Nihiwatu’s Mary Tilson on Wild and Free Yoga

Nihiwatu’s Mary Tilson on Wild and Free Yoga

Mary Tilson | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
Mary Tilson | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu

Working in a corporate media job in Chicago, Mary Tilson’s refuge was yoga. But after travelling through Southeast Asia, India and Nepal to discover yoga’s roots, Mary dedicated herself full time to teaching yoga in retreats around the world.

She spent over a year as the head yoga teacher at a Yoga & Meditation Retreat Center in Cambodia and assisted multiple yoga teacher training courses, before being invited out to paradise—Sumba Island—where she’s now based as the Yoga & Wellness Director of Nihiwatu, one of the world’s most exclusive wellness resorts. Ahead of their first Wild and Free yoga retreat with two of Instagram’s hottest wellness influencers in October, we catch up with Mary to find out what’s new at Nihiwatu.

What makes the Wild and Free yoga retreat different from others on offer? Nihi Sumba Island has an incredible way of creating a feeling of luxury without compromising the raw, rugged and natural environment of Sumba. It’s a place to celebrate the simple joys in life and just have fun. Given what Nihi stands for, Sjana and Rod are the dream team: while their individual offerings are quite unique as Yoga and Movement Teachers, they collectively promote getting outdoors, building community, and developing habits for a healthy and happy lifestyle.

On the edge of forever at Nihi Sumba | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
On the edge of forever at Nihi Sumba | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu

Who is it best suited to? The retreat is open to all experience levels, including complete beginners. Sjana and Rod are praised for enabling their students to move beyond fears and misconceived limitations of their bodies.

What do you hope guests will take away from it? It’s always my hope that anyone who visits Sumba will leave with a deeper appreciation for the environment, as well as the local people and culture. I’m also sure that the addition of Sjana and Rod for the Wild and Free retreat will empower people to use their bodies to their fullest potential.

Sjana and Rod | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
Sjana Elise Earp and Rod Cooper | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu

What has it been like working with Instagram wellness stars, Sjana and Rod? It’s incredibly refreshing to see how genuine and humble the two of them remain, especially in a world where we can shape our identities however we like on social media. They are both as friendly and passionate about yoga and movement in real life as you see online. They don’t just come out to experience things for themselves, they’re always finding creative ways to share their experiences with others.

You are going to be leading the Barefoot Luxury Retreats. How did you create this programme and what should guests expect? The program is continuously evolving. The idea behind Barefoot Luxury Retreats is that there is no set mould for a wellness retreat that works for everyone. Nihi lends itself perfectly to creating highly personalised retreat experiences ranging from an adventures week of sunrise surfing, trekking to waterfalls and joining our evening social gatherings or enjoying the quietude of a remote paradise island with activities like our Signature Nihi Oka Spa Safari, private yoga lessons in our luxury villas and Horse Meditation.

Guests should expect to have a unique, highly personalised experience with the heartfelt care of our team every step of the way.

Nihiwatu from the sea | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
Nihiwatu from the sea | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu

Nihi Sumba Island is in a very remote location. How does that affect and aid your wellness programme? Sumba’s remote location contributes to the experience in powerful ways. We are disconnected from everyday distractions that pull you out of the present moment. Instead, you may find yourself lost in moments of awe gazing out at a breathtaking sunset, soothed by the ongoing sound of the Indian Ocean and reconnected to a feeling of wildness that for many of has been buried deep down. It’s a healing environment for your body, mind and soul.

Nihi Sumba Island (Nihiwatu) was voted World’s Best Hotel by Travel + Leisure, and consistently tops ‘best of’ lists. How has this affected the resort? It’s certainly garnered a lot of positive attention for us, and brought in a higher volume of luxury travel enthusiasts and agents in the last year and a half since I’ve joined. We were all quite humbled to win the award for the second consecutive year, as it really felt like the magnifying glass was on after the first year, and Nihi did prove to live up to the hype.

Despite that, we still maintain our core family of repeat guests that treat Nihi Sumba Island like a second home. It will always cater to a more adventurous type of traveller—those that appreciate rugged luxury and are willing to go off the beaten path for a truly unique experience.

Mary Tilson | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
Mary Tilson | Image courtesy of Fiona Peters

How does Nihi Sumba Island balance high-end luxury with the natural surroundings and local area? It’s an interesting dance, but it’s what I’ve been most impressed by with Nihi. The Mamole Treehouse is a shining example—three luxury villas placed on bamboo stilts, situated just high enough in the trees to get a perfect aerial view of the Indian Ocean. The rest of our villas draw inspiration from traditional Menara style rooftops, so from a distance walking along the beach, you could easily mistake the resort for a small Sumbanese village.

The Sumbanese people are at the heart of everything we do, and the cross-cultural relationships formed here are regularly pointed to as the highlight of guests’ experience. Our partnership with the Sumba Foundation enables us to offer further education about the hardships on the island without being pushy and also create opportunities to give back.

The retreat offers ‘wild fitness’. What exactly is this, and what can guests expect? Although we recently added new gym facilities, we try to encourage guests to break a sweat in ways that will also allow them to experience the surroundings—jungle trekking to hidden waterfalls, surfing Nihi’s famous left hand break, or flowing through a powerful vinyasa yoga class on our hilltop pavilion are a few examples.

Do you have a lot of surfing guests, and do you include this in your wellness programme? Absolutely, Nihi will always be highly sought after by the surfing community because of the exclusive access to the waves out front. Yoga is an excellent complement to surfing because of the physical benefits, as well as the ability to deepen your connection to your breath and keep the nervous system in a calm and relaxed state. I see a lot of surfers in group classes as well as private lessons.

Surfer's paradise | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu
Surfer’s paradise | Image courtesy of Nihiwatu

Is Sumba the new Bali? As much as I love Bali, I wouldn’t personally make that connection. For one, Sumba and Bali have vastly different cultures. In terms of the risk of being overrun by tourism, I’m hopeful that the few businesses that have started up in addition to Nihi will continue to demonstrate the same commitment to preserving the environment and culture. We have an incredible organisation that we partner with called the Sumba Hospitality School that we expect to make a very positive impact on the island and tourism moving forward.

What are the most beneficial healthy habits that frequent travellers can adopt in their everyday lives? Developing a personal practice is essential. Even if it just means taking 10-15 minutes to practice mindfulness, connect with your body, and breathe, it can make all the difference. So many of the people I see on retreat have allowed stress to accumulate to such a degree—physically, mentally and emotionally, that by the time they reach their holiday, it’s difficult to truly wind down. My goal is to share a feeling of wellness that can be experienced anywhere, anytime.

Get an insight into Nihiwatu’s blissful island paradise on Instagram @nihiwatu.

Book the Wild & Free retreat with Sjana and Rod here.

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Rebecca Cairns

Editor & CCO

Hong Kong-based writer and editor Rebecca Cairns helped develop Compare Retreats from concept to creation as founding editor and has formerly written on travel and wellness with Hong Kong Tatler and The Culture Trip. Her editorial work has taken her all around the world and she is a qualified NASM personal trainer and an avid runner. When she's not travelling, she's planning her next trip, taking hikes to the beach or scribbling away in boutique coffee shops. You can follow her travels on Instagram @jetsetcreate.


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