Hinduism Today Magazine Issues and Articles
Culture: Uniting Sports & Spirituality
Category : April/May/June 2018

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CULTURE

Uniting Sports & Spirituality

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At its core, the pursuit of personal perfection through athletics is a time-tested method of reaching our innermost divinity

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BY KUSUMITA P. PEDERSEN, NEW YORK CITY

SRI CHINMOY SAYS, “OUR PHILOSOPHY is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life.” For him the word “life” refers to the whole of manifest existence, and the transformation he envisions is integral. It aims ultimately for “perfect perfection,” or the perfection of all aspects of the human person and of the world. Since what is not accepted cannot be transformed, this sea change calls for acceptance of physical existence in its totality: the material universe, all living beings, other people and our own selves. Acceptance must extend to all parts of our being: the body no less than the mind, the life-energy and the emotions.

With some exceptions, such as the martial arts of East Asia, we do not usually think of sports in connection with the spiritual life. Some spiritual figures of ancient India were warriors and heroes, but we often associate spiritual practice with monastic life, and the term ascetic with a world-renouncing monk or yogi who devotes most of his or her time to meditation and study in seclusion. Many monastics, however, past and present, have maintained fitness through manual labor and walking long distances. The “marathon monks” of Mount Hiei, Japan, run great distances as a spiritual discipline, but this is a rare case.

The term ascetic is derived from the Greek askesis, which meant exercises and training, as for an athlete who competes for a prize. The goals of such training include physical strength, stamina, agility and skill. Today it is widely recognized that children and young people need sports training, not only for general health and fitness but also to build discipline and concentration, cultivate virtues such as fairness and courage, increase self-confidence and teach teamwork. Sri Chinmoy incorporated all of these dimensions of sports into the daily practice of his philosophy—an askesis for the acceptance and integral transformation of life.

On a practical level, our physical health is an important support for spiritual practice, since illness and weakness can impede meditation or even prevent it. Thus acceptance of the body includes the care, diet and activity needed to keep the body as healthy as possible. Research has shown that besides being necessary for physical health, exercise reduces the probability of certain illnesses, can mitigate the effects of aging and may help prevent or overcome depression. It fosters dynamism, enthusiasm and inspiration.

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Happy running: Jayasalini Abramovskikh, from Moscow, has participated for years in the Flushing Meadow Self Transcendence races. In this 2011 photo she is again running the 10-day race. “Only being happy can you run well,” she says.

Transformation seeks to go beyond acceptance and basic wellness to effect positive change of the entire being: the physical, life-energy, emotions and the mind, all of which participate in sports in their respective ways. In the process of transformation they support and nourish each other and also receive and assimilate the qualities of the heart and soul: love, peace, joy, light and power.

Self Transcendence

Sports is by no means just an individual practice. Often it is a group activity that can bring people together in powerful and meaningful ways. It offers a unique opportunity for self-transcendence, in which a person seeks to surpass his or her own limits and previous achievements.

Sri Chinmoy invariably distinguishes self-transcendence in this sense, which is at the core of spiritual life, from competition with others. He explains the spiritual purpose of competitive sports: “Our aim is not to become the world’s best athlete. Our aim is to keep the body fit, to develop dynamism and to give our vital being innocent joy. Our aim should not be to surpass others, but to constantly surpass our own previous achievements. We cannot properly evaluate our own capacity unless we have some standard of comparison. Therefore, we compete not for the sake of defeating others but in order to bring forward our own capacity. Our best capacity comes forward only when there are other people around us. They inspire us to bring forward our utmost capacity, and we inspire them to bring forward their utmost capacity. That is why we have competitive sports.”

Self-transcendence is a central principle of Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy. It is an expression of aspiration, the longing for a higher, fuller and better life, which he often speaks of as an inner hunger, a “cry” or a mounting flame. He asks, “What gives life its value—if not its inner cry for self-transcendence?” Aspiration, whether conscious or unconscious, is the force that drives human progress and creativity and also impels cosmic evolution. At the highest level, self-transcendence is essential to God’s own Being, which constantly goes beyond Itself, and the evolving manifested creation expresses the nature of its ever-transcending Source. Our own inner cry is awakened in us by the Supreme: “Self-transcendence / Is beckoned by / The ever-transcending Beyond.”

Living in Sports

How did a mystic from India come to embrace sports and make it essential to his understanding and practice of the spiritual life? Sri Chinmoy was born in 1931, the youngest of seven children in a prosperous and cultured Hindu family in Chittagong, East Bengal. As a boy in his native village of Shakpura, he was lively and adventurous. He ran, played soccer and loved to climb trees. When Chinmoy was still an infant, his oldest brother became a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mirra Alfassa, at their ashram in Pondicherry, South India. In July, 1944, after the deaths a year apart of both parents, the six other brothers and sisters all traveled to Pondicherry and became permanent residents of the spiritual community. Within a year, the ashram began to develop an elaborate sports program under the guidance of the Mother, with Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya as the director. The purpose of this initiative was the perfection of the body as part of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The Mother herself was a dedicated sportswoman. In her youth she had cycled throughout France, and she played tennis for much of her life. The newly arrived Chinmoy, then thirteen, was among Pranab’s first students.

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Spirituality in sports: Sri Chinmoy competes in the 400 meter event at the World Masters Games, Puerto Rico, 1983

Over the next ten years, as resources allowed, the ashram found sports venues and acquired equipment. The program expanded to include all the events of track and field as well as soccer, volleyball, table tennis and swimming; students also learned marching in formation. Girls as well as boys participated.

While deeply immersed in contemplative practices and studies, Chinmoy became an outstanding athlete during his twenty years at the ashram. He excelled in track and field, especially sprinting. He won first prize in the decathlon competition in 1958 and 1959, and the prize for “fastest runner” every year from 1948 to 1960. He retired from competition in 1962 but continued sports for general fitness and inspiration, still enjoying soccer and table tennis and also coaching.

After arriving in the United States in 1964, Chinmoy maintained his regular regimen and took up new sports, notably distance running, tennis, cycling and weightlifting. He met and honored many distinguished athletes, including Muhammad Ali and his childhood hero, Jesse Owens. He formed especially close and lasting friendships with Olympic great Carl Lewis, five-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl and the “father of long distance running,” Ted Corbitt, a founder of the New York City Marathon. For the rest of his life he remained keenly interested in sports of all kinds, following the Olympics (which he attended in 1976, 1984 and 1988), tennis matches and other events.

Chinmoy delighted in sharing his enthusiasm and love of sports with his students. Through the years he developed an array of activities and programs ensuring the centrality of sports in the growing international community of Sri Chinmoy Centres devoted to meditation and service. The first annual Sports Day of the Centers was held on June 7, 1970, with track and field events. In 1977, 1978 and 1979, Sri Chinmoy joined his students in the Pepsi-sponsored 24-hour bicycle marathon in Central Park, New York, himself cycling 175, 230, and 160 miles in those three years. The Sri Chinmoy Cycling Team of about 200 men and women won a number of prizes.

Not every spiritual seeker will become a prize-winning athlete, of course. But in the great variety of sports and physical activities each person can find one or more things he or she can enjoy doing regularly to maintain health and fitness, overcome lethargy and cultivate cheerfulness and enthusiasm. Today Sri Chinmoy’s students throughout the world are involved in a wide range of sports, including running, track and field, tennis, rowing, sailing, cycling, mountain climbing, weightlifting and swimming, including long distances such as the English Channel. Hatha yoga, while not a “sport” strictly speaking, is a serious interest for many.

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Record setting: Ashrita Furman sets Guinness record for longest distance to bicycle underwater (1.8 miles) in a pool in Coimbra, Portugal in September 2011

In 1982 Sri Chinmoy initiated the Impossibility Challenger, an annual festival in which participants try to break a world record in any non-Olympic event. According to the event’s website, “The records can be athletic, funny, creative or even a bit silly, as long as they are challenging and require some serious training or preparation.” Ashrita Furman, a disciple of Sri Chinmoy since 1970, has set more than 600 Guinness Records and currently holds more than 191—including the record for holding the most Guinness world records. Sri Chinmoy inspired Furman to participate in a 24-hour bicycle race in New York City’s Central Park in 1978. With only two weeks’ training, Furman tied for third place, cycling 405 miles (652 km). He later described the experience, “It was one of the most profound moments of my life. As I climbed off my bicycle, I realized that it wasn’t my body that had cycled for 24 hours, but my inner spirit. By using meditation I was able to connect with an inexhaustible energy which we all have but rarely use. At that moment I decided to attempt breaking Guinness records to inspire others to connect with their own indomitable inner strength.” His spiritual name, Ashrita, means “protected by God” in Sanskrit.

“By no means should we neglect the body. The body is the temple. The soul is the Deity therein. Have we not learnt from Vedanta that it is in the physical that spiritual disciplines have to be practiced?” Sri Chinmoy

Weightlifting

Sri Chinmoy’s own dedication to self-transcendence took him in his middle age into a surprisingly different area of sports. He took up weightlifting in 1985 at age fifty-three, when a knee injury made it difficult for him to continue playing tennis. In his youth as a track and field athlete he had no liking for weightlifting, but now he answered an inner call to enter a new and unfamiliar field. Weightlifting soon became the arena for dramatic feats of self-transcendence and manifestation of the spiritual in the physical. He began training with dumbbells, and by the end of 1985 was able to lift 155 pounds, his own body weight. Training rigorously over the next two years with an apparatus that suspended the weights overhead, he lifted heavier and heavier weights, eventually succeeding in lifting thousands of pounds. His weightlifting was comprehensively recorded on film, analyzed by weightlifting experts and witnessed by large audiences on many occasions. He never described what he was able to do as miraculous or the result of superior physique, but attributed it to “God’s unconditional Grace.” Its purpose was to inspire others to transcend themselves.

Bill Pearl, who supported and encouraged him in every way through the years, suggested to him that if he lifted human beings, animals and familiar objects rather than metal plates, it would capture the popular imagination–and indeed it did. To do these lifts, Sri Chinmoy used not only his overhead apparatus but the standing calf raise by which he could raise on a platform not only groups of people but elephants, cars, even airplanes. These lifts highlighted not only the self-transcendence of lifting heavy weights, but also the symbolic meaning of lifting itself, as honoring the liftee and connecting intimately with the person, living being or object lifted.

In 1988, to express this spiritual meaning, Sri Chinmoy inaugurated the Lifting Up the World With a Oneness-Heart Award, in which he lifted the honoree overhead on a specially designed platform. For their service to humanity, over 8,000 persons in different fields received this award, including many world figures such as Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Ravi Shankar, as well as ordinary citizens serving their local communities. Of his commitment to honor all areas of human endeavor, Sri Chinmoy says, “We need all branches of the life-tree to be perfect and complete.”

Ultra-Distance Running

In the 1970s distance running became an integral part of the life of Sri Chinmoy and his students, as a means of conveying these spiritual lessons deeply and at times dramatically. Ultra-distance races are the signature events of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, and many national and world records have been set during these races. The Self-Transcendence Races notably include the annual 6- and 10-day races and the 3,100-mile race, all in New York. In 1985 Sri Chinmoy requested the team to hold a 1,000-mile race, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. In 1987 he asked that the distance be increased to 1,300; in 1996 it became 2,700, then in 1997, 3,100 miles.

The 3,100-mile race, held each summer in Jamaica, Queens, a few blocks from where Sri Chinmoy lived, is the longest certified footrace in the world, known as the “Mount Everest” of ultra running. A field of usually around ten to fifteen men and women run an 883-meter loop—over 5,600 laps in all, each one carefully counted—around Thomas Edison High School. To complete the distance in the 52 days allowed, they must average at least 59.6 miles a day, although many do much longer daily distances. Runners must be at the start each day at 6 a.m.; the course closes at midnight. To qualify for this race, a runner must have proven his or her fitness and capacity by doing well in shorter long-distance races and be accepted by the race directors.

Organizing the 3,100-mile race is complex. Runners at all times receive food, drink, massage and medical treatment as needed. They are supported and encouraged by a stream of visitors and by far-flung friends and well-wishers who follow their progress and keep in touch.

At this writing the men’s world record for the 3,100-mile race, set in 2015 by Asprihanal Aalto of Finland at age 46, is 40 days and 9:06:21; the women’s record, set in 2017 by Kaneenika Jarakova of Slovakia at age 47, is 48 days and 14:24:10. This race is an extraordinary example of self-transcendence, showing what a human being can do if she or he challenges the mind’s preconceptions and draws on untapped sources of strength. Sri Chinmoy teaches, “Any extraordinary activity we perform on earth in the outer world—whether it is a long-distance run or a short-distance run or jumping or throwing—shows that in the inner world that capacity does exist. It is only that we have to use it. The capacity that we appreciate, admire and adore on earth can be seen, felt and acquired in the inner world in infinitely greater measure.”

 

Let’s Marathon!

THE SRI CHINMOY MARATHON TEAM, FOUNDed in 1977, is headquartered in New York and has branches now in over thirty countries. Its first running race was held October 2, 1977, in Greenwich, Connecticut. In the same year over 60 Marathon Team members participated in the New York City Marathon, increasing to almost 400 two years later. Sri Chinmoy ran his first marathon in March, 1979. As he would be the first to say, he was built to be a sprinter and not for distance, but during his lifetime he completed twenty marathons with a best time of 3:55:07 and also two ultra-marathons of 47 miles. He invariably did himself all of those things he commended to his students.

The Marathon Team soon began organizing races of different distances for the public. By 1980 the team was sponsoring marathons, half-marathons, five-mile races, a weekly two-mile race and even a 24-hour event in Greenwich, Connecticut. At Sri Chinmoy’s request, the course for every race is fast and flat, water is available at every mile and there is careful monitoring. A 70-mile race and triathlons were soon added.

“Conservatively, it is estimated that the Team has hosted nearly 2,000 running events in New York since 1977—including 124 multi-day races since 1985,” writes co-director Sahishnu Sczesiul. Celebrating its 40th year in 2017, the SCMT organizes some 500 sporting events every year, including running races, marathons and ultra-marathons, long-distance swimming, triathlons and cycling.

Sri Chinmoy has offered many insights on running as a fruitful spiritual practice. “Long distance running reminds us of our inner life. It makes us feel that we are running along Eternity’s Road. At the same time, long distance runners receive many good things from Above: patience, consecration and a self-disciplined and self-dedicated life.” (He frequently uses running as a metaphor in his poetry.) In addition, long-distance runners receive the blessings of Mother Earth by being out of doors, breathing fresh air and appreciating the beauty of nature. Another important experience is the oneness that is achieved when running as a group. Running serves as a vivid example of how sports can be part of the practice of spirituality. It brings together the outer and inner dimensions of life to support and feed one another.

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Divine running: A 1979 half-marathon in Flushing Meadow park, New York, with over 500 people

“Many people have discovered that running is a most effective way to bring about happiness,” Sri Chinmoy says. “Running demands not only the fitness of the body but the fitness of the vital, mind and heart as well.”

Running also provides an opportunity to use one’s breath to invoke “divine energy.” Sri Chinmoy comments, “Spiritual energy is the source of physical, vital and mental energy.” Distance running enables us to transcend ourselves, to establish oneness with others, to receive inspiration and dynamism, and to experience in a concrete and personal way an integral transformation in which the inner and outer realities unite.

The inspiration that we give to the outer world by exercising our extraordinary capacity comes from the ever-mounting aspiration of the inner world. Our achievements add to the receptivity of the outer world, to make the outer world eventually ready to accept the inner capacities of love, peace and bliss in infinite measure.

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Torch holders: (top) Carl Lewis and Sri Chinmoy. Lewis is holding the Peace Run Torch, a symbol of a global torch relay that seeks to promote harmony among people from all backgrounds

Sri Chinmoy states, “Individual self-transcendence / Collectively inspires / Humanity at large.” Thus the self-transcendence manifested in this highly exceptional achievement has an effect on the progress of the world as a whole. Such remarkable feats of self-transcendence can and should inspire each of us to go beyond our previous achievements and mentally defined limitations to surpass what we have attempted before. This applies in any field of endeavor, including our daily lives, where we can strive to do more and raise our standards each day in all our ordinary activities, whatever they may be.

Runners who have completed the 3,100 miles say it is necessary to disregard the mind. The runner must not dwell on the number of days or total distance, but stay in the moment, one lap at a time and one day at a time, even while strictly maintaining a daily schedule in which every minute is valuable. Runners sleep little, though they need to drink a great deal and eat about 10,000 calories a day.

 

Running for Peace

BRINGING TOGETHER THE MANY TRANSFORMING QUALITIES OF distance running with the over-arching goal of world peace to which he dedicated his life, Sri Chinmoy founded the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run torch relay in 1987. This is an ongoing international activity, organizing a large-scale global program in alternate years, with many smaller programs held frequently throughout the world on a continuous basis.

In its thirty years’ existence the Peace Run has reached over 150 countries and many millions of people, the majority of them children and youth. Its mission is to bring to as many people as possible a simple and universal message: that peace begins in the heart of each one of us. In the Peace Run, the torch relay does not encircle the globe in one unbroken route; rather the Peace Run is made up of a great many individual running events, some very long. The U.S. Peace Run passes through 38 states, encircling most of the contiguous U.S. It also touches into Canada and Mexico. The European Peace Run visits 49 countries, traversing 16,000 miles in eight months. The Peace Run Russia offers seven routes of various lengths in different parts of the vast land. Countless others are small, such as a neighborhood run at a school, yet these, too, embody in full measure the oneness-spirit of the Peace Run.

Added to the spiritual value of running itself is the archetypal symbol of the flaming torch. The element of fire has sacred significance in many traditions, and Sri Chinmoy often refers to aspiration as a flame within us. The torch relay is a well-known part of the modern Olympics, and the flaming torch is a symbol of peace that is understood everywhere. It is hard to overstate the impression made on people of all cultures and ages by the peace torch. This is evident along the running route or at any Peace Run function. People feel a special joy or thrill as they hold the torch or even see it. The torch is not only symbolic, but can even be thought of as sacramental—as carrying a real spiritual presence.

Sri Chinmoy says, “When you are carrying the peace torch, do not feel that it is a material object.…You have to feel that inside the peace torch there is a flame, and that flame is your own flame. You yourself have created the flame. What for? To illumine yourself first, and then the people you are seeing within your orbit. Your own orbit can be made large, larger, largest. Today it may be very small, but tomorrow it can be much larger, and the day after tomorrow it can be an infinite expanse.”

The runner holding the torch should identify the torch with his or her own inner aspiration for peace, and then expand this aspiration more and more widely into the world. We have seen that runners of the 3,100-mile race also use this language of expansion. The expansion of peace is facilitated by the runners’ outer journey from one location to another, one country to another, but it also travels inwardly as a spirit of peace that spreads in the consciousness of an ever-increasing number of people.

While many dignitaries and influential people, including heads of state, eminent spiritual leaders and celebrities, have participated in the Peace Run, Sri Chinmoy placed special emphasis on involving children. Therefore, the Peace Run makes a point of visiting schools. In local communities the team of uniformed runners bearing the peace torch is received with excitement and warm hospitality. The peace torch as symbol and sacrament makes an immediate contact with the heart, bypassing the mind and its prejudices and skepticism.

Children spontaneously understand the meditation they do by placing their hand over their hearts and feeling peace within themselves, and people of all ages have an opportunity to express their hope and longing for peace. Those holding the torch are asked to feel and identify with the hopes and dreams of peace of all those who have held the torch before them.

The runners on their journey encounter people from all walks of life, who when they see the torch often approach to ask about the Peace Run and to affirm its purpose. Runners experience the distinctive consciousness of each place as they run through beautiful landscapes communing with nature, or bustling towns and cities. Each runner must feel inside their hearts that the people encountered in every new place are brothers and sisters. Runners must not feel that they are coming from outside to instruct or give something. Rather the aspiration for peace that one has grown within oneself through prayer and meditation can, when it is shared, calls forth the same aspiration in others.

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United: On August 23, 2017, Peace runners from all around the globe came together in front of the United Nations, in New York, to celebrate

Sri Chinmoy says, “The main contribution of this Peace Run is to bring together all the God-lovers—that is to say, all the lovers of God’s creation. And those who are inwardly getting the message to become God-lovers and to serve God’s creation will be amply helped by this run.…As this Peace Run covers the length and breadth of the world, we shall see how Heaven and earth can go together, carrying the same message of the Creator’s infinite Joy, which is inside His eternal Peace.”

This transformation of the world will not happen all at once, but over time will develop like a seed that germinates, becomes a plant and eventually grows into a giant tree. It will not be the achievement of one person but of countless people who share their aspiration with each other and the world at large through their heart’s oneness.

Suprabha Beckjord of the U.S., a 13-time finisher in 1997-2009 and for those years the only woman in the race, explains, “If you focus on just what you really love, which is the running, the movement and the enthusiasm of getting out every day and accomplishing, that gives you everything you need, really, a kind of supply of sweetness and joy that really propels you.”

A runner has to remain cheerful and in the heart, to draw on inner, spiritual forces as much as outer physical energy. Yuri Trostenyuk of Ukraine, a four-time finisher, says, “You cannot rely on your physical strength. The source of our infinite power is within us. We only need to reveal it, to feel and use it.” Four-time finisher Grahak Cunningham of Australia recounts, “I hit the wall many times—and went on. I was convinced I had taken my body to the limits of its endurance, but then I went deeper, into the core of my being where strength, power, poise and silence all exist. If we can tap into this inner source, nothing can stop us moving forward.” Runners often speak of the Grace that is needed to arrive at the goal.

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Going the distance: Ashprihanal Aalto of Finland took the world record for 3,100 miles to a new level in 2015, averaging nearly 76.8 miles per day to complete the course in just 40 days + 9: 06:21.

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From 1997 to 2009, Washington D.C.’s Suprabha Beckjord was the only woman to complete the 3,100-mile race in Queens.

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In 2015, Vasu Nicolai Duzhy set a new Russian record in the 3,100-mile race: 44 days + 06:10:42; after thirteen attempts in thirteen years.

Each runner must have an expert knowledge of his or her own body and how it responds to different conditions during the weeks of running. Runners receive counsel from other runners, helpers and health care providers, all of whom advise them on all aspects of health, food, drink, gear, running style and strategy. They report that after a difficult transition in the first two or three weeks, the body adapts to long daily distances and the middle period of the race can become a flow, remarkable as this seems. But the runner must be ready to continue with determination when inner weather can range from a crisis of low physical energy and mood to an opposite state of overflowing strength and joy, described by Stutisheel Lebedev of Ukraine, who has completed the race nine times.

He said, “I felt a great inner peace, as if I were at the bottom of the ocean or deep, deep in my heart. On the other hand, I experienced a very powerful energy flowing through my body, often causing goose bumps on my skin. This state has been described as a super receptivity to everything coming from above and super efficiency on the physical plane.”

Each runner discovers the depths of his or her own character and spirit by facing extremely demanding and sustained challenges, and learns the constant and subtle interaction of the inner and the outer parts of the being, especially how thoughts and feelings can affect the physical. They also develop an intimate ongoing connection with the running course itself, the very ground their feet touch, each physical object or living being they see on the course, and the surrounding neighborhood. Jayasalini Abramovskikh of Russia, a one-time finisher, refers to the “progress to which every runner aspired—first of all, changing oneself as a person.” She adds, “When one overcomes all the difficulties, one’s attitude to life alters. All emotions, feelings, experiences become unbelievably keen, sincere and profound. There comes a clear feeling of what is important and really needed in life, and what is a mere trifle.” Each in their own way, the runners engage in prayer and meditation to carry them through the miles day after day.

Runners always declare after they finish that they could not have done the race alone, and offer their intense gratitude to the other runners and to each person who helped in any way or offered encouragement. Anyone who has participated in the whole undertaking of the 3,100-mile race by performing any needed task or offering any kind of support can attest to the deep sense of community that is established and experienced during those seven and a half weeks. This is often compared to a family; Suprabha says, “There’s so much love.” People come to New York from other parts of the world not only to run the race themselves but to assist in many practical ways, including direct help to the runners, cooking and providing food, supplies, dealing with logistics and more.

Nirbhasa Magee of Ireland, finishing for the second time on August 6, 2017, compared the race to a wheel with the runners at the center and larger and larger circles “further out” comprising the helpers, the supporters and even the whole world. He said, “You really feel such a connection that somehow we’re all in it together and we’re just one little part of the whole force that animates the thirty-one hundred and keeps it running.” He also spoke of the heart’s self-giving: “Countless millions of acts of self-giving…it’s just that outpouring of self-giving.”

Jayasalini asks, “What if the runners’ prayers about peace, friendship and the oneness of people from different countries and continents would be heard by the Creator, by the One who can fulfill these prayers? Or what if this little paradise present at the course, where all the participants wish each other only good, share smiles, the heart’s oneness, love and support, would start to distribute itself to the world around and help this planet to become a bit better, kinder and more perfect?”

Conclusion

Including sports in spiritual practice offers great and open-ended opportunities for self-knowledge, progressive awakening, living in the heart and the creation of a better world. In a spirituality of integral transformation, acceptance of the world means acceptance of all physical existence including the whole natural world, the physical existence of others, and of our own bodies. Such an acceptance calls for care and respect. We must do what is needed to keep our own bodies well and fit, taking responsibility for ourselves with awareness and discipline, and must also care for the well-being of others with beneficence, kindness and concern.

Building on this care and respect as a solid and indispensable foundation, the training or askesis of the physical body can be taken as a venue of self-transcendence. Involvement in sports teaches the lessons of self-transcendence in a distinctly concrete way. Though most dramatically displayed by elite athletes like the ultra-distance runners, self-transcendence is a principle and a goal to be applied in every sport at all levels and in all areas of our lives, even by those who are not athletes at all. As well, those pursuing self-transcendence through sports discover that the merely “physical” has vast unknown dimensions. As Sri Chinmoy says, “O my body, you are a gift of the Supreme. Potentiality inexhaustible you have deep within you.” This discovery leads in turn to the realization that this life may be earthly, but the physical is not truly separate from other parts of our being—the life-energy, emotions, mind, heart and soul. As Sri Chinmoy points out, all have to work together to attain the good. Runners and many others engaged in sports become deeply acquainted with the many ways, both obvious and subtle, that the physical and other parts of the human person interact and influence each other. This is a profound illumination about what is meant by “integral” and offers deep insight into how transformation can take place.

Last but not least, the practice of sports understood as a part of spirituality brings people together in community, whether in highly organized ways or spontaneously sharing joy and achievement. Here the respect and care that we must show to ourselves are also given to others, and the inspiration of self-transcendence is expanded into the wider world. Runners achieve oneness with nature, with the running course itself, with each other, with their helpers and supporters, and with the world at large. Sports, we may surely say, can be a way of increasing love between people. This is true for athletic events and also for the Peace Run, which is dedicated to this very oneness rather than to athletic competition.

Sports opens many paths of transformation and offers fulfillment and benefit on many levels. Can it help bring about enlightenment and a world of peace? Without doubt it can make an important contribution to these ends, as Sri Chinmoy has clearly demonstrated.     image

Dr. Kusumita Pedersen is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, St. Francis College. She lives in Jamaica, New York, and has been a student of Sri Chinmoy since 1971.