Pilates Style
Sagrada Pilates

Mindful exercise is only one element of this Mexican wellness center’s sacred healing

By Suzanne Gerber

At 7,000 feet of elevation, doing Pilates in an open-air studio and gazing out at views like these, it’s hard not to feel high. Our small group of retreaters has settled onto our mats, with ladder arcs, therabands, foam rollers and Magic Circles at our sides, waiting for STOTT-certified instructor Nicole Currie to begin the morning’s session. Even in summer the morning air is cool and crisp—cool enough that Nicole has lit a fire to keep us toasty.

Several people in the class have never done been Pilates before, and since each class during the five-day retreat will build on the previous, Nicole starts us off slowly. We focus on the breath as she explains Pilates fundamentals to the newbies and encourages experienced practitioners to go more deeply into the basics that they may be taking for granted. I always find it enlightening to listen to a new instructor as if I’ve never done Pilates before. Each one brings a unique perspective, and I never fail to learn something from their different ways of watching my body and making corrections.

The theme of the next five days is connection: to our core, to the others in the group, to the healthy local food, to the beauty and stillness of the architecture and landscape that stretches out in a 360-degree sphere. There will be hours of Pilates, yoga, hiking, massages and facials and amazing meals –but mostly there will be laughing, sharing, and this kind of connecting.

Quien, Lo Que, Donde, Cuando, Por Que?

Sagrada Wellness Center is perched in the antiplano hills that overlook the 16th-century Mexican Colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, known for its extraordinary Gothic cathedral, fine arts and crafts, and vibrant expat community. (Up to 10 percent of the city’s residents are American, Canadian or European, and the population continues to grow.) Though only six miles away as the crow flies, Sagrada feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of city life. A big part of its charm comes from the family who own and operate it: husband-and-wife team Scott Currie and Eva Inglizian, and Scott’s sister, Nicole.

Like the New York State Lottery slogan, it all started with a dollar and a dream. Though the three native Californians were all on different career paths, each had a vision of pooling their talents and creating a lifestyle connected to nature. Scott is an architect with a minor in environmental studies and an abiding commitment to sustainable building. Eva, whose mother is Mexican, is a licensed acupuncturist and an incredible vegetarian cook. Nicole is a dancer and certified Pilates and yoga instructor. At first Eva alone was sold on Mexico. But after living here only a short while, Scott fell under its spell. A search for property serendipitously led to this place, which they’ve been living on and cultivating for almost four years.

Guests come to Sagrada from across the border, from overseas, or from just six miles away, to slow down, relax, recover, and heal. While anyone can do this anytime, those wanting to do Pilates will want to time their visit to one of the Pilates and yoga retreats, held almost monthly. (See “Informacion” box at end.) Even if you come intending to take every class, you will find yourself sorely tempted to do otherwise. It’s not a packed schedule; there is no fitness center, no formal spa or even long menu of treatment options. But you’d still be hard-pressed to do everything in a week.

El Dia Uno

The first full day begins, as they all will, with a fresh and delicious breakfast in the main building, the Adobe la Mesita. Painted earthenware serving dishes cram a communal table, and guests serve themselves. Each morning there’s juice, a super-creamy local yogurt (without gelatin), fresh fruit, granola, hard-boiled eggs, toast, coffee and tea. Our group was keen on hiking, so Nicole moved breakfast up and yoga back a little to allow for a 90-minute hike. Some days we walked along the gravel road that rings the property, overflowing with several species of majestic cacti. We were surprised to learn that this humble trail is actually part of the old Camino Real, the so-called royal road that led from Mexico City to Santa Fe. The sweeping panoramas take your breath away much more than brisk hiking in thin mountain air.

Back in the studio, Nicole leads us through a gentle yoga session. At least it starts out that way. Seated Pranayama (breathwork) is followed by easy stretches and lying and seated poses. Halfway through we stand, and she teaches Sun Salutation and the three Warrior poses, always mindful that some people have never done yoga while others have a regular practice. She gives us options to work more or less intensely and makes sure everyone is getting the nuts and bolts since this, too, will build each day.

After 75 minutes in the Mexican heat, we’ve worked up a bit of a shvitz—and an appetite—so no one dawdles back to the Adobe la Mesita. Lunch is also served buffet-style. There’s no menu and each day offers new surprises. And each meal you swear is your new favorite, until the next one. The produce is fresh and excellent, as are the hot peppers, herbs, grains and cheeses that make up the bulk of the dishes. Tortillas are hand-pounded and cooked the old-fashioned way, on a mesquite grill, by one of the worker’s mamacita. Today’s meal is a veggie-and-bean soup and two cheese “logs”: one is goat with local figs and jalapeno, the other cream cheese with Mexican plum and jalapeno, with a loaf of fresh-baked bread. During the week, we will feast on incredible soups and salads, eggplant parmesan, Vietnamese spring rolls with fresh herbs from the garden and possibly the best of the best, Eva’s chile relleno. Trust me, this is unlike any other chile relleno you’ve ever had, anywhere.

After lunch, we have two and a half hours to ourselves, and it’s hard to pick the perfect activity. Have an acupuncture session with Eva in my wonderful little cabana (a whole-body treatment or a facial-rejuvenation), get a traditional or an Ayurvedic massage, or just park my carcass in a hammock and read. It would’ve helped to have booked a treatment ahead of time, so I stroll the grounds with two of the resident perros, Carlos and Maxine, in tow, and discover all sorts of amazing succulents and cacti growing. The light at this time of day is incredible, so surreal, so I run back for my camera and shoot the first of 200 frames.

When 3:30 rolls around, I’m ready to get my blood circulating again. Nicole has already set up the mats and props for Pilates class. Today she leads us through a mat class, making use of the ladder arc, foam roller and Circle. Back home I take private lessons, mostly on apparatus, so it’s nice to be part of a class again, flowing from one exercise to another, working at my own level, challenging myself with stability, concentration and proper alignment—particularly on the roller. I like Nicole’s cueing style: good clear images, with just a hint of the yoga teacher reminding us to focus inward and not be competitive or judgmental. After 75 minutes, we segue into a restorative-yoga class, where we use blankets, blocks and bands to get into seven or eight poses, which we hold for maybe five minutes apiece. I love this slow deep work, especially the last asana: Sivasana, or corpse pose, in which we lie prone and still as Nicole leads us through a guided relaxation.

The hour before dinner is magical, as the sun takes cover behind the hills and casts eerily long shadows. There’s a golden hue, and a softness, and the bird and insect calls seems louder and more urgent. Before dinner, our colorfully clad group gathers in the main building for cocktail hour. Every night offers red and white Chilean wine, as well as the margarita du jour and some kind of information session. Tonight we learn about (then sample) prickly-pear margaritas, made from a common cactus fruit they call tuna (no relation to the fish) and which is sweet and tart—and indescribably delicious. Scott guides into the kitchen and teaches us to make real salsas, only one of which is tomato-based. Fresh and dried hot peppers are the star ingredients; others include tomatillo onion and garlic. Tonight’s dinner is my idea of the perfect meal: The salsas are brought to the table along with guacamole and those fresh tortillas, rice and beans, string cheese from the nearby state of Oaxaca, sliced jicama, followed by a platter of one of Eva’s almost-famous desserts: gluten-free brownies and blondies.

Tranquilo y pacifico 

After a few days of inspiring Pilates and yoga, I’m curious about Nicole’s background. I learn that she graduated from Berkeley with a degree in mass communication and journalism and only a minor in dance. After that, she did an intensive training with yoga masters Ganga White and Tracy Rich at their Santa Barbara ashram, White Lotus. “It was my first of many trainings,” she says, “but it helped me begin to find my own voice as a teacher.” Following that, she studied at Yogaworks in Los Angeles. “As a dancer, I came from the physical, but over the years have gotten into the spiritual. Now I see all my work as part of a lifelong journey.”

In 2001, she moved to Manhattan to study modern dance and ballet at New York’s University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Part of her training involves daily classes with Pilates Elder Kathy Grant, a brilliant teacher and one of only two people whom Joseph Pilates personally certified. Then, as so often is the case, her four hours of daily rehearsing and performing led to “unhappy hips and back”—and a stress fracture. She saw a spine specialist, who advised, “You better do Pilates and yoga the rest of your life and be careful not to overdo the dance.” So she sought out physical therapy and twice-weekly private sessions with Kathy Grant for two years. “When I first went, I told her I was there to work on my weak ankle, and she said, ‘We’ll start with your core before we move to the extremities.’ At first I thought of Pilates enhancing my dancing and my yoga, but now I’m seeing more and more how interconnected they are,” Nicole continues. “If, for example, you want a good solid standing pose, you have to have a good alignment and strong core.”

These days she has a day job back in L.A.: teaching dance, yoga and Pilates at Beverly Hills High. But every school break she hops a plane to San Miguel and leads a retreat at her spiritual home in the hills. Over the next year or two she’d like to move here permanently and run regular Pilates and yoga retreats. But for now, she leads eight or 10 a year, and other types of retreats (East-West medicine, yoga, Ayurveda, cooking and language classes) fill the calendar.

Arquitectura verde

Somewhere in there I got my acupuncture session with Eva, who’s as gifted with needles as she is with a food processor. Her father is a psychologist and emergency room doctor, so the healing arts are in her blood. She’s passionate about a healthy lifestyle, and sends all retreat participants home with a sheet of suggestions for optimal health and well-being. I had a lengthy energy and bodywork session with a powerful healer who lives in San Miguel named Gray Wolf.  He ran two schools in the states until he had a vision to give away the lucrative business to his protégés and move to Mexico. He’s been here 5 years doing just that.

Friday night we all pile into the traditional sauna: a small room inside a stone building where they heat up stones and add sticks and herbs. First we slather on avocado-and-honey masks. David Johansen’s “Hot Hot Hot” plays like a loop in the back of my overheated brain, but I stick it out nearly half an hour. Sweating is a tradition in most native cultures, to purify the soul as well as the body. Contemporary healers recognize it as one of the few ways to purge the body of heavy metals and other toxins—not to mention get baby-butt-smooth skin.

And feel healed I did—but not just through Pilates, yoga, healthy food, acupuncture or even Scott’s architectural tour of San Miguel (that included shopping and cervezas at a bar made famous by On the Road author Jack Kerouac). Just strolling Sagrada’s grounds and expanding into the spaciousness that Scott’s architecture creates was a small miracle. His vision and talent (and good local help) make it look simple, but it took a lot of planning. He was committed to using all natural materials like stone and mud, and clay and sand to make heat-efficient abode bricks, which all the cabanas are built from. Building locations were chosen to have minimal impact on the fragile desert. He and Eva implemented a gray-water system and installed solar panels for renewable energy. “My goal here was to be as sustainable as possible, to create a bold architecture that isn’t aggressive to the environment,” says Scott. “Working with this light, this landscape, these rocks, shadows and mountains is an architect’s dream.”

Designing the 6 cabanas was only half the challenge; the other was framing the views and the cacti. “I had some sleepless nights,” he recalls. “I’d lay there and think, That foundation we’re digging has to be changed 15 degrees! But that’s the beauty of Mexico: You’re not married to the drawing.” He and Eva shared a vision for the interiors: minimalist with simple materials, firm comfortable beds with great linens, and letting the views being the stars of every room (so no art on the walls). All the wood is recycled, the tiles came from old haciendas. And every detail was locally crafted, from the rugs to the windows—even the floors were done the traditional pulido way: mixing concrete with different tints and pouring in four different layers so all the various hues show through.

Hasta la Vista

The week comes to end, and no one is ready to pack up and leave. Email addresses are exchanged, photos taken, recipes painstakingly copied into notebooks. Our skin is smooth and taut, as are our muscles, and hopefully some of that air has seeped into our clothes and won’t come out in the wash. It’s been a week of simple pleasures and valuable experiences. I realize that at the end of every retreat, everyone always says they’ll be back. Yet there’s something about this place—maybe the cool dry air, the towering cacti and flaming flora, or the spirits on the whistling wind—that’s gotten under my skin, and when I say hasta la vista to Scott and Eva and Nicole, I know I mean it.