~ Jul 08 Wellness Profile: Deborah Szekely, Founder of the Fitness Spa Movement

Kyle Roderick

Founding Rancho la Puerta

Toned and fit, Deborah Szekely (pronounced "zay-kay") strides across the artfully landscaped grounds of Rancho la Puerta, North America's first fitness spa. Having co-founded this health resort just across the US border in Tecate, Mexico, with her late husband Edmond 66 years ago, Szekely has spent a lifetime pioneering several health and fitness revolutions, and she looks the part.

At 85, Szekely does Pilates two or three times a week and frequently swims in the spa's outdoor pools. She also hikes around the Ranch's 3,000 acres, which trail through desert brush, oak groves, dirt roads, and the six-acre organic farm "Tres Estrellas" (Three Stars) that feeds the guests. Here, fruits, herbs, and vegetables thrive beneath Mount Kuchumaa, a mountain considered sacred by native North Americans.

"I've been taking Life Extension vitamins for decades," says Szekely, on her way back from a walk around the property. "I must be one of their original customers. Even though we've always grown our own organic food at the Ranch," Szekely continues, "vitamins and natural supplements have long played an integral part in my diet."

Vintage silver Mexican earrings and necklaces cast a radiant glow around her face as she notes, "I've always read the Life Extension magazine and find the articles on health conditions and supplement research very informative."

Raised by fruitarian (pursuing a vegan diet comprising ripe fruits of plants and trees) parents who chose to ride out the Great Depression in Tahiti, Szekely was primed for a path-finding life in the health and fitness world. She and her late husband Edmond, a scholar, author, and educator, chose their Tecate location because of its excellent climate for agriculture and suitability for living a nature-based, outdoor-oriented life. "We were seriously into health food and environmental sustainability before those concepts ever existed in the popular mind," she says with a laugh. "We grew our own vegetables and fruits, collected eggs from our chickens, made cheese from goats' milk, and raised our two children here."

Bringing Yoga to North America

Back in 1940, a week-long stay at the Ranch cost just $17.50. As Szekely fondly recalls, "From day one I was secretary, chef, housekeeper, and activities/exercise director. At its most primitive, early-1940s' level, my day consisted of trying to cope with 35 guests who interrupted my other work. That's when I first began to make up guest schedules: the original ones being basic directives such as, "Sunbathe briefly at 10 am. Work in the garden for one hour before the midday sun." Szekely inadvertently established the pattern of today's spa schedule, in which an active class period invariably follows one of passive exercise or rest.

Guests brought their own tents and had to haul firewood and do compulsory kitchen duty, such as chopping vegetables, preparing meals, or cleaning up. Nature hikes and modern dance classes rounded out the schedule, along with yoga.

A Lifetime of Life Extension

Deborah Szekely has been supplementing her organic food diet with Life Extension vitamins since the company's inception. She also keeps up-to-date on nutritional supplement research by reading the magazine's evidence-based medical reports. Here's an overview of supplements she takes and why.

"Along with a daily multivitamin and multimineral, I take daily omega-3-6-9 fatty acids contained in EPA/DHA formulas," she says. Szekely is also keen on supplemental bone-building nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and 1,000 mg of vitamin D per day. For extra digestive help, she takes papaya enzymes when needed.

Alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10 help stoke Szekely's energy stores. Brain-specific nutrients such as lecithin, extra vitamin E, and phosphatidylserine, plus circulation-promoting ginkgo biloba are also part of her plan.

"Depending on the season, I may take extra vitamin C and echinacea and other herbs for immunity," she says. "The secret is to tune into your body and listen closely so that you can figure out how to support it in all weather and personal circumstances."

Besides Life Extension magazine, Szekely recommends checking out the US government's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). "Here you will find research papers on how acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, supplements, vitamins, minerals, and homeopathic substances may help remedy various health conditions," she says.

One of the first places anywhere in North America to teach the ancient Indian philosophy and physical practice of Hatha yoga, the Ranch offered classes by yogis such as Indra Devi. Devi had studied with the Indian yoga master Krishnamacharya, who saved many ancient yoga traditions from oblivion by documenting and teaching practices she learned from aging 19th and 20th century yogis. Through her Ranch classes, Devi taught many Americans who later became yoga teachers.

Healthy Cooking

Today at the Ranch, prices for a weekly visit start in the thousands and guests can choose from several different daily yoga and meditation classes taught by yogis such as Stephen Brown and Baron Baptiste. There are frequent evening lectures and informal talks on subjects such as alternative and complementary medicine, nutritional supplementation for improving immunity and well-being, meditation, eco-tourism, and indigenous Mexican art.

Today, guests are exempt from kitchen chores and since they hail from over thirty countries, opportunities for fascinating conversation arise every day. Luminaries like supermodel Claudia Schiffer, television journalist Bill Moyers, and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stay in comfortably appointed Mexican casita-like rooms or cottages. The secluded oak groves, meditative ponds, and extensive grounds were landscaped by Szekely's daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood.

In the early years, the Ranch menu was strictly vegetarian. Today, fresh fish and seafood are served, along with deliciously seasoned, artfully styled organic produce. It's a far cry from the early days, when Szekely baked crackers in the sun made from hand-ground sprouted grains and prepared Ranch bread in wood-burning ovens. "When I wasn't teaching fitness classes, running other Ranch programs, or caring for my children," she fondly recalls, "I was often in the kitchen teaching guests how to "de-calorize" their favorite foods so that they could enjoy low-fat, delicious meals at home."

For decades, the demand among guests for cooking classes has been high. In July 2007, Szekely realized a long-time dream by opening the spa world's first-ever free-standing spa cooking school, "La Cocina Que Canta," meaning "The Kitchen That Sings." Fittingly, it is sited in the middle of the Tres Estrellas organic farm. State-of-the-art culinary equipment is used in hands-on demonstrations and cooking sessions, where everyone learns the techniques behind a great "Mexican Mediterranean" meal before sitting down to their fresh-from-the-garden feast.

"I want people to feel self-assured in their kitchens at home, and secure in their knowledge of food," says Szekely. "Our goal is for them to leave knowing how to create recipes, or adapt their family favorites, into a cuisine that embodies a vibrant way of life."

World Heritage sites in Oaxaca, Michoacan, and the famous art colony of San Miguel de Allende, north of Mexico City, inspired the school's sun-washed walls, hand-hewn open-beam ceilings, elaborately carved wooden doors, hand-painted tiles, and custom stonework.

Honoring its Mexican heritage as well as the bird songs that serenade its students, La Cocina comprises 4,500 square feet, featuring a large classroom/kitchen, cookbook library, and culinary gift shop. In the classroom/kitchen looking out on patios and vistas adorned with stone fountains, colorful flowers and sweetly fragrant wisteria vines, guests enjoy a progressive series of hands-on classes followed by delicious meals. The school also offers an à la carte program of shorter, individual classes. A New Approach to Cooking

"I founded La Cocina Que Canta because so many of our guests have been asking for help in upgrading their eating habits and cooking skills. Cooking and eating should be physically and emotionally nurturing," Szekely says. "Yet many of our guests experience eating and cooking as sources of stress, guilt, and shame."

For 66 years, Szekely continues, "Our guests have been coming from all over the globe to expand their minds, lose weight, shape up, and strengthen mind/body balance. It's not just Americans who overeat, struggle with anorexia, or never learn how to cook," she continues. "People from all over the industrialized world share these problems because they're all living a lifestyle that they describe as stressed or too busy. They eat a lot of microwaved foods, take out or fast food, and don't always eat a diet that meets their nutritional needs," she says.

Like many people who struggle with weight issues, Ranch guests often tell Szekely that they rarely feel fulfilled by their meals and believe they are bad cooks. "I meet guests every week who tell me that their mother never cooked and never taught them how to shop for fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and other healthy staples," says Szekely. "In our classes, men and women learn how to shop for delicious, affordable foods and prepare easy meals that taste as good as the gourmet spa fare that we serve." You can savor the Ranch's delicious cuisine in your own home by logging on to www.rancholapuerta.com and clicking on the Recipes section.

Daily classes and special cooking workshops are led by the Ranch's executive chef, Jesús González, as well as visiting experts. Cooking students also visit the organic farm and learn how to grow edible landscapes from the farmers there. "Anyone can grow a kitchen herb garden," Szekely says. "By visiting our organic farm, guests learn how to grow their own food. This is a crucial step in culinary independence and holistic living."

Recent La Cocina workshops have been led by Deborah Madison, who was the founding chef at San Francisco's celebrated "Greens" restaurant and is the author of acclaimed cookbooks such as Vegetable Soups and The Greens Cookbook. Spa cuisine experts such as Michel Stroot, former executive chef at the "Golden Door," also frequently lead classes and give lectures and "teach-ins" on how to shop for food and prepare it the spa way.

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