Celebrating 40 Years at The Ashram

The Ashram co-founders Catharina Hedberg and Anne-Marie Bennstrom

Feeling audacious and fearless, last summer I signed up for a week at The Ashram – seven days on a strict, low-calorie diet consisting of small portions, sans caffeine, sugar and alcohol. And on top of that 70 miles of hiking uphill. But there is an upside. The Ashram is situated in the middle of the pristine Santa Monica Mountains in Calabasas, California.

With an international clique of affluent clients, The Ashram co-founders – originally from Halmstad, Sweden – Catharina Hedberg and Anne-Marie Bennstrom are celebrating 40 years of success.

The Ashram was established in the California for obvious reasons. Ms. Hedberg shares, “the weather in California is very conducive to our program as we believe in close communication with nature for re-energizing on all levels. We are fortunate to be surrounded by the Santa Monica Mountains and the majority of that land is protected from development. And that is where we take our daily hikes.” She continues, saying that the business has thrived for four decades because “the secret is simplicity along with a great staff. Three of the housekeepers have been with us since we opened 1974, and their daughters have been part of the staff since many years back.”

The staff hasn’t changed much and neither has the program. Ms. Hedberg points out, “The program is the same but much tougher now, as our guests are in much better physical shape. When we began in the 1970′s, working out was a foreign concept. We still continue to serve organic vegetarian food for a week of general healthy cleansing.”

Adding a second unparalleled European location in Mallorca, Spain, 10 years ago has also been a success. Why Spain? Ms. Hedberg confesses, “We chose Mallorca for fun and out of selfish reasons as I love Spain with its breathtaking views and rich culture. The northern part of the island is perfect for our kind of program.” Alas, there are no plans for a third destination. The ladies are quite content at the moment.

Over the years, actors, exercise innovators and intriguing visitors have walked through the front door of The Ashram. Adhering to a strict privacy policy, Ms. Hedberg only talks about celebrities who have made their visits to The Ashram public. The list includes Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Queen Latifah, Ashley Judd, Patricia Arquette, Diane Lane, Cindy Crawford and Renee Zellweger.

Who were the innovators? On a visit to The Ashram, Jane Fonda was introduced to a Swedish method of exercising to music and from there created her own jazzercise program. In the early 1970s, Bikram Choudhury of Bikram Yoga got his start at The Ashram teaching yoga where he was introduced to Shirley MacLaine, who helped him with his first studio in Beverly Hills, California. When visiting The Ashram, Suzanne Somers exercised with a device called the V-Bar and went on to create her own version under the name of the ThighMaster.

And there are thousands of incredible, life-changing stories to share: ”Let’s start with an inspiring tale. One year, a male client, who shall remain nameless, came to our program full of vices and toxins. On top of that he was very overweight. At the end of his week at The Ashram, he got inspired to become become fit and started competing in triathlons.”

The mind can play tricks on the ‘endless’ hikes. Ms. Hedberg shares, “When a female was in the middle of a day’s worth of hiking in the mountains. She came across a lost emu bird. In a state of confusion, she clicked on her walkie talkie telling the instructors she was having a bad detox hallucination.”

Talk about being immune to discomfort, Ms. Hedberg recalls, “A very famous NBA player, who happened to be around 6’6″ tall, had a difficult time sleeping in a queen-size bed, which wasn’t long enough. Instead of complaining, he slept sideways the entire week with his feet on the nightstand. And guess what? He returned to the Ashram more than once.”

You can’t make this stuff up. “One woman was presented with divorce papers just before she arrived at The Ashram. After finding inner strength and freedom, she threw her extravagant diamond ring off the mountain top during one of the hikes.”

Tough gals/guys don’t always finish first and sometimes they don’t finish. “On the third day of hiking, a very feared and famous Hollywood producer was hiking ahead of the group until several female hikers passed him on the trail reaching the trail end before him. Unable to accept such a feat, he went into his room and curled up in the fetal position pouting that his legs were much shorter than theirs. Feeling defeated, a famous talk show host couldn’t make it up the mountain and ‘hitched’ a ride from a man on his horse.”

On her favorite part of running The Ashram, Ms. Hedberg shares, “I get motivated by caring for people and see the changes they go through. I love my clients for their willingness to share their life stories. All of these years, my best friend and business partner Anne-Marie Bennstrom has been the most influential person in my life.” When not at The Ashram, Ms. Hedberg stays young by laughing a lot, hiking in California and in Europe, but most importantly spending time with her daughter Pia and granddaughter Soleil. Life is beautiful!


About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.