The space where Malva Bee teaches her yoga meditation classes is framed with two stained glass windows that cast a soft glow over the students. A prayer well stands in the center of the grassy courtyard. Along the back wall, a table filled with offering candles stands before a statue of Christ the King.
This is not your average yoga studio. Rather, the class is conducted in the loggia of the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach, a sacred place whose roots lie in the northern Spanish city of Sacramenia, near Segovia, circa 1141.
“Close your eyes and feel this breath,” says Bee, as her students sit in the lotus position on jewel-toned mats, slowly inhaling and exhaling. “Visualize that a stream of light is coming to you — open your arms to embrace life and open your heart to embrace all the things that the universe has for you.”
When she rings a hand-held bell, the group chants, “Ommmmm,” the bell and their voices echoing off the stone walls.
A passerby does a double take of the class and snaps a quick photo on her iPad. It doesn’t deter the group.
Carmen Western, 66, of Sunny Isles Beach, has been a student of Bee’s for three years. She says, “It’s not a studio class where everyone is a number. Malva tailors each class to the group that's there that day. We’ve become a family.”
Before teaching at the monastery, Bee, 53, who was born and raised in Uruguay and moved to the United States in 1981, was the director of the Spa and Beach Club in Miami Beach, as well as director at The Ocean Club Spa in Key Biscayne. She's trained a plethora of celebrities, including Shakira and Robert DeNiro.
“I'm planning to teach yoga until I am 100,” she says, telling her charges to relax. “You are here to feel good. You are here to listen to your bodies’ messages. Your heart beats 100,000 times a day — make each beat count. Feel that pulse of life in your body, in your soul, and just be.”
She reminds them to breathe, saying, “We can only release internal tensions through breath.”
Marisa Rivera, 54, of Hallandale, has been attending Bee’s classes for more than six years.
“She teaches you to exercise the mind and body, which helps you connect to your center so you can remember what’s important in life. If you’re not balanced and centered, then it doesn’t matter how fit you are — you’re not complete.”
She and Bee have co-written a book together. While they have not decided on a title yet, the book is about “embracing life with what you have and beginning the journey to create your dreams.”
“You come to a mystical, magical place,” Rivera says of the setting, “not a gym with four walls.”
The setting, indeed, is unique. For nearly 700 years in Spain, generations of Cistercian monks prayed in the same area where the yoga classes now take place. In the 1830s, a civil war in Spain led to the monastery being seized, sold and converted into a granary and stable.
In 1925, William Randolph Hearst purchased the property. He had the walls dismantled, stone by stone, and had the pieces shipped to New York. It took more than 11,000 crates. Shortly thereafter, Hearst’s financial problems led to most of his collection being sold at auction. The crates remained in a warehouse in Brooklyn for 26 years until a year after Hearst’s death in 1952, when two entrepreneurs purchased the shipment to be used as a tourist attraction in South Florida.
It took 19 months and the equivalent of nearly $20 million (in today’s currency) to put the monastery back together. The tourist attraction ran for about 10 years before Robert Pentland Jr., a philanthropist and Episcopalian, purchased the property in 1964 and bequeathed it to the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.
Placing her palm against the stone walls of the cloister, Bee says with childlike wonder, “A thousand years from now our voices are going to be here — in these walls.”
She thinks out loud of the monks who dwelled within these structures for centuries. “It’s an honor and a miracle to have this place to offer my classes.”