I met Emma Corbett while doing a Seva yoga teaching exchange at the Bali Silent Retreat late 2016. Emma is a world traveller who shares her passions of pole dancing and yoga and meditation with audiences and students around the globe. I caught up with Emma via Skype to find out more about how she manages her globetrotting lifestyle and how she balances her various disciplines of pole, yoga, meditation and coming soon, a book!
We talk about making a living from doing what you love, travelling the globe without a fixed base, being a business owner and a yogi-preneur, and lots more.
Click play to listen to the audio version of this interview.
Can you tell me about your family background and how you first got into yoga. Were your parents particularly athletic people?
My Mum’s always been quite fit. Actually it was my dad who took me to my first yoga class when I was about eight. He’s one of those people who always stands right up front and centre of every class, so I’d always be right beside him. And then he started going to a gym, and again I was up beside him for aerobics and pump and everything, and then the gym started offering yoga so this was about twenty odd years ago, so I would be front and centre beside him for yoga as well, and that’s how I started practicing yoga.
Was this in Sydney?
Yeah this was in Sydney, so I grew up in the North Western suburbs – out in the bush, the bush part of Sydney.
So were your parents a little bit hippy as well?
Not at all, my dad was a raging capitalist entrepreneur who owns a bunch of companies. And my Mum’s actually a geologist who works with the mining companies, but she’s now teaching yoga, so she’s having a bit of a shift.
That’s cool! So I guess you would have inherited a bit of the entrepreneurial streak from your dad?
I think so, yes. Basically I was an exotic dancer for a long time, and that kind of put a bit of a strain on our relationship.
But actually owning my own businesses (I owned a pole school), and getting into property investment actually helped heal our relationship because we had this common ground of discussing our employees and council regulations and that kind of thing.
So the exotic dancer thing was a semi-naked thing?
Oh, very naked. I was actually Miss Nude Australia and a Penthouse Pet as well.
OK, so I can imagine that parents could find that a bit tricky to deal with!
Yeah, it was but it was something that I did for seventeen years, so it sort of got to the point where I decided I would rather have an honest relationship with my parents about what I was doing. So, I was a showgirl. So, a similar lifestyle to now – I was flown all around the world to perform.
So how did that start?
I was seventeen when I first started working in clubs, and turned eighteen shortly after. And then I worked in clubs in Sydney for about seven years and then sort of did everything. I became a showgirl, did pub shows, did big glamorous stage shows and also strip-o-grams in peoples’ backyards for bucks parties and that sort of thing as well.
So it was a very varied career – is that how the pole dancing started?
So that’s how the pole dancing started because there was no pole schools when I first started pole.
There was a wonderful lady called Bobby who used to come into strip clubs. She was a showgirl as well and she would teach us all some pole moves. And she was actually the first person who opened a pole school in Australia. I was actually teaching aerobics (Aerobics Oz style) at the time and I decided that I could teach fitness, pole, whatever, and that sorted merged in with her.
So I worked with her at her school.
So did you always have this performer person inside of you?
I think so! Even in school, I did every school play and show and musical etc. I really loved being on stage. Or debating, mock trials, anything really.
So the exotic dancing segued into pole dancing. So how long have you been doing that now?
So I started teaching for Bobby in 2004 and I started competing in 2005 and I’m looking at competing again now this year, so…!
It’s a long time!
So you compete and then you also teach workshops and classes in pole dancing?
Yes, that’s correct.
I do more pairs pole now, so I compete with my partner Toby. We compete in pairs pole. He was a sports acrobat champion and I was a pole dancer, and so we fused it together and created an acro-pole mix of our styles, which we enjoy doing, and we also love sharing with other people.
So now your life is travelling and sharing both pole dancing and yoga and meditation? Do you have a base anywhere?
And no, I haven’t had a base for the last two years. My mum kindly lets me keep some of my things in my old room there. And then Toby and I have a storage unit in Queensland as well. But it’s been really nice – I sold out of Suzie Q Pole Studio (one studio in the Gold Coast and one in Sydney) a couple of years ago.
With a lady called Charlee, we had two businesses, a merchandise line and we ran events and all of these things and I was still trying to travel and perform as well so I was never quite able to be wherever I was.
I would always be trying to get back on the email, or call her, or somebody can’t come to class etc. So it’s been really nice letting that go because I still go back and I work there. I still teach there so I get to share what I love but I am not in charge any more which I am really enjoying. I am really loving working for other people – just supporting them and helping them achieve their visions.
So how do you organise your workshops when you are travelling? You have just come back from Europe now?
Yes I was leading yoga retreats in Sweden and then teaching pole and at a circus festival in the UK, and then went to India where I was teaching a sensual dance workshop to Rajastani women at a yoga festival in Rajastan so it was a really nice fusion of Emma and Suzie Q (stage name for pole performances) coming together.
And what festival was it?
It’s a new one called the Goddess Festival at the Utsava Ma Ashram in Rajastan which is all about empowering women. The guru (at the ashram) really walks his talk. It is wonderful to see people who preach acceptance and then actually practice acceptance as well.
So was that an international festival? Or was it mainly Indians?
It was about half half. About half Western women and half Indian women which was amazing.
So it was based around the idea of empowering women?
Yes, so one of the other presenters was a Tibetan woman who had climbed Everest! She was amazing, and there was this fabulous ‘lady guru’ – probably that’s not appropriate…
[Laughs] yeah, probably not!
But yes, I loved her so much and I’m going to go and spend some time with her in Rishikesh. She was an incredible spiritual teacher. So it was just a fabulous thing to be a part of and to be able to share with these other women.
Wow! So all kinds of different things like dancing, speakers, yoga as well?
Yes, yoga, and performances.
They wanted me to do a pole performance – which is amazing in itself – ie: can you pole dance in a four hundred year old ashram? I was like – YES, I can! But we had issues with the pole so we ended up using a piece of pipe from the ground, so I got some of the other girls to hold. So it was a horizontal pole.
So they held the pole for you? That’s very Goddess!
Yes, it was an amazing example of women supporting women, literally.
Emma performing supported by other Goddesses at the Goddess Festival in Rajastan 2017
Amazing. So, with the workshops you were doing in the UK, you just approach people?
It’s kind of a mix, so that was at the Edinborough Aerial and Acrobatic Convention and Toby and I have taught there quite a few times so they are always keen to have us back when we are in that part of the world. And this was the last one, so we were really keen to be involved with it
And was that a paid job?
So the events we do are a mix between paid and not paid, depending on where we are. And for me it really depends on the event and what the event organiser is out to achieve. And some of those events are purely financial, and I do get paid, while being able to help them. But sometimes if people are really wanting to create something new and magical, or if I am going to get a lot out of the event, then I will work for a much reduced rate, especially if it’s an event that I would have paid to go to.
And has travelling always been a passion of yours?
It’s always been a part of my life. I think it all started in 2009, when someone saw one of my pole dances on a DVD and I was flown to Paris to teach workshops and perform over there which was wonderful.
So that really sowed the seed of ‘Hey, I can do this, I can get flown around to do what I love to do’.
So was that at the Moulin Rouge or something?
No, [laughs], I was teaching at a pole dance school called Pole Dance Paris. And performing at a club there as well, and then I performed at the first French national pole dancing championship.
So you have been travelling and sharing since then?
Yes, I think so. Before that I had a few overseas gigs, but that was my first couple of months away.
So how long have you had no base now?
Two years, since I sold up the (pole dance) schools. So what I try and do is have two to three months away, and then I will come back for one to two months so I can touch base with my family and change clothes or get whatever I need for the next adventure, because some require yoga pants, others require glittering showgirl gear!
And so what about yoga? So you started that when you were a kid basically?
Yes, when I was about ten or eleven with Dad. But I would always leave in Savasana, I didn’t need the whole lying down thing. I could do chin-ups downstairs or something.
And then my yoga was also very power-based, which was really useful for my pole training. Because it was all useful skills for pole dancing, like backbends and splits and handstands.
But then, I guess my body gave me some clues. My knee blew out at the international pole dancing championships. I had a knee reconstruction. Then I returned to performing three months later and then my shoulder blew out, and I had a shoulder reconstruction.
I guess it’s a very intense workout for the body?
Yes, it had just been too long of pushing through injuries and not listening to my body or taking time off. And from those two injuries, that was where I started my yin practice and got more into meditation.
I did a Vipassana sit, I started studying Buddhist philosophy. So I guess those injuries were a great thing because they showed me where I needed to slow down and to listen.
I am sure there were more subtle clues beforehand, but if you don’t pay attention, the universe will bash you over the head with a shoulder reconstruction.
So it was really great, because it really gave me an opportunity to stop and take stock. I had been living as Suzie Q for about sixteen years, so it gave me an opportunity to stop and say, who is this Emma person?
The person behind the showgirl?
Yes, to get back in touch with her.
So what’s your current yoga practice now?
I do a little bit of asana wherever I am and I always sit for 20 minutes a day.
That would be my main practice which is very consistent. And then, depending what I am doing, I use asana as a way to warm up for shows, or workshops or trainings or whatever else I am doing.
But really just the twenty minutes to sit.
And do you have a particular teacher you are following?
I guess one of my main teachers is a man named Panda.
He is a Taoist teacher, so I try to spend time with him whenever I can. I saw him at the beginning of the year in Sweden, but he travels also, so I meet him wherever he is. I really love his practice too. He is about just sitting and doing nothing. IE: we don’t actually need to do anything, because there is nothing to do.
And it’s a really great philosophy and practice.
So he is mainly a meditation or a ‘presence’ teacher?
His teachers were people like Ramana (Maharshi). He teaches Tai Chi, but the way I say it is that I would go to one of his classes if it was ‘crochet with Panda’ because it’s not so much about the what you are doing.
That’s the most important part of being a teacher isn’t it.
Yes, who they are is more important that what they are doing.
So now that you are doing the yoga and the pole as well as teaching meditation, how do you balance those careers? Is there one that is more dominant or do you just go with the flow?
No, I am really hoping for more opportunities where it is a mix of the two, like the sensual dance. Also I wrote a book (coming out in 2018) and I am hoping to do more speaking, especially to schools or girls, and especially spreading the practice of meditation, and just taking the time to sit. Because we are often on our phones and constantly seeking external stimulation, it’s really important to look for internal sources of support.
I guess it is about following opportunities as they arise.
So without a set plan of ‘this is where i want to get to’?
Yes, I am trying to let go of that. And next year Toby and I will be managing a yoga / circus centre as part of the Momentum Collective. So that’s a really nice mix of Emma and Suzie Q, as it’s yoga and circus.
Where are they?
They have one in Nigaragua, one in Bali and we are going to be managing the one in Guatemala.
So I am interested also to find out your views on teaching yoga as Seva (volunteer), and how you balance that with getting paid as a yoga teacher?
Again it’s really a case by case basis.
When I was teaching at Bali Silent Retreat, it came at a time when I really needed to be in a space like that. It was something that I probably would have paid to do at the time because there they are really supportive of you taking your own time. You only teach one class a day and you get accommodation and incredible food.
So I ask: does a project appeal to me? Is it something I would like to do whether I am paid or not. And I think that’s something I also do with my paid work.
And if you wouldn’t do it, maybe you would say no?
But then there’s always that point isn’t there – it’s an exorbitant amount of money – OK I will do it.
So it’s more about what the experience is for me, rather than the money.
The money, or the lack of money, or Seva, or no Seva…?
Yes, it’s about what I want to get out of it, which sounds a little bit selfish, but it also relates to giving – ie: is this a space in which I want to share what I have, and do I feel supported in who I am to share who I am in this space.
I don’t think it’s selfish at all really because it’s a practice of self-love, you only do what you love, and you share what you love, and that’s an amazing gift to anyone that you are sharing with.
Yes, because you genuinely want to be there.
That’s a really nice philosophy – so that’s how you choose your work basically?
Yes, I think it came from working in strip clubs, because I’d meet all these amazing people and I’d also ask – hey, what do you do? And people would tell me they were a CEO or they designed carpets, or they worked in a recycling plant and I’d always ask: do you enjoy that? And 95% of people would say: ‘Ah, it’s a job’.
And I think that’s when I made a decision as a teenager – because work is 50% of your waking hours, it’s a lot of your life – to be ‘eh, it’s a job’ so I always knew that I would never do that.
What I have always done with my work – is – if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease, I would still do my life as it is. I would still go to work because there is actually nothing else I would rather do.
And when it is not true, when I am just doing this for the money or whatever, that’s when it’s time to stop.
So, basically you are sharing love.
Yes, and it’s a decision really, and Mark Manson puts it very eloquently, as he describes the ‘shit sandwich’. There is definitely a shit sandwich associated with the lifestyle I’ve chosen. You work Friday and Saturday nights, you are often away for friends and family’s birthdays and weddings, and you do miss things.
Whatever lifestyle you choose, you need to be able to embrace what you choose. And for some people, they want to have a home and support their children, and the shit sandwich of letting go of all that is too much. That would create an unenjoyable life for them. So it really is about doing what’s right for you at the time.
I wanted to ask about the retreat business with Lars, [who I also met at Bali Silent Retreat]. How has that been and how to you envisage that growing in the future with him?
We just really get on.
So, not matter what I did with with him it would be fun.
I am also involved with the retreat centre on Flores, which is all about supporting the local people as well as providing a retreat space for westerners to come and do yoga and meditation and have that retreat from their normal lives.
So we decided to run retreats together – that’s what I was doing in Sweden – and they went really well.
Because we have a really opposite energy, a real yin yang vibe, that works really well for people. He’s older and masculine and I am younger and feminine, and I am really fascinated by anatomy and physiology and getting people into correct alignment for them in their asana practice. And he is really passionate about meditation. And he is an Ayurvedic doctor as well, so we combine his input from that with my input from asana, physiology and mindfulness.
We will be doing a retreat in India in next year, and I am also looking into doing a retreat in Australia as well. In Darwin I was scouting out venues because I am interested in doing a retreat with Aborigines that incorporates Aboriginal spirituality and getting in touch with the traditional dreamtime stories, which are getting lost I think.
So it’s about not planning too much and just seeing what evolves.
Yes, and it’s always just holding the ideal of doing work I love and enjoying what I do and not being too attached to what that looks like.
And also there are lots of things I love, so it doesn’t matter if I am performing, or teaching yoga class or teaching meditation or teaching a pole class because I really enjoy all of those things.
So I think with this kind of lifestyle you have to be adaptable, so I also do massage, and read tarot cards, do writing for people and help with their marketing etc. So it’s just having lots of things that do that you enjoy.
Finally, any advice for anyone who would like to follow your path as a global yogi pole dancing, meditation teacher?!
Yes, just do it, but embrace whatever shit sandwich comes with it.
I do meet people who want to be performers, but they are not available for weekend work or they don’t want to do the excessive amount of rehearsal and training that’s involved with that lifestyle, and they are not embracing the shit sandwich that goes with it.
So, whatever you choose, as Mark Manson says beautifully, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”
So can you really embrace that sucky side and enjoy that? That’s the clue as to what you should be doing.
All images supplied by Emma Corbett and copyright Emma Corbett.
Emma has a book coming out next year about her years as a stripper and exotic dancer, and she will be leading a retreat with Lars in India in March 2018. Find out more about Emma’s events with Lars through her yoga retreat website. To find out more about her pole dancing offerings and performances, check her Suzie Q and Toby J website.