A Swede Who Once Lived Five Months in the Jungle Runs a Spartan Spa for the Stars

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like Richard Dreyfuss, Farrah Fawcett, Shirley MacLaine and Ben Vereen, Barbra Streisand is a believer. She calls it "boot camp without food." Valerie Perrine, who spent a week there, admits that "sleeping with strangers or sharing a bathroom is not my favorite thing. So why do I go? It works." Singer Vikki Carr agrees: "It's super, but it's tough." That's how Anne-Marie Bennstrom, owner of the Ashram in Calabasas, Calif., wants it to stay.

Unlike other luxury spas that offer breakfast in bed, the Ashram (an Indian word meaning "retreat") is strictly no frills. Its unusual regimen combines vegetarian meals with a dash of Eastern mysticism and a large dose of exercise, especially hiking. "We start with four miles a day, minimum," says the Swedish-born Bennstrom, 52. "By the end of the week we are up to 12 to 14 miles a day. It is our main activity because everyone can do it and studies have shown that hiking against resistance—in other words, uphill—is more effective than jogging."

A typical day at the Ashram, which is located 35 miles north of Los Angeles, begins at 6:30 a.m. with yoga and meditation followed by a breakfast of vitamins and juice or herb tea. (Regular tea, coffee, alcohol and cigarettes are verboten.) Next comes a two-to-three-hour hike, then a workout with weights and exercise machines, pool drills, volleyball, a lunch of raw vegetables or fruit, a 90-minute rest, more exercises, another hike, a vegetable salad dinner and—for the resolute—more yoga. "This," vows Perrine, "is the most serious spa in the world."

Despite the meager fare, there are few complaints about hunger. "Usually it is lack of activity or boredom that creates a feeling of hunger," explains Bennstrom. Incredibly, some guests choose to eat even less or not at all for a few days. "If a person's chemistry is out of line," Bennstrom says, "fasting is the best remedy. We suggest that guests, after leaving, fast one day a week." Bennstrom scoffs at calorie counting. "Measure food by hunger," she urges. "Only eat when you are hungry. Eating has become a social disease. It has become impolite not to offer food when people visit. There are other ways to be together."

A former cross-country skiing champion in her native Stockholm, Bennstrom emigrated to the U.S. in 1952 to continue the medical studies she had begun at Sweden's University of Lund. Instead, she went to work as a reporter for a small L.A. newspaper and became interested in nature and nutrition. An adventurous woman, she decided to go into the jungles of Guatemala to see if she could "live in harmony with the forces of nature." The experiment lasted five months, during which she was stung by a scorpion and afflicted with fevers, but she returned determined to pursue a career in preventive medicine. She took courses at L.A. City College in biochemistry, chiropractic and herbs, supporting herself as a masseuse to stars like Joan Bennett and Joan Crawford.

This led to a job as director of the exercise program at the Golden Door, the most elegant and expensive of the fat farms. During her seven years there Bennstrom met Robert Prescott, a guest and head of the Flying Tigers airline. They were married in 1962. Of her husband, an enthusiastic drinker and meat eater who died two years ago from throat cancer, she says, "I loved Bob just the way he was. He was never going to change me, and I was never going to change him."

Bennstrom left the Golden Door in 1965 to open her own place, the Sanctuary, in Los Angeles. She closed it in 1974 because, she says, "it was too popular, and I was giving Cadillac service at Chevy prices." Shortly thereafter she started the Ashram.

The spa is a homey two-story building with only enough bedroom space for six guests, each paying $900 a week. Visitors are told to bring only a toothbrush and running shoes. The Ashram, which has a staff of four, provides everything else, including exercise togs and pool robes.

More than anyone, the 5'5½", 119-pound Bennstrom is the Ashram's best advertisement. "What we really hope to do is to affect our guests' eating, living and thinking habits on an emotional level," she explains. "On the whole, the people who come to the Ashram are not really overweight, but they feel out of shape. They come here to get realigned." According to Bennstrom one area of their bodies inevitably requires more attention than all the others: "Americans," she declares, "have the flabbiest fannies in the world."

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