Living an Inspired Life: Deborah Szekely

Deborah Szekely was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 3, 1922. She was raised in New York City, Tahiti and Marin County California. Her multi-faceted career has spanned several decades and has encompassed a variety of achievements in the modern health and fitness movement, government and philanthropy.

In 2010, Deborah founded Wellness Warrior, an internet-based initiative. The mission of Wellness Warrior is to promote sustainable living as a part of a national wellness movement that increases awareness, empowers personal action, and advocates for human and environmental health.

One Wellness Warrior's latest projects is to build a website that will track wellness-oriented bills in Congress and rate every member in Congress on their votes and support of wellness policy. As you can imagine, this is a grand – and important – undertaking. The Wellness Warrior team is 75% funded on this special project and they could use your help to reach their goal. Join BuDhaGirl in our efforts to help fund PolicyWell: click here to donate. Let’s work together to achieve a healthier nation for all.

BuDhaGirl: How did your unconventional upbringing influence your life’s work in the health and wellness realm?

Deborah Szekely: I was born in Brooklyn 94 years ago to immigrant Jewish parents. From the age of eight to twelve, my family lived on a beach in Tahiti. We were there because my mother had us leave Brooklyn in search of fresh foods and a healthier lifestyle. She was the vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society, and during the Depression we couldn’t find many fresh fruits and vegetables in the city other than bunches of bananas that she ripened in the basement.

In Tahiti, I learned how to cook on a wood-burning stove, fish, carry drinking water, live with no bathroom but an outhouse…and raise vegetables in abandoned dug-out canoes so that the crabs wouldn’t eat our crops. These camping skills became vitally important when I married Edmond Szekely. I was 18. Edmond was the author of “Cosmos, Man and Society”—essentially a bible of how to live a life of optimal health. Our family met him in Tahiti and later attended some of his health camps after we moved back to the U.S. He was in the habit of welcoming followers to these camps each summer. His locations had included Jamaica, Tamaulipas (Mexico), and Elsinore (California). We were about to hold another camp in Elsinore, but his visa expired (he had a Romanian passport) and the Romanian army ordered him to report to duty in the early days of World War II. We fled to Mexico, found a remote valley near San Diego, and told all his followers that there had been a change of plans—would they join us in Tecate, Baja California? Because there were no facilities whatsoever, we charged only $17.50 a week and asked them to bring their own tents and help with chores for two-and-a-half hours out of each day. It was a true camp. There was nothing there! And yet I was prepared.

BDG: As a pioneer in the health and wellness movement, what other activists were you inspired by?

DS: My first mentor was my mother. She was what we proudly called then a "health nut" (and I'm proud to say that I'm still one myself). She introduced our family to vegetarianism. She knew other early activists like Bernarr Mcfadden, a publisher and a proponent of the vegetarian diet, fasting, body building, and other health regimens—some of them extreme. He was quite famous then, but I doubt if many people today would even recognize the name. And of course my husband, Edmond, was a true visionary with an international reputation.  

BDG: Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door were some of the firsts of their kind. How did you come up with the concept for these destination spas? What was your vision for them and why was it important for you to establish them?

DS: As I explained, Rancho La Puerta was not really a concept but a necessity. My husband was the reason the guests came: they were already his students and had read his book. We called him “The Prof”—short for professor—and he lectured every day, wrote, and met with the guests for consultations. The day we arrived we started a vegetable garden. We had no money. We cooked and ate under these huge, wonderful, welcoming oak trees that created an archway...a “la puerta.” Everything happened there under these trees. The word “organic” probably didn’t exist at that time in reference to food, but fresh is fresh. We had goats right away and made our own cheese.

Edmond couldn’t return to the U.S., so we waited out the war, always with the idea that we were going to England afterwards. But at war’s end, England was beat down, so we stayed in Tecate, welcoming more and more guests and printing a monthly newsletter with transcripts of Edmond’s lectures. Our 100 subscribers were our lifeblood. The Prof kept the guests busy each day, exercising, attending his lectures, helping with chores. I did everything else. I had a 20-year apprenticeship, so to speak. The Ranch was where I grew up. Our popularity grew. I found myself listening to some of our Ranch guests who kept telling us they'd like a smaller spa with more individual attention. The Ranch was “too big.” They remembered the old days when they had more one-on-one attention. So the Golden Door was the logical next step. It was soon attracting a clientele that included everyone from movie stars getting ready for their next role to women who desired a week-long retreat.

As I said, their concepts were more of necessity than vision. Still, both spas have always centered on eating the freshest organic foods, exercising daily, being in the midst of nature, and learning, always learning. We came to inspire the term “destination spa.”

BDG: What can people do every day in order to live a healthier life? What are common practices that people DO daily that might be compromising their health and wellness?

DS: Number one: get to know yourself. Who am I ? Why am I here? What am I doing? Where am I in my lifespan? If you don’t ask questions you won’t find the answers.

Number two: when are you truly with yourself? I advocate spending 20 minutes when you wake up each morning without TV, radio, or cell phone. Do nothing but perhaps shower and brush your teeth. Don’t let the outside world in. When else do you have time for yourself? Stop the chatter. It’s not meditating--it’s just time for yourself when you first wake up. 

[A common practice that concerns me is] portion control. We live in a time when most Americans are barely cooking at home, and when they go out, they are served meals that are far too large. Calorie reduction is the only proven method of prolonging any organism's lifespan, but irregardless of living a longer life, this restaurant trend toward huge portions is contributing to the obesity epidemic, depletion of agricultural and natural resources, and an epidemic of waste. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are experiencing hunger.

BDG: Why is mindfulness important to you? What actions do you take everyday in order to be in the present?

DS: I spoke of my morning rituals, which are essentially mindfulness. At night? My nightstand is usually occupied by Thich Nhat Hanh's marvelous books, which I read if I wake up.  

BDG: In 2010 you founded Wellness Warriors. What inspired you to begin Wellness Warriors? How can people become involved with this grassroots organization?

DS: o be honest, I was initially inspired by the "Arab spring" uprising fueled by social media. I thought, "What if Americans suddenly rose up against Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Monsanto's, and all the other health injustices imposed on our society in the name of higher production and profits. I envisioned a kind of "million man" march on the Mall by all those who value health and are appalled at the way our bodies are forced to contend with all manner of unseen and unknown hazards that are totally UNnatural to the human organism--and any others. We soon realized that there would be no sudden uprising. That's when Wellness Warrior decided to fight the longer battle: one of education, demanding more and more of our elected officials, and personal action.

The newest Wellness Warrior effort is "PolicyWell": a comprehensive way to track all important health and wellness bills in committee, and for you to know how your representative either supports or opposes the wellness movement. Again and again we hear of another environmental disaster, whether it’s an oil pipeline breaking, a chemical plant leaking into a  river, or an entire city losing its drinking water supply. Frankly, the health of all will become the will of all soon enough. 

BDG: Spas are more than a place for relaxation and indulgence, but a way to achieve ultimate balance. How can a balance of mind, body, and spirit be created in a spa? Are there ways to recreate a “spa experience” at home?

DS: You cannot recreate a true spa experience at home. It’s about being away...absent from your daily life. That’s the key. Spa is an absence of routine in a beautiful place. The experience doesn’t even have to take place in a “spa,” per se. It can be a summer visit to a camp or cabin...just as relaxing as a spa. Spa is also about companionship. Being amongst people with like-minded interests and goals. This makes it difficult to experience at home. Just having a masseuse come in, or taking a long bath, is not a re-creation of the spa experience. But it is relaxing, especially a fine massage. I thinking obsessing over finding some ultimate balance of mind, body and spirit is over-reaching.

Ultimate? The word it even possible? Ultimate balance is a lifetime goal, and even then wishful thinking. Balance always begins with allowing the body to move and the mind to be active, and providing the fuel they need to do so. Without movement, obviously, we're on a path to illness and an untimely early death. That's why a "destination spa" incorporates fitness, food, therapies, and learning into a kind of symphony of balance.

BDG: Organic foods, destination spas, meditation… What’s the next great health frontier?

DS: Recognizing that there are no miracles! And, as I said early in our talk, the formula is simple; eat less, move more. Be aware of how much you eat and quality rather than quantity. Recently I was in Italy where we ate and ate, and lost weight. Meals were savored, always made with the freshest ingredients, and quite often vegetarian even though no one proclaimed themselves a vegetarian.

BDGWhat projects are you working on currently?

DS: The first of my two passions right now is the New Americans Museum in San Diego. I founded it to celebrate and honor the courage of those who came to America after World War II seeking a better life, and telling the stories behind how they found their path here to becoming contributing, productive citizens. The museum is much more than a gallery space with exhibitions: we sponsor community events, student essay contests, and oral history projects. We appreciate diversity. Very important: we’re not a museum of the past, but of the present and the future.

And then there’s shifting this country’s belief that portions should be huge, which I’ve mentioned. Let’s solve the problem of how much we eat, and then we can move on to what we eat, and how, and all the other details. I think portion control is that important.

BDGAs the “Godmother of Wellness,” what are your favorite words of wisdom?

DS: It’s impossible to say. So many of my favorite books are all marked up, but I can’t pick one quote as a favorite. I have a very simple personal practice. I inhale peace. I exhale love. It puts me to sleep in no time!


Read more about Deborah Szekely, Wellness Warriors and PolicyWell.