Chinmoy Captures Marathon Spirit

By Dave Rosner

On this hot Sunday morning, Sri Chinmoy is well back in the pack. As he bobs along at slower than 7 MPH, it quickly becomes evident that Sri Chinmoy will not be the star of the Sri Chinmoy Five-Mile Run. For the duration of the race, in fact, the noted Indian spiritual leader has few followers. In the literal sense, that is.

Then again, distance running, to Sri Chinmoy and his disciples, has never been a literal game of follow the leader. On this hot Sunday morning in Flushing Meadow Park, Sri Chinmoy, as always, is content to lead by example alone. “It shows my spiritual children that I am not a so-called Indian philosopher who lives in the moon land and has nothing to do with reality,” is how he explains a marathon schedule that rivals Bill Rodgers’ for quantity. “It reminds them that I not only preach and teach, but also act ... I not only encourage my students to do things that will benefit them inwardly and outwardly, but I also do these things in order to offer them inspiration.”

It has not always been that way, though. In 1964, when he emigrated to New York, Sri Chinmoy Kumar Ghose was too busy to exercise much. He had been an athlete in his ashram in Pondicherry, India, winning the spiritual community’s 100-meter dash title 16 straight years and the decathlon twice. But suddenly there was no time for that, so busy was he piecing together the spiritual organization he now directs from his Jamaica home.

There were the more than 60 Sri Chinmoy Centers to open throughout the world. There were the meditations he holds twice a week at the United Nations for delegates and staff. There were the lectures at universities, and the concerts at such places as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. There were the 400 books to author, the 140,000 paintings to create, the 3,000 songs to compose. There was, in short, little time for running. Problem was, as his popularity expanded, so did his waistline. “Even God was ashamed,” he jokes of the days when he was 20 pounds over his current weight of 130.

Sri Chinmoy, in that sense, is just another product of the running boom, a nouveau jogger who trains between 50 and 80 miles a week. But, of course, it is more than that. In the three years since he took up distance running, the sport has become ingrained in Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual teachings. He uses running as a spiritual metaphor, frequently referring to meditation as “inner running.” Or, put another way: “Try to be a runner, and try all the time to surpass all that is bothering you and standing in your way. Be a real runner so that ignorance, limitations and imperfections will all drop far behind you in the race.”

The meditative benefit of running is not a new concept, really. Perhaps Runner’s World magazine publisher Bob Anderson epitomized the sport’s cult following when he said he answers inquiries into what religion he is by saying, “Runner” (to which, Joe Henderson, then the magazine’s editor, quipped, “If running’s going to become a religion, then I’m going to become an atheist.”). Rather, what is unique about Sri Chinmoy’s “Run and Become” philosophy is that he probably is the first spiritual leader to espouse running as an aid to spiritual development. “At every moment we are running inwardly, and this outer run is undoubtedly a true expansion of the inner run,” he tells disciples on the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.

The team, comprising about 125 students from the metropolitan area and 700 worldwide, is an extension of his philosophy. “Guru teaches us that the body is the temple of the soul,” said Lorne Cherns, a 24-year-old ultramarathoner from Jamaica. “How can you pray and meditate if you don’t have a strong, healthy body? We’re not running for the sake of running. It’s a way to better ourselves inwardly.”

Like most of his teammates, Cherns took up running after he joined Sri Chinmoy six years ago. Cherns already was an established runner when Chinmoy began jogging in 1978. He has seen the former sprinter make the difficult transition into distance runner, then run his first marathon in four hours and 32 minutes the following spring, then run his personal record of 3:55:07 a month later in Toledo, Ohio. “He wants to live his philosophy, to show that things can be done, to transcend himself,” Cherns said. “Everything is transcendence.”

In honor of “Sri Chinmoy’s 17 years in the West,” Cherns, ran from Toronto to New York last spring, covering 32 miles a day for three weeks. In honor of Chinmoy’s 50th birthday, Cherns recently ran 50 times up and down a quarter-mile hill on 150th Street in Jamaica; even Guru, who detests hills, joined for 20 circuits. But the real party will not occur until his birthday, Aug. 27, when Chinmoy will join many of his disciples in a 50-mile run around the Jamaica High School track. Since his 47th birthday, the annual ultramarathon, drawing as many as 135 students, has covered 47 miles. This year, however, is special. Witness the 50 Sri Chinmoy Invitational Two-Mile Runs that will be held Monday at sites throughout the world, from Flushing Meadow Park to London, from San Francisco to Paris, from Valley Stream State Park to Tokyo, from East Meadow to Zurich, from Montreal to Stockholm, from Stony Brook to Bonn.

The marathon team is accustomed to organizing races, more than 200 a year, each drawing from 300 to 1,000 runners. Even when Chinmoy is not present, the races bare his mark: The flat courses, a sure mark of a converted sprinter; the aid stations at every mile; the recordings of his songs played along the route; the time splits at every mile. Splits are so important to Chinmoy that when he trains with his students, someone will carry a stopwatch to give him the mile times. “He is aware of pace,” Cherns said, “so he can improve.”

That is the only competition Sri Chinmoy recognizes in running. On that hot morning of July 12, he not only ran the five-mile race (43:33) but also the two-mile fun run (15:51) immediately preceding. He saw little difference. “We compete with others not for the sake of defeating them, but to bring forward our own best capacities and also theirs,” he writes. “In ordinary human life, we try to win by conquering others. In the spiritual life, we try to win by conquering the unaspiring and undivine in ourselves ... In the ordinary life, we compete with others to gain supremacy. But in the spiritual life, we are not in competition with others. We are always trying to transcend our own capacity; but while we are transcending our capacity, others may feel that we are competing.”

Although he is involved in cycling (he is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Cycling Team) and tennis (he once played 453 straight games), Chinmoy considers running “undoubtedly” the best form of exercise because “when we run, especially when we run long distances, we are more aware of this inner goal than we are while doing other forms of strenuous exercise.”

Still, Guru cautions against meditating during races, fearing that dissociation hides the warning signals from the runner. “It is always advisable to concentrate while running a marathon,” he said. “If you meditate, then you will feel that you are either on the top of a snow-capped mountain or at the bottom of the sea. That is the very highest type of meditation, but that will not help your running. But if you concentrate on the running, then at every moment you will be able to regulate your steps and your forward movement ... Before running a marathon, meditation is of paramount importance. But while running, concentration is of paramount importance.”

A veteran of 11 marathons, Sri Chinmoy talks from experience. In none is the recognition factor greater than the New York City Marathon, where the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team regularly has the largest contingent. It is not surprising to hear spectators yelling, “Go, Guru,” at the sight of his familiar headband. Nor is it surprising that he has been able to fill a book with amusing stories of his experiences — such as the time he was running in Japan and felt compelled to answer each traditional bow with a bow of his own, until he became too tired and had to settle for a salute.

But it is in Jamaica that Sri Chinmoy, runner, is known almost as well as Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader. Indeed, in her book, “The Road Runner’s Guide to New York City,” Patti Hagan writes: “Jog Douglaston Manor for the Gatsby look and Jamaica for a dynamic meditative running consciousness, a Sri Chinmoy high.”


Sri Chinmoy competes in Sri Chinmoy 5-Mile Run (Newsday Photo by Alan Raia)

Published in NEWSDAY, TUESDAY, JULY 21, 1981