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Running 3,100 Miles, and Following Their Leader Every Step of the Way

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  • They're Not Heavy; They're His People   
  • athletics   
  • English Channel   
  • Running 3,100 Miles, and Following Their Leader Every Step of the  Way   
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    July 1, 2004

    They're Not Heavy; They're His People


    On 164th Street in Jamaica, Queens, there is a vegetarian restaurant called Annam Brahma with a series of photographs on its rear wall showing a bald man in his 70's doing one-arm dumbbell lifts, going incrementally, over 18 months, from 40 pounds up to what is claimed to be 7,063 pounds.

    It sounds like a bar bet, but it is Sri Chinmoy: powerlifter for world peace. Mr. Chinmoy is a spiritual guru and founder of a worldwide empire of meditation centers based in Jamaica.

    Besides staggering stacks of iron weights, Mr. Chinmoy's lift r´sum´ also includes heavy objects - airplanes, schoolhouses, pickup trucks.

    But mostly he lifts people, more than 7,000 of them since 1988, when he started his "Lifting Up The World With a One-Ness Heart" campaign. He selects contributors to world peace, public figures and regular folk alike, and then honors them by shoulder-pressing them above his head on a custom-made lifting stand at an inconspicuous compound built around a clay tennis court across from the restaurant.

    He has lifted Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson. There was Eddie Murphy, Susan Sarandon, Roberta Flack, Yoko Ono, and of course Sting and Richard Gere. Mr. Chinmoy lifted 20 Nobel laureates and a team of sumo wrestlers. He lifted Sid Caesar and a (reformed) headhunter from Borneo.

    Mr. Chinmoy, 72, believes that athletics - specifically, achievements of extreme physical endurance - can help people attain spiritual enlightenment.

    In an interview last week, minutes after lifting the actor Jeff Goldblum, Mr. Chinmoy said his lifts are meant to increase awareness for his humanitarian aid campaign, to inspire others to transcend expectations and limitations, and to realize that "impossibility is a dictionary word."

    "If you depend on God's grace there is no such thing as impossible," he said, sitting in his glassed-in chamber just beyond the tennis court baseline.

    Mr. Chinmoy used to use long-distance running to demonstrate this effect. But after a knee injury, he turned to weight lifting.

    At first, he struggled with 20-pound dumbbells, but quickly increased his strength thanks to "God's grace" and a tough daily fitness regimen that includes very short, very heavy lifts. He said he shoulder-presses two 500-pound dumbbells several times with each arm and does seated calf extensions with 1,600 pounds and standing ones with 2,300 pounds. He uses custom-made exercise machines for his specialized lift styles.

    Some experts have called the lifts frauds and obvious physical impossibilities for anyone, much less a man in his 70's standing 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing about 170 pounds. Mr. Chinmoy's lifts are videotaped and photographed by his followers, and he insists he does not care about the pound-count enough to lie.

    "I'm not a weight lifter," he said. "I'm a seeker. Weight lifting is so insignificant in my life."

    He says he sleeps about 90 minutes a day and begins his morning meditation session at 2:30. He says he has done more than 14 million "peace bird" drawings, has written 1,400 books, 80,000 poems and 18,000 songs, and done 200,000 paintings. And he says he has given more than 700 concerts, including one in which he played more than 100 instruments.

    Chinmoy Kumar Ghose was born a Hindu in 1931 in what is now Bangladesh. He lost his parents as a child and entered an ashram, a religious community, at age 12.

    He was an avid athlete whose childhood idol was the track star Jesse Owens. After immigrating to New York in 1964, he worked as a clerk at the Indian Consulate and then opened his meditation center in Queens with a philosophy of celibacy, vegetarianism and meditation. In the 70's he was a guru to such music stars as Carlos Santana, Ms. Flack and Clarence Clemons.

    Now, he says he has about 7,000 disciples worldwide. Of the 200 living in the neighborhood, about 50 work at the United Nations.

    He lives in a two-story home on 149th Street in Queens, drives a sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle, and holds regular meditation sessions at a local elementary school. And in the area around Normal Road near Parsons Boulevard, Mr. Chinmoy runs a spiritual boot camp.

    His followers pursue inner peace through a regimen of meditation, a strict vegetarian diet, selfless service and ultra-endurance activities like extreme weight lifting, distance running and swimming.

    Many local followers rent rooms in local houses owned by other members, and work in member-owned stores nearby that are painted bright blue and have elaborate names such as the Smile of the Beyond coffee shop and the Garland of Divinity's Love florist.

    Many prove their devotion by swimming the English Channel or running marathons. One follower, Ashrita Furman, has broken 82 Guinness world records to honor Mr. Chinmoy.

    Mr. Chinmoy gives his followers Bengali names and often refers to them as boys and girls. He recommends that his followers abstain from sex, marriage, alcohol, tobacco and other worldly interferences.

    Some disgruntled former members have called the group a brainwashing cult.

    Members have been taken back by their parents. In 1979 a follower practicing a stunt for the group's annual circus was found dead in his bathtub, his head stuck in a bucket of water.

    Mr. Chinmoy's followers say all the disgruntled followers had problems before even joining the group. Last week, as Mr. Chinmoy prepared to lift Jeff Goldblum at the tennis court, which his disciples call Aspiration Ground, the verdant, sun-dappled grove of lush gardens, abundant flowers and burbling ponds and fountains seemed a universe apart from New York City. Women in saris settled onto the stadium-style benches overlooking the court. Many of the men were dressed all in white, and the largest worked the lifting apparatus. Mr. Chinmoy, dressed in blue robes and white clogs, moved slowly to the lifting rack. The scene felt like "Apocalypse Now," with Mr. Chinmoy, shaven head and meditative expression, resembling Marlon Brando's character. After playing several different instruments and meditating for a bit, he sat to lift.

    "Lifting up the world," sang a chorus of disciples, "with a oneness heart." With that, Mr. Chinmoy rolled up his sleeves, winced and lifted Mr. Goldblum with his left arm. Mr. Goldblum brought the actress Illeana Douglas along and Mr. Chinmoy lifted her too. This reporter was also lifted. Each time, applause echoed across the tennis court. Later, Mr. Chinmoy deflected praise.

    "It's all God's grace," he said. "If I say that I have done it, that will be the worst possible lie in my life."

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

    July 1, 2004

    Running 3,100 Miles, and Following Their Leader Every Step of the Way


    Followers of Sri Chinmoy honor him and seek spiritual transcendence in various ways. A dozen followers are doing it this month by running around a city block in Jamaica, Queens, for seven weeks straight, 18 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

    The eighth annual Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Run - which its organizers call the world's longest certified foot race - began on June 13 and is scheduled to finish on Aug. 3.

    The runners jog around the Thomas A. Edison Vocational Technical High School, a distance of roughly a half-mile. So participants must log an average of 60.7 miles daily over 51 days to finish 3,100 miles. That's 5,649 laps, or well beyond the distance from New York to Los Angeles.

    Mr. Chinmoy visits the race course each morning to bless the runners and check their daily mileage totals.

    The participants go through sneakers so quickly that there is one race volunteer assigned to resoling shoes. To avoid excessive weight loss, runners eat while running, consuming sticks of butter or heavy cream or avocados.

    The race course is lined with fences, pay phones, fire hydrants and construction crews. Volunteers staff refreshment tables. Laps are logged with a clipboard for each runner.

    Suprabha Beckjord, 48, of Washington, D.C., the only woman running, is the only person to have completed the race in each of the past seven years. Running and sipping from a cup of water with lemon, salt and maple syrup, she said she began running ultra-marathons to honor Mr. Chinmoy.

    The race is "a firsthand expression of God's compassion and grace," said Ms. Beckjord, who owns a gift shop called Transcendence-Perfection-Bliss of the Beyond.

    Arpan DeAngelo, 52, of Queens, who has run in more than 100 standard 26-mile marathons, says he passes the time by chanting Mr. Chinmoy's mantras, verses from the Bible and the Vedas.

    "I don't call it a race, I call it a pilgrimage," he said. "It's an opportunity for us to transform our lives. The race is such a monster that it teaches you a deep spiritual principle, which is to live in the moment. You can't look at your mileage or who is front or behind you."

    Suffering from shin splints, Mr. DeAngelo was tended by Meghabhuti Roth, 51, a Minneapolis doctor on hand. Dr. Roth massaged Mr. DeAngelo's legs while chanting mantras about healing with God's light.

    "I've seen runners here get 104-degree fevers and then heal themselves," Dr. Roth said. "The race really becomes a meditation because the mind just shuts off. Part of the spiritual journey is just hanging in there."

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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