Eat, Pray, Flu: How Sigrid Olsen helped me feel better
I’m in Mexico, lying on a white sand beach. The Caribbean Sea is lapping at the shoreline of the Yucatan Peninsula, the sky is as blue as the water, and everything hurts.
Later, much later, I awake in my casita, a small, white-washed hut a few steps from the beach. It’s midnight and I’m wringing wet, cold sweat saturating the front of my yoga tank. I feel like I’ve been hit by a taco truck. The flu, I think. On a wellness retreat.
The Power of Positive Women
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
A Sigrid Olsen Creative Wellbeing Retreat. Seven days in January at the Shambala Petit Hotel & Yoga Retreat in the otherworldly city of Tulum, a 4,000-year-old Mayan civilization-turned-holistic-outpost 90 minutes south of Cancun.
It was going to be a chance to relax and reconnect with myself — all the usual reasons why women in their mid- 30s take Elizabeth Gilbert-ian sabbaticals.
It would also be a chance to reconnect with Olsen, the 65-year-old fashion designer, artist and entrepreneur whose backstory sounds like an Oprah SuperSoul Sunday segment. I’d interviewed her after she’d moved to Sarasota eight years ago following a series of personal and professional upheavals she documented in her 2018 memoir, Sigrid Olsen: My Life Redesigned.
I was in the mood for a redesign myself. My most recent day at a beach had entailed 45 minutes fighting for a parking spot on Pass-a-Grille while my kids begged for Doritos and fired empty Super Soakers at the back of my head. The prospect of meditating and journaling with a group of like-minded women had a distinct allure.
But when I wake in my casita on the third day, I’m not painting watercolor mandalas on the sand. I’m splayed out in a state of undress on my bed, having ripped off in the night my comforter and half of my sweat-soaked clothes.
Then Sigrid appears at the doorway. Effortlessly cool and preternaturally blonde, she’s dressed all in white, her flaxen mane pulled up in a messy bun. Her shirt reads “Love is My Religion” and she’s proffering an entire medicine cabinet’s worth of over-the-counter drugs: NyQuil, DayQuil, cough drops, decongestants and a bag of rice cakes. I accept the meds, unknowingly bare-chested, and grumble something about looking for an early flight back to St. Pete.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sigrid says, as sanguine and unruffled as a CEO outlining company benefits. “You’re in the best possible place to be sick. Just relax and join the rest of the group when you’re ready.”
Careful to not get too close to the bed, she floats out of the room like a celestial being backlit by the sun.
“Both kids are sick, too?” asks my roommate, Valerie Cox, a semi-retired financial advisor from New York City.
“Yes,” I sigh. “And my husband. I got a text from him this morning.”
“Well then,” she says in her curt New York accent. “No point in going home now.”
She and Sigrid are right. After all, I signed up for this retreat so I could feel better after struggling the previous year with depression, anxiety and rampant ADHD, for which I sought treatment for the first time in my life. I was here because the rigors of juggling work while caring for two feral boys had decimated my once palpable exuberance. Going home would make things worse.
“You know you’re going to get sick, right?” I say.
“Ah, don’t worry about me, sister,” Val says. “I got the flu shot.”
She hands me a cold beverage in a Big Gulp-sized cup loaded with ice. It’s a sea-foam green get-well elixir from an open-air Italian ristorante up the beach.
“The girls got you this drink on their walk today,” she says. “It’s loaded with ginger.”
She raises her eyebrows under the brim of her floppy sun hat — a nonverbal cue to button up before joining the rest of the women for breakfast. I take a swig of the green juice and for the first time in 48 hours I feel like I might actually get better.
The Pied Piper of Zen
So why has a motley crew of successful middle-aged women followed Sigrid Olsen to a Mexican yoga retreat?
Because — despite achieving mega success in the corporate fashion world — Sigrid has carved out the kind of humble, happy and accessible existence to which most women can only aspire. She honed her chops the old fashioned way, first as a free spirit weaving textiles in a cabin in the woods and bicycling to business meetings and then as a single mother steering a major clothing label that at its peak had 54 stores in malls across the country, in addition to a wholesale operation raking in $100 million in sales a year.
She launched her label in the early ’80s and sold it to Liz Claiborne in 1999 after achieving major success selling in department stores. She stayed on as creative director until the fashion conglomerate discontinued the brand in 2008 and shuttered all its Sigrid Olsen stores just three years after Sigrid had a double mastectomy for breast cancer.
“In one swift corporate pronouncement, my business was over, and I found myself, for the first time in my life, without a job,” Sigrid wrote in My Life Redesigned. “Luckily by nature, I’m an optimist. When faced with mayhem and drastic events, I’ve discovered the best way to endure change is to embrace it.”
So she reinvented herself as an artist, a narrative that has been chronicled over the years by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, O Magazine, In-Style and myriad glossy magazines. She relocated to Sarasota a few years after the Liz Claiborne fallout. I interviewed her for a local newspaper in 2011, shortly after she and her late husband, Curtis Sanders, had just opened a small downtown boutique dedicated to Sigrid’s watercolors, hand-printed ceramics and stationery.
The women in town were all atwitter when they saw her name over the little shop. Lady baby boomers, especially in Florida (home to Sigrid’s highest-grossing stores), recall with fondness and nostalgia the designer’s laid-back, beach-chic staples inspired by her early “boho days” etching birds, fish, flowers and the like into potato stamps.
But when shoppers realized they were getting Sigrid 2.0 — a painting, meditating, yoga devotee contractually obligated to stay out of fashion due to a noncompete with Liz Claiborne — they weren’t so sure what to make of it.
“It’s like the Beastie Boys have come a long way in their careers, yet people still want them to sing ‘Fight For Your Right to Party,’” she said at the time of our interview.
But they soon paid attention, or maybe Sigrid gave them no choice.
Reenergized by her quieter, zen-er life, she launched a second passion project: her creative wellness retreats. The first one was held 10 years ago in Tulum at the Shambala. Since then she’s led dozens more in tucked-away refuges all over the world, including Provence, France, and Tuscany, Italy.
Although she’s never advertised the trips as women’s retreats, she can’t help but view them that way since no man has ever signed up.
“I guess I just understand more facets of a woman’s psyche, what makes their lives better,” says Sigrid. “Which is the crux of it really, to bring women together under specific curated circumstances … surrounding them with beauty and nature and have it be non-confrontational and supportive and creative and silly.
“I’ve watched the retreats change people’s lives. To have something that’s a result of your most authentic ideas and intentions actually work is empowering in a deeply fulfilling way.”
To the delight of her customer base, she reclaimed the use of her name in 2014 and began licensing a line of home decor to T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. In 2015, she rolled out her first clothing collection in years, a collaboration with the Home Shopping Network, followed by a collaboration with Dillards.
Her return to fashion is different this time, though. It’s about more than just clothes. It’s about a lifestyle and, at its nucleus, strong female friendships.
Six years ago, after her husband died, she felt the urge to get a large house on Siesta Key. The move coincided with transitional moments in several of her friends’ lives, too — including that of yoga instructor Jamie Coffey, who teaches at most of Sigrid’s retreats — so she invited them to live with her.
“At one point it was me, Jamie and two 20-somethings named Natalie,” Sigrid says. “We called it our ashram. It was one of the best times of my life.”
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Yoga Pants
I’m six days into the retreat, sitting on a yoga mat in a thatched-roof studio facing the sea. My voice is gone thanks to the flu, which turns out to be a blessing because it forces me to listen more than talk. With the exception of laryngitis, I’m nearly 100 percent better.
We’re supposed to have our eyes closed, but I can’t keep them off the sea. The sun is getting lower and pinker in the sky and the colors are intoxicating.
We’ve been instructed to ruminate on the week.
There was a reason I got sick. Yes, I needed a reprieve from second-grade math homework, bed-wetting, burned dinners and missed deadlines. But I also needed a reset, and sometimes the only way to spur new growth is to incinerate old growth.
When my fever finally broke I was able to bond with these women — all of them strangers and most of them older by decades — in a way that felt as natural and uproarious as going to sleep-away camp with my best friends.
I cackled more in one week than I had in a year, partly because we inherited a large stash of liquor that belonged to the Shambala’s previous guests, the son of a sheikh and his hard-partying friends, and partly because these women knew how to strike a balance between quiet repose and outright absurdity.
The advice I received never felt condescending or out of reach, even when it felt bizarre. I never questioned the validity of my 90-minute healing session with Sigrid’s stepsister, trained shaman Martha Abbot, who spat Florida water at my body, expelled energy blockages and summoned my spirit animals. Why wouldn’t shamanism work? We’re all vibrational beings made up of energy anyway. Isn’t that what the physicists say? Plus I’ve done much more ludicrous things to feel clearheaded.
There were late-night heart-to-hearts with Laura Proctor, a private chef from Sarasota whose cautionary tale about career burnout compelled me to turn down several assignments leading up to writing this piece.
There were words of encouragement from Carol Harlow-Carlson, a soon-to-be empty-nester from Boston, who convinced me I’m doing a bang-up job in the mom department even though I sometimes lose my kids in Target or let them handle hacksaws.
And then there was Val, gamely agreeing to boogie board with me, even though I got her sick, flu shot and all.
Sitting in that yoga studio and staring out at the sea while everyone else’s eyes were closed, I listen to Martha read a poem from David Whyte’s “River Flow.” I let the words sink into my skin:
“If only we knew as the carver knew, how the flaws in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core, we would smile too and not need faces immobilized by fear and the weight of things undone.”
I picture my stress-ridden days as stones. In my mind’s eye, I toss them into the sea and let them tumble away with the tide.
Martha continues: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea where voices meet, praising the features of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.”
I look around the studio at all the cross-legged figures on yoga mats and think, in silent meditation, Thank you for making me better.