Uniting Sports & Spirituality
At its core, the pursuit of personal perfection through athletics is a time-tested method of reaching our innermost divinity
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.