The Shadow Side of Self-Proclaimed “Light Leaders” or How I Got Scammed by Epic Academy
“Like you, we believe in spreading light, peace and love to the far reaches of the universe. In order to make a massive positive impact, by giving more and reaching more people, the light leaders of the world need to know how to run a business.” Amber Sears
The above quote is an excerpt from a promotion for a month-long yoga teacher training course in Thailand with Epic Academy, which was founded by Amber Sears (formerly Amber Zuckswert) (https://epicself.com).
In many ways the internet is the new wild west. People can create whatever shiny, glossy image of themselves or their product and there is no one to check them. What follows is a cautionary tale, based on my own experience.
I flew to Thailand in December 2018 for my long-awaited, month-long, yoga teacher training course with Epic Academy, hosted by Amber Sears. I had been looking forward to this trip ALL year. It provided what I thought would be the perfect combination, bringing together my passion for yoga with my interest in medicine work. On top of this I would have a chance to update and revamp my 10-year-old website. And the final cherry on top: It offered a month of “organic, gourmet, raw + vegan cuisine.” For a foodie like me, it was the description and pictures of the food that were the deciding factor. I thought I would have a chance to get super healthy and maybe even finally become a vegan. (As an animal lover, being a meat eater is an ongoing dilemma.) While I certainly don’t consider myself a “light leader,” this course still called to me on so many different levels!
I did my research and scoured the internet to find out more about this woman Amber Sears, who founded Epic Academy. I listened to her being interviewed; she was smart and funny. She seemed to know what she was talking about and, most importantly, she seemed sincere. I could not find any negative reviews about her or Epic Academy online. What I found out later was that Amber was a whiz with social media and internet marketing and she knew how to manipulate her promotional materials in order to make a sale. I learned about all the manipulation using social media and the internet too late.
At the time, the course seemed to call my name. But there was one big glitch: It was so much more expensive than other yoga teacher trainings! When I asked Amber about this, she justified the cost with the promise that I would have “an updated, modern and completed website I could run myself by the end of the month.” This in itself meant that the course was “an incredible deal.” I had a website that worked well but it had been at least a decade since I had updated it. Furthermore, Thailand was a country I had always wanted to visit. It was on my bucket list. 2018 had seen the death of two beings I adored: my 21-year-old cat and a dear friend. I decided life was too short and started saving my pennies. I began preparing for what I thought was going to be the trip of a lifetime. Little did I know I had just signed up for possibly the worst month of my adult life!
The yoga teacher training was held at a place called the Yoga House, on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. Alongside the training was an Eco Chef training course (also run by Epic Academy). There was a grand total of three students in the yoga course and another three students in the adjoining Eco Chef training. Altogether we made six students. Then there was the staff: Amber; Aly, the yoga teacher; Derek, our business coach; Johanna, the head chef; and Tish, Amber’s righthand woman.
By the end of the first week, it was apparent that this experience was not going to be what I expected.
Remember how I had been drawn to the course by the beautiful photographs of delicious-looking food? In actuality, the food was incredibly bland: very little salt, no sugar or spices. It resembled a diet suitable for a cancer patient. There was none of the fruit or avocados I had seen advertised. When I asked about this, I was told that fruit was “too high glycemic” and the avocados (at $3 each) were “too expensive.” This in itself was outrageous considering how much we were paying. Despite the fact that Thailand is known for how cheap it is, it looked like the kitchen was doing some pretty heavy budgeting that month. Instead of the “rainbow salads” that had been advertised, what we got instead was the same tired salad at least twice a day. It was basically some lettuce leaves with sprouts thrown in and an occasional carrot shaving or two. I so missed the beautiful, colorful salads I make for myself at home! Then there were the portion sizes: We were served child-size portions on plates that looked more like side plates than dinner plates. Again and again, the kitchen would run out of food. I lost count of how many nights I woke up at 2 or 3 a.m. purely from hunger. As an eating disorders expert, I sensed there was some disordered eating afoot. When I found out that the head chef only ate one small (child-size) bowl of food every 24 hours, it just made me wonder!
When I woke up at 2 or 3 a.m. from hunger, I usually couldn’t go back to sleep. This made navigating seven hours of classes the next day incredibly challenging. We were supposed to do our “homework” after dinner, which was when the bulk of our new website development was to be worked on. This involved writing new content and designing the layout and formatting of the website, which is fairly technical. Needless to say, by the evening I was so wiped out from being up since 3 a.m. that the thought of tackling the building of my new website seemed overwhelming. While I was able to get most of my homework done for Derek, the business coach, and Aly, the yoga teacher, the website development suffered. Halfway through the month I saw the writing on the wall and told Amber I wanted to get my old website back. She looked at me straight in the eye and promised my updated website would be complete by the end of the month, with her help. I decided to suspend disbelief and keep muscling through. When the end of the month neared and no one’s website was anywhere near completion, we were then given an option to buy a package of coaching classes from Amber—for another $3,000. I couldn’t believe the cheek of this! Needless to say I did not go for this offer. In fact, NO ONE completed their website that month, for which we were all blamed for “not prioritizing and managing our time well.” Over and over I witnessed how the students would get the blame for any shortfalls of the program.
I rarely saw Amber or the staff take responsibility or make changes based on our feedback—and they got lots of feedback. After a week there I decided I needed to talk to Amber directly about the food situation and waking up at night due to hunger. She listened politely to me and nodded and said she’d look into it, but nothing changed after this talk, absolutely nothing. Another week went by and then I saw a post from Amber on her Facebook wall with pictures of delicious food: “We are eating like royalty here in Thailand!” I had to say something and so I posted: “I’m here in Thailand with you Amber but I’m not seeing food like this. Why would you post misleading advertising?” This, I discovered, was the way to get her attention! God forbid I ruin the shiny, glossy image of Epic Academy Amber was carefully painting for the world. Amber was furious with me and a staff/student meeting was called. I went in shaking like a leaf but stood my ground as I voiced my complaints. Admittedly, the food situation did improve incrementally after this meeting, but I still suffered through many a bland, tasteless meal and still woke up from hunger two to three times a week. At least it wasn’t four to five days a week, so it was an improvement.
Usually, however, feedback was met with severe pushback. Take, for instance, the first Eco Chef student to complain, after one week at the Yoga House, that she was not learning what she had paid for. She was unceremoniously kicked out with one hour notice to pack her bags and leave. She knew no one on the island, had nowhere to go and, to top it off, had only just found out that her dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer two days previously. Heartless. The message was clear: If you complain, you’re out and NO refund. It sent a chill through the rest of us who were already starting to suffer from the lack of adequate nutrition. Then there was the time that I called Amber out on all the false and misleading promises she had made around the website development. She immediately had her assistant cancel my last coaching lesson with her. No refund. Guess I should have known better.
As it turned out, the yoga course was definitely the better of the two courses being offered. By the end of the month there was NO ONE left in the Eco Chef training, it was that bad. Each student has their own horror story to tell, but that’s another article. One thing worth mentioning is that ALL the Eco Chef students I talked to had the same two complaints: They had not learned anything from Johanna (the head chef) and all of them felt like glorified kitchen staff who had paid a lot of money to wait on the yoga teacher training students and teachers. Ironically, I found myself actually feeling grateful that I had ended up in the better of the two trainings! For the yogis’ graduation there was a ceremony with all the staff and the three remaining yoga students. We were asked to dress in white and, sure enough, there was a photographer filming everything. We were asked to give video testimonials, which I politely refused, but the other two yogis did. Everyone was in a good mood. We had finally reached the end. Amber knew how to capitalize on this moment and other moments during the month, using social media to promote future sales.
I came back from Amber’s yoga teacher training course in Thailand unwillingly seven pounds skinnier, with a website in disarray and clutching my hard-earned yoga teacher training certificate. After the experience I’d had I was determined to warn the world about Amber and Epic Academy. However, I found out that because her business is internet-based and has no physical address I could not even report her to the Better Business Bureau. Furthermore, because she does all her courses abroad there really was no legal recourse I could follow. I was shocked and horrified. This article is my humble attempt to “warn the world.”
The hardest part to reconcile within myself when I finally got home was How could this have happened to me? I thought I had a good radar for BS and a decent intuition. How could I have been so misled? This question plagued me and shook me to my foundation. After all, I had been so strongly drawn to do this course with Epic Academy. This is the kind of thing I read or hear about happening to others but it doesn’t happen to me! Well, yes it does, and in the age of the internet it happens in a whole different way.
Do you follow someone on the internet, perhaps someone who inspires you? Do they share their life with you using photos, pictures and videos about their dilemmas, relationship struggles, hopes and dreams? If so, chances are that you are in someone’s “sales funnel.” A sales funnel is a process designed to convert website visitors into paying customers. In our marketing classes with Amber we were encouraged to post on social media every day to create a sense of trust and familiarity with our audience and to inspire a following. This group, we were told, would later be more amenable to any sales funnel we created down the road because they trusted us. Alas, this is exactly how I ended up in Amber’s course! I “followed” her and it gave me the false illusion that I knew her and could trust what she was offering.
For example, the best parts of our teacher training course were used as a way of attracting future customers: Any fun things we did during our month in Thailand, like stand-up board paddling, Kambo ceremony, or the cacao ritual, were photographed and usually video-taped. Amber hired a professional photographer to film the best meals, the classes and our graduating ceremony. At the end of the course, we were all asked to provide video testimonials, as I mentioned. She was using us to get participants for the next month’s training in Costa Rica. Amber’s use of social media is targeted and consistent; she posts frequently to keep prospective buyers in her sales funnel.
Why did I stay? This was the question my therapist asked me when I returned back to the USA. I told her that it was mostly because I had paid so much money and I wanted that darn yoga teacher certification! So did the other two yogis in my course. We all learned to put on a brave face and deal with the situation. We even snuck food into our rooms, which was strictly forbidden—and made harder by the cockroaches that then ensued—but we had to figure out how to survive.
Like life, nothing is all good or all bad. There was the occasional good meal which went a long way towards lifting my spirits, or getting out and about on the beautiful island, not to mention doing daily yoga; but these were bright spots in an otherwise bleak month. While everything looked great on the outside, inside the Yoga House the atmosphere was often tense and fearful, but covered up with lots of laughter and a pressure to be positive. In many ways this environment exactly replicated the trauma of growing up in a home with unidentified narcissism: Everything looks so shiny and glossy on the outside but is dysfunctional on the inside. I simply have a high tolerance for this kind of scenario.
So how does one protect oneself? First and foremost, if you’re considering going abroad on a course you’ve seen advertised on the internet, always get a word of mouth recommendation from someone you know and trust who has actually taken the course. If you’re following someone on the internet or social media who has a product to sell, you’re in their sales funnel. The image they create is whatever they want you to believe about them or their product. It’s not necessarily real, however convincing. Amber even admitted, in one of our marketing classes with her, that she got the food images to advertise our course off the internet.
If you do have the misfortune of landing in a situation similar to mine, I’m so sorry and it’s okay to quit! Honestly, life is simply too short to muscle through something that painful for a whole month. It’s understandable to want to complete something you’ve invested heavily in, but not at the cost of your health and well-being.
I’m writing this three months after my return because I finally feel strong enough to address this ordeal and write about it. In retrospect, I could have taken a lot better care of myself and left after the first week along with the first Eco Chef student to get kicked out for complaining. If it does happen to you, you can do what I did after my return: Dispute the credit card charges on the grounds of false advertising and file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx). In my case, I have no idea if these last two things will be successful but I have to try. I hope my story has been helpful. Or if you yourself have been the victim of a scam, I hope telling my story has given you the courage to warn others. Writing and talking about how I’ve been scammed is certainly a humbling experience, but if I can warn others, it’s worth it.