Yoga helped me turn my life around - now I want to show others its healing powers
After suffering at the hands of abusive partners and drink, Emma Warmington found purpose in an unexpected avenue, writes Stephanie Bell
Having turned her troubled life around by immersing herself in yoga, Bangor woman Emma Warmington is now passionate about bringing its healing qualities to ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland.
You don't have to wear fancy clothes or be able to perfect fancy moves to enjoy the benefits of this ancient art, according to the now internationally acclaimed yoga teacher.
Emma (42) hopes to train an army of teachers in Northern Ireland, who then can go out into local communities and give people the chance to improve their lives through yoga.
With mental health now a major issue affecting one in five people, Emma believes she has found the key to inner peace and, although she now travels the world teaching yoga, her focus is on bringing it to people here.
Inner peace is something that eluded her in her own life since her early teenage years.
Emma endured many years of alcohol abuse and violent relationships, before beginning her own yoga journey in her early 30s and finally finding peace.
She says: "I spent 5,000 hours honing my skills, and the most amazing part was not the toned body it gave me or even the travel, but the realisation that yoga was my life-saver. My yoga practice encouraged a healthy mind and a healthy body and almost without me realising, it had become my priority."
Emma was just nine years old when her parents divorced and it had a devastating impact on her - leading her to abuse alcohol and take drugs from her early teens.
Although she eventually went on to enjoy a successful career as a travel agent in London, she continued to drink every night and got involved in string of abusive relationships.
She says: "My parents divorced in 1983, when getting divorced in Northern Ireland was very uncommon, and it was very difficult.
"I started drinking very young and I got involved with a very dangerous man in my teens, who I believe is now in prison for a serious crime. I got into all sorts of trouble with the police and drugs.
"It was the time of the rave scene in Northern Ireland and I was taking ecstasy and speed and my life was very disjointed and unstable. I didn't really know what I was at and I was a bit lost and had severe depression.
"I suppose at the time I thought it was all a bit of an adventure, but my parents were worried sick.
"I started to travel when I was 17 to Spain and then Majorca and, eventually, Australia. I would work at home for a few months doing two jobs and saving like mad and then take off for a few months."
Emma was so unsettled from the age of 17 to 24 that she did 52 different jobs, finding that travel was the only thing that made her feel good.
"I was so restless and easily bored that I just quit one job and went to another," she explains.
Eventually, she realised that travel was something she could maybe enjoy as a career, and she wrote a letter to a leading travel agency in London asking for a job and was amazed to be given a position.
She proved to be a natural and found herself thriving in the environment, enjoying many perks and bonuses for exceeding her sales targets.
However, she was still drinking heavily, which impacted on her self esteem and quality of life.
Her lack of self-worth meant she attracted men who - more often than not - were abusive.
A turning point came in her early 30s when she got involved with a particularly violent man, who assaulted her so badly that she has been left with permanent pain in her back. "In my career, I had finally found that being able to mix my work with my passion for travel allowed me to really be myself and I thrived there, although I was still drinking a lot," Emma says. "I drank every night of the week and was either drunk or hungover the next day.
"I had started practising yoga in London, but after my class I would go to the pub and get drunk. I went on a world trip in 2005 and started what was to be my most destructive relationship and the darkest time of my life.
"My boyfriend was a damaged alcoholic, and it was a very toxic relationship. My life was started to fall apart. It ended very violently when he threw me across a room and I injured my back, which is still bad today."
A number of other traumatic events coincided with this period in her life, bringing things to a head.
She was working in Russell Square in London during the 7/7 terrorist bomb attacks in July 2005, when Islamist extremists detonated three explosions in quick succession in the underground and another on a bus, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700.
"One of the bombs went off underneath our office and another round the corner, and I was watching people being pulled out of the tube station," Emma remembers.
"My granny, who I had been very close to, had also just died, and all these things happened at once.
"It was like everything I thought that I had had now fallen away in a very short time, and everything I believed in had been shaken to the core."
She took herself off to a two-week yoga retreat in Egypt and realised that her life needed to change.
In 2006, Emma took part in a three-month residential yoga teacher training course in Thailand, where she began teaching and remained in her new-found home for almost a decade.
During this time, her focus and lifestyle changed entirely and she devoted herself to training and learning, serving as an apprentice with some of the world's best yoga teachers and on some of the most sought-after yoga teaching programs.
"I prioritised yoga over everything else and completely devoted myself to the yoga path," she explains.
Emma also met internationally renowned yoga master Mark Whitwell, who was to become her most influential teacher and who now invites her to teach around the world.
With Mark's guidance, Emma became a senior Heart of Yoga teacher, and her reputation grew.
Now she has brought her knowledge back home where she is dedicated to sharing what she has learned and to facilitating the teacher training that helped her transform her own life, with the ultimate aim of helping others transform theirs.
Emma has trained more than 160 teachers across the globe and, in an exciting move, is recruiting for her Jivani yoga teacher training program, which starts in Belfast in January.
Her ultimate aim is to create a ripple effect within local communities that can bring about a greater sense of connection.
Emma believes that yoga is for everybody and must be adapted to the individual, not the other way around.
As they practise alongside her, she says her students will also gain an understanding of the history and the philosophy of yoga and how it applies to modern life.
Through mantras, chanting, meditation, mindfulness, pranayama, asana, kriya, philosophy and anatomy, she hopes students will find their own teaching voice and take a transformational journey of personal discovery.
By training teachers, Emma believes that more people will have access to more classes so that eventually yoga will be practised as part of life for everyone in Northern Ireland.
"I believe yoga was intended for everyone and has less to do with fancy poses and more to do with cultivating a sense of intimacy with yourself, your community, your friends, family and loved ones," she says.
"It is a journey of self discovery, which helps you to break down your belief systems and allows you to live freely.
"It allows you to participate fully in life and it is especially relevant in today's world, which is all so digital. We are expected to be available 24-hours a day, we are using phones last thing at night and first thing in the morning.
"In some ways, we are connected more than ever to the news, social media and gossip, but we are now less and less connected as humans, and I think many of us are desperate to connect deeply at a human level.
"We don't listen any more - we wait until someone has stopped speaking so we can jump in. We check out at the supermarket with a machine, we check in at airports with a machine, we are all on gadgets on public transport. We used to see our friends and lovers separately, but now we're all in the same room connected by internet, but it is costing us in actual human contact.
"I want to go out every day and look up, look people in the eye, smile, and have the connection.
"I have been to more than 30 countries around the world and I find people are actually kind of the same wherever you go. There are also times when we all need to be a bit introverted - to take quiet time for ourselves."
Emma believes that we all need to take time to be alone with ourselves and that even a few minutes of yoga practice, or sitting quietly doing nothing, will allow us to hear our inner voices.
This quiet time can also unlock trauma and create healing. "We are so disconnected from our bodies maybe because of trauma or sedentary lifestyles or because of all the digital stimulus," she says. "A key to unlocking trauma and reconnecting with ourselves is the development of sense awareness - yoga is great training for that too.
"We are social beings, not social media beings. Gathering in groups to play together is in our DNA - I think we are missing it. And I have seen that yoga is that. Yoga is the way in to greater connection with ourselves and others. We're all in this together."
Emma is keen to hear from people who would like a yoga teacher to come out to their workplace or their community centre to deliver a taster or a six-week introductory course.