Six Ways You Can Get Work Teaching at a Yoga Retreat

Six Ways You Can Get Work Teaching at a Yoga Retreat
28 April, 2017

Mary Tilson has “the dream job,” teaching year-round at tropical yoga retreats and world class luxury resorts. But she cautions that teaching at a yoga retreat is no vacation. It’s a job, and only a dream only if you have a passion for yoga and a desire to live a very different life.  

If Mary had a nickel for every time she heard, “You’re so lucky!” she’d be a very wealthy yoga teacher. But Mary doesn’t believe continuously finding work teaching at yoga retreats is luck.

Mary Tilson

Mary Tilson

It required her to risk leaving behind a stable corporate career in media planning to follow her heart, even if that meant walking barefoot into the next job in the jungle of Cambodia. She shared with us her story, including her focus on helping students develop daily habits that will extend beyond their retreat.

Minimalistic Lifestyle, Maximum Connections

Today, Mary spends most of her time living and working in Indonesia as the Yoga & Wellness Director of Nihiwatu Resort. But her first yoga retreat teaching stint was at the Hariharalaya Yoga Retreat in Cambodia.  

At the retreat, the owner discovered she was a yoga teacher, and asked her if she’d be interested in teaching a class. She liked the setting and the minimalistic lifestyle, and the owner liked her approach.  Soon, she was teaching full time.

Hariharalaya Yoga Retreat

Teaching at the Hariharalaya Yoga Retreat in Cambodia.

Mary began bartering teaching in exchange for food and lodging. It formed the blueprint for her future stints as a yoga retreat teacher, a lifestyle she says is not for everyone. “My friends say I’m so lucky,” she says. “Well, if your measure for a successful life is to have an apartment and a savings account,” she laughs, “then I definitely don’t have it all.”   

Not a Vacation: It’s Work, Seven Days a Week

It’s the shedding of many of the things we consider so essential for a “successful” life that allows Mary to pursue a rather nomadic existence. She’s a world traveler, who carries her belongings on her back.  When we interviewed her, she was on her way to Morocco, en route to Nicaragua.

Constantly emersed in yoga.

The travel and the experience are part of the lifestyle, but she assures us that this is not a vacation.  In the retreat setting, she is constantly immersed in yoga — from practicing in the morning to teaching classes during the day. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We usually work six days and get one day off,” she says of her current role at the resort. “But I am still practicing because I love yoga.”  It’s this passion that inspires her to teach more than just yoga at the retreats. It’s also about helping people developing habits that extend beyond the retreat.

Different Strokes for Different Retreats

There are all types of yoga retreats. Mary’s experience in Cambodia was immersive; a complete scaling back of distraction and deep-dive into the yogic lifestyle. There were no cell phones allowed, and people walked around barefoot.  

Minus distractions, people dealt with their internal issues, and it created unique bonds that Mary found immensely appealing.  “You connected with people in an authentic way,” she said.

When she left and taught at other retreats, she was a bit taken aback by how differently others approached the retreat. “I would see people at these fancy resorts, drinking wine,” she said. “I was thinking, oh my gosh, this is a yoga retreat?”

Habits That Extend Beyond the Retreat

Now the Wellness Director at the five-star Nihiwatu Resort, Mary has come to accept that people have different motivations for going on retreat, and is acknowledged for making her teaching accessible to a wide range of people.  But the one thing she hopes to inspire is that you don’t have to go on a retreat to live a mindful life.  


Mary teaching at Nihiwatu Resort.

“I am always working with people to develop their own personal practice that can lead into their own life,” she says.

What are the lessons Mary strives to teach? She shared with us several of her main goals.

Create a Mindful Routine That Can Be Used Back Home  

Mary acknowledges that people don’t always have two hours in the morning to practice yoga before they catch a train to work. However, you can develop a mindful routine  — even if it’s just 10 minutes a day.

Yandara Yoga Institute

Mary teaching at Yandara Yoga Institute.

Establish some basic yoga postures. Take time to breath and meditate.  “Buy back your own productivity,” Mary says. “Find time to focus every day.”

Eat mindfully

Mary extends mindfulness to mealtime.  She loves to encourage people on retreats to take a few breaths before eating. Close your eyes, pause, and eat in a healthy and mindful way.  “Nourish yourself in terms of what you’re eating,” she says.

Extend Mindfulness to the Digital Realm

As a former media planner in Chicago and a person currently active on social media, Mary still spends time on her phone. She’s careful not to “shame” people into a digital detox when they are on a retreat.

What she does encourage is a more mindful use of social media.  When you’re engaging in the digital realm, be mindful of it and use the experience in a positive way.

Use digital experiences in a positive way.

“When you’re with your phone, be with it 100% so once you’re finished, you can move on to the next task or person you are connecting to with full attention,” she says, “But don’t use it as a crutch when you’re with other people. Don’t have it at the table.”

How Can You Teach at a Yoga Retreat?

Other yoga teachers often express amazement at Mary’s “idyllic” lifestyle.  She believes it’s far more attainable than people think, but it’s also not quite the dream job that people think it to be.

If you are considering teaching at a yoga resort, she offers up the following six suggestions:

1. Accept that there won’t be a perfect opportunity

No resort will offer everything you want. Every job has its tradeoffs. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity — it will never come.

2. Create your own teaching position

Think outside the box — don’t look for a job at a resort. Instead, create an opportunity. Mary once visited a school in India, and began teaching young children in a village about mindfulness.  Use everything you’ve learned about Yoga to teach lessons that extend beyond the mat.

3. Think beyond currency

As Mary mentioned, she doesn’t have an overflowing bank account. What she does have is shelter, food and community — and for her, that’s enough. You can barter services in exchange for something beyond cash, especially with a simplistic retreat center.

As you build experience and align yourself in the right places, you will find there are plenty of opportunities to earn a significant income as well.

4. Be open to opportunity and the universe will provide

If you align yourself with what you want to do and it feels right, opportunities will present themselves.  Mary has always been open to opportunity and the chance to learn, including getting more yoga teacher training. As a result, she’s always found herself busy teaching.

Six Suggestions

5. Try it first  

Mary gave up everything she had back in Chicago, and she’s never been happier. But she acknowledges that life on a retreat is not for everyone.  She encourages to teach at a retreat for three months, and see how you feel.

6. Take your own students on an annual retreat

If you do like teaching at retreats, why not organize one of your own? Mary has a group of fellow yoga teachers in Chicago who organize an annual trip to Mexico. You can do the same.

Mary’s Goal: Helping People Take a Few Deep Breaths and Be Happy

For some, a retreat conjures up the notion of deep immersion and separation from the world. It can be that. It can also be an opportunity to be playful, get out in nature, experience different cultures, and try something new. Mary’s goal is to help you find what’s right for yourself.

Helping People Be Happy

“I don’t want people to feel challenged,” she said.  She aims to be accessible, to help her student take a few more deep breaths and enter a happy place within themselves.  As a teacher, you don’t need to emulate Mary’s lifestyle. Instead, she encourages you to find your own path.

“Yoga is about finding happiness with whatever you’re doing,” she says.  And as she said goodbye to us, on her way to her next exotic adventure, it’s obvious that Mary heeds her own advice.

Learn more about Yandara’s Yoga Teacher Training!

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