.

  • jopray

    To me, this seems like exactly the type of condescending and dismissive “rebuttal” that scares people away from Yoga. The author of that article offered an opinion about her practice and her experience. She made some valid points. It certainly wasn’t an attack or your tradition, character, or personal life as an individual. Ego much? That said, reading your rebuttal disappointed me as it points to To me, this seems like exactly the type of condescending and dismissive “rebuttal” that scares people away from Yoga. The author of that article offered an opinion about her practice and her experience. She made some valid points. It certainly wasn’t an attack or your tradition, character, or personal life as an individual. Ego much? That said, reading your rebuttal disappointed me as it points to how the Western mainstream interest in Yoga has devolved what could otherwise be a simple, quiet, and peaceful practice into just another trendy and egocentric competitive sport. Its like watching a bad commercial. how the Western mainstream interest in Yoga has devolved what could otherwise be a simple, quiet, and peaceful prace into just another trendy and egocentric competitive sport. Its like watching a bad commercial.

  • lizzie

    Ego!! LOL!! …. Jabberwocky (my name for it) LOVES to bleat on about what is and what is not right or wrong., little parasite and Yoga is a particular favourite just now, fed by FB and the Twits!! Asana is only one of the limbs of a practice ; although none of them are relevant when confined to the Jabberwock Mind. Reading through this “stuff” made me laugh though. Thanks for that.

  • Wow you guys! These responses are coming from MY yoga community? Expressing thoughts honestly is important but some of these are down right mean! No matter how or what we practice, when it is done with heartfelt intention, everyone benefits. It’s al yoga!!!

  • AC

    Err, she IS allowed to have her own opinion on her own blog – no matter how up our arses we get over it JUST because we do it x6/wk and still love it!!! Live and let live for crying out loud, :-))!!

  • Boodiba

    “I am an Ashtanga practitioner, and I don’t care that you stopped practicing Ashtanga yoga.”

    The fact that this post exists at all proves that you DO care!

  • AC

    DISSENT is good especially when we don’t like to hear it – everyone getting their knickers in a twist, for what???

  • Kassie

    On behalf of your fellow dedicated Ashtangis- well said. I agree, the equanimity that the practice teaches reverberates through the rest of life. Every day has different highs and lows, just like our asana practice does on the mat. Ashtanga is an incredible teacher, and I especially like how you mentioned it can be used for either evolution or devolution. So true. Thank you for your contribution and for your devotion, it’s nice to have some true Ashtangis adding their voices to the mix so the conversation can be more balanced.

  • skrab

    Ms. Horness is very young. Many of us, myself included, have a certainty in youth that we lose as we gain more life experience. I would imagine that Ms. Horness might feel differently about Ashtanga when she is 40 than she does in her mid-twenties.

    For many years I practiced a style of yoga that is based in Ashtanga. It helped me get through a period of staggering loneliness and depression. While I am grateful for what my practice provided me, I realized that the practice, which is so intertwined with the community, no longer serves me. So I left. I’m sad about it, but the practice stopped being authentic so I couldn’t stay with it.

    Maybe I will go back some day when I different than I am now.

  • As a general rule, I admire the seriousness and dedication of Ashtanga practitioners. They have more than most.

    Fundamentalism, self-righteousness, and addictions are problems regardless of Ashtanga or no Ashtanga, yoga or no yoga. It’s not the method per se that causes problems; it’s how the practice is taught, experienced, and lived. There are no guaranteed heroes or villains.

    These discussions are good because we need to keep reminding ourselves of that – there’s a natural tendency to want to have the right answer, the true method, the one way, etc. Disagreements can foster openness as long as they don’t harden into rigid conflicts.

    • “Fundamentalism, self-righteousness, and addictions are problems regardless of Ashtanga or no Ashtanga, yoga or no yoga. It’s not the method per se that causes problems; it’s how the practice is taught, experienced, and lived. There are no guaranteed heroes or villains.”

      Perfect. Thank you Carol, I always appreciate what you have to say.

  • Oliver

    ‘I’ve already achieved six impossible things for the day. Then I have breakfast.’
    That means with a six day practice week- subtracting two Moon days each month, time away from practice while being on her period, fever, etc.- that this woman achieves about 1,848 ‘impossible things’ each year.
    To the author of this strangely entertaining, and ultimately confusing, article, I say this: Why are you writing an ‘open letter’ and not a blog about the six ‘impossible things’ you achieve before breakfast each day?
    How is this not coming up in the comments section? Doesn’t anyone else want to know what these ‘impossible things’ are? Can they still be called ‘impossible things’ if they’ve been achieved? Doesn’t that mean that they are, by definition, ‘possible’ things? I don’t expect to get an answer here, but it’s worth a try. After all, anything’s possible.
    Unless it’s impossible, in which case I’ll have to take up Ashtanga yoga (again).

    • vq2

      It’s probably simpler than that, though. Instead of “impossible” things, she’s possibly referring to doing at least “one thing each day that scares you” in the Lululemon-tote-bag-aphoristic sense.

      So trite. Take up Ashtanga again only if you want to, and not to live up to some commercialized poet’s philosophy.

  • Usually, schools or styles are founded by a “great” individual, often iconoclasts that shatter traditions or want to renew it by changing its forms. It is true for yoga, martial arts, etc.
    Then, the style itself becomes a tradition, a hierarchy with successors and leaders that fight to control it, or split it into rival branches.
    That doesn’t mean that all people within this hierarchy are not genuine, or simply good people… but some can’t stand it and leave it.
    But no matter how much you feel you “belong” to a group, a pyramid that gives you a sense of security, I think that you lose something when you convince yourself this group is the best there is (most say “no, no, I respect others, it’s just this style I like” but deep inside they think otherwise).

    There are indeed “great” people, masters or gurus that have fantastic knowledges or pure wisdom to share : the point is to find the ones that correspond to you. Surprisingly, these inspiring people rarely sit on top of pyramids to shout orders and spend their days plotting against rivals.

  • Carol

    You may be practicing yoga asanas but your attitude is a complete violation of the spirit and heart of yoga. Shame!

  • I read both articles and found them equally educational. I can totally feel what both sides are saying and I thank both authors for taking the time to share their perspective. I don’t see any reason for people getting defensive and snarky towards either. Each to their own. Peace.

  • Some here are expressing the age-old error that systems are not part of the problem. Any system that combines a syllabus of ever-advancing physical flexibility with authoritarianism and guru worship invites abuse of the sort mentioned in these articles. Jois’ asana system, mislabeled astanga, is one such system. Anusara was another one. There are many others in the Yoga world.

    If a system emphasizes, say functional flexibility only, and teaches people that that’s enough and it’s time to move on to meditational approaches in asana and other non-physical practices, for example, the results are likely to be quite different.

    This is not to say that any system is perfect or cannot be abused, or that Jois’ system can’t be the right system for some bodies for some period of time. Ultimately what happens to us is our own responsibility. But a system itself, and the beliefs and practices it emphasizes, matters a great deal as well.

    • Jake

      Great comment, Bradd. I actually am enjoying seeing the Jois system practitioners get their asses handed to them, having watched them insult other practices for years while they continue their neurotic “practice” of whatever it is. And I’ve met very few who are not dealing with many chronic injuries as a result of the Jois system (aka: astanga). Jois himself apparently quit the practice at a young age. Show me one picture of the man doing an asana after the age of, say, thirty.
      To the author of this article: when do you have that “equanimity”? Do you even know what the word means?

  • John

    “Why I Stopped Practicing Ashtanga Yoga” is important because it is counter cultural. It is important because it provides an example of someone living their yoga (i.e. learning about herself and what supports her full embodiment and acting in alignment with that wisdom) even when it doesn’t support the prevailing cultural narratives.

  • Jaky

    It’s always fascinated me that meditation never made any inroads into yoga after the 1960s in the West. Like, why is meditation never emphasised as a critical component of yoga. It’s weird. It’s like a bolt on at best. Like 2 minutes at the end of class and most studios don’t give shit about meditation. Curious when you remember that hatha yoga asana was created and practiced to allow the body to undergo the rigors of long meditation sits and the invetible biological and psychological changes.

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  • Ann

    Hi everyone. I think the original writer “why I stopped practicing ashtanga” …the story, is true for her and can apply to many people, but not all. I have seen 4 people in my studio that indeed have anorexia. But that’s 3% of total students. I do believe that some may revolve their life around it to the point of unhealthyness. Practicing 6 days a week may be unhealthy for many, its hard.
    Why do we need to take such offense at another’s point of view? It’s just a point of view. Many of us, shake our heads and say why is their so much violence on Earth yet many souls can’t listen to another’s point of view without lashing back. Who cares if the author believes ashtanga is good, bad, great or crap.
    I dunno, sigh.

  • Anonymous Yoga Practitioner

    After 2 injuries while teachers were assisting/adjusting me incorrectly and a well known teacher refusing to give any refund (40 days prior a workshop & teacher training) of $1,000 & no cancellation policies listed on the studios or the teacher’s website, it’s become obvious it’s not a practice reflecting compassion, patience, kindness and respect.

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