Fitness Guru for Body and Spirit

This is a general article about Sri Chinmoy’s weightlifting, written in 1988.

One of the most unusual athletes of our time is a 67-year-old strongman who lifts elephants and airplanes to promote world peace. Indian-born Sri Chinmoy is a spiritual teacher who took up weightlifting in the mid-1980s to show how spirit, or inner strength, can produce astonishing outer stamina. Now, after a nine-year break, this sportsman has returned to the gym -- proving that the spirit is still alive...and that heart-power can defeat old age.

When he first became a weightlifting guru at the age of 54, Sri Chinmoy was already another kind of teacher -- a teacher of meditation to a few thousand students in the U.S. and overseas -- as well as a poet, artist and composer. His weightlifting, like his other activities, was part of the "curriculum" he has been promoting all his life: the importance of spiritual and physical fitness.

He promotes his message not by preaching but by doing, and he teaches mainly through personal example. "If I can write inspirational poems or create something beautiful and soulful as an artist or composer, then it will inspire others to go higher and deeper. My weightlifting also is meant to encourage people to bring forward their inner capacities so they can live a more divine life. If I can inspire someone, and if that person inspires someone else, then we can have a better and brighter world."

Sri Chinmoy feels that real fitness, even in body, stems from the inner man. "There are countless people on earth who do not believe in the inner strength or inner life. They feel that the outer life is everything. I do not agree with them," he says. "There is an inner life; there is spirit, and my ability to lift heavy weights proves that it can work in matter as well. I am doing these lifts with the physical body, but the power is coming from an inner source, from my prayer and meditation. My prayer and meditation are like friends, and they help me."

Whether it's his "friends," as he calls them, or just plain determination, something gives this 145-pound fitness guru the ability to hoist 31,000-pound jet planes with his calf muscles and lift hundreds of pounds with one arm. "Sri Chinmoy is a prime example that we can do things we thought were impossible," says eight-time 'Mr. Olympia' Lee Haney. Bodybuilding champion Bill Pearl, a former 'Mr. Universe,' is also impressed. "Sri Chinmoy is on a fantastic track because he shows the relationship between the body, mind and spirit. Ninety-nine percent of the world is absolutely physically incapable of doing what he has done."

A track and field star in his youth, Sri Chinmoy practiced sprinting and, later, marathon running during much of his adulthood. In the summer of 1985, after a knee injury banned him from the track, he got inspired to enter the entirely new field of weightlifting. From the day he first lifted a 40-pound dumbbell with one arm, he immersed himself in the sport -- reading every bodybuilding book he could lay his hands on, watching countless weightlifting videos and endlessly training. He rapidly progressed to heavier weights and, two years later, was setting records in the one-arm lift and standing calf raise.

The following year he began lifting well-known personalities above his head with one arm, using a specially-built platform, in a program he called Lifting Up the World with a Oneness-Heart. "I was trying with my capacity to encourage and inspire people in various walks of life who have inspired others in sports, in literature, in science and in politics. I lifted them up to show my deepest appreciation for their achievements."

Then his interest in weightlifting waned and, as he neared the age of 60, he focused more attention on his work for peace, holding discussions with such luminaries as Mikhail Gorbachev and Mother Teresa and offering peace concerts in many countries. Impressed by his work, which include the founding of a global peace run, a number of government leaders have dedicated their cities, mountains and natural wonders to peace as "Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossoms," and several nations -- including Canada, Finland, Hungary and Nepal -- officially became "Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossom Nations."

At a time when his peace activities are bearing fruit, and nearly a decade after he retired from the sport, what's making him return to weightlifting now? "I wanted to see if has anything to do with physical fitness. I found out that it is the mind that makes us feel old. The moment I use my mind, I am 67 years old. The moment I use my heart, I feel that I am 20 years old. So I want to show the world that if we can challenge the mind and go beyond the mind, then the physical body obeys us."

Weightlifting also gives him a platform for demonstrating his philosophy of peace -- his idea that peace can be achieved through the same inner qualities that enable him to lift heavy objects. "It is only because of insecurity that individuals and nations fight with one another. In the depths of their hearts they know they are weak, so outwardly they want to prove that they are strong. But if they can acquire inner strength through prayer and meditation, they feel secure and confident, and they will not feel the necessity of proving anything.

"A few days ago I went to a circus and lifted an elephant. This elephant could easily have destroyed every human being who was there. But just because it knew it was infinitely stronger than I, the elephant remained calm and quiet and allowed me to lift it. Similarly, if a country is really strong, with inner strength, peace and poise, then like an elephant that country will remain peaceful. Again, we have to know that peace is joy and joy is peace. If I am happy, then I will not strike you. I will only shake hands with you and embrace you. Only unhappy people are fighting, dropping bombs and killing one another."

Over the past few months Sri Chinmoy has been lifting everything in sight -- from giant pumpkins to full-sized cars to a group of Harlem gospel singers. In each case his message is the same: "I do not have the muscle mass of a bodybuilder; I do not have the strength of a weightlifter. I am only a truth-seeker and God-lover. Everything I achieve is by virtue of my spiritual life. The inner strength that enables me to lift heavy weights, and the inner peace it brings, is available to anyone."

He recently gave a public weightlifting demonstration at a local New York college, not far from where he lives, performing 33 different feats of strength. It was an event that will remain unique in the annals of sport, showing the limits to which a 67-year-old body can be pushed. Here's a blow-by-blow account. Wearing blue shorts and a white singlet, his head totally shaven, Sri Chinmoy walks barefoot onto the stage and, for a few moments, meditates in front of the audience. The different lifting machines, some geared for overhead lifts, others more traditional standing or seated calf-raise devices, are lined up in semi-circle, and he takes them on one by one.

First comes a 145-pound overhead lift with each arm. Next, he lifts a 300-pound stack, pushing the weights up a metal track 50 times with each arm. By now, his chest is heaving, his lungs gasping for air, and he leans his head against the lifting apparatus. Then he hoists 200 pounds overhead with his right and left arm. Like this he moves from machine to machine.

Meanwhile, off in a corner of the stage, some of Sri Chinmoy's women students, dressed in brightly colored Indian saris, are prayerfully performing a medley of their teacher's songs -- songs about not giving up, songs about the inner life, songs of battle and victory. The music is dynamic and powerful, but also deep like a river, and the singers -- their eyes closed, their hands folded in prayer -- look almost angelic. In Sri Chinmoy's world, body and spirit go side by side.

As the night wears on, the heavy weights exact their toll, and the lifting becomes more difficult. At one point, master of ceremonies Bill Pearl says, "He isn't lifting with his body, but with his heart." The final feat is the most grueling. After lifting almost half a ton, he wants to raise his 145-pound bodyweight with each arm -- simultaneously.

At first it seems it will not happen. His muscles are straining, a strange rumbling sound is coming out of his throat and chest, yet the weight is not budging. The audience is holdings its breath. Finally, ever so slowly, the bar begins to edge upwards along its metal guide and, for a moment that seems suspended in time, a small 67-year-old man is standing with these two enormous weights raised straight in the air. Then his shoulders sag and the weights come crashing down.

The bodybuilding greats witnessing this display are deeply moved. "It's an amazing show of strength for any man, at any age, of any bodyweight," says Bill Pearl. Former 'Mr. Olympia' Frank Zane calls it "totally mind-blowing." Bodybuilding giant Mike Katz, twice Sri Chinmoy's size, grabs him in a huge bear hug. But the evening isn't over. After a quick shower and change of clothes, the athlete for peace becomes a musician of peace and gives an hour-long peace concert, performing on a variety of Eastern and Western instruments. It's after one in the morning when the curtain falls.

Sri Chinmoy is sometimes criticized because he uses specially-modified machines to aid in his lifts. When he raises elephants, for example, he places his shoulders under two bars attached to a platform, where the elephant stands, and then uses the calf muscles of his legs to lift the platform. His one or two-arm overhead lifts are done from a shoulder-high power rack, in which the dumbbell is guided between metal bars.

Critics ask why he doesn't do ordinary military presses and calf-raises, so his feats can be evaluated against traditional standards. But Sri Chinmoy has always been an innovator. "We have to go forward with new ideas. Why should I only follow the old system? Every day science is making new discoveries. If we go on reading the same old book, although it may be an excellent book, it becomes boring. If you add some totally new flowers to a rose garden, they will only add to the beauty of the garden. If a tree has many branches instead of only one or two, then each one will offer new interest and new beauty."

Born in a tiny Indian village in East Bengal, India, Sri Chinmoy lost his parents at an early age and then moved to an ashram, or spiritual community, to live with his older brothers and sisters. Meditation was part of everyday life, and over the next 20 years he became well-versed in spirituality. It was during his meditation that he received the inner message to dedicate his life to bringing forward the best in his fellow man. In 1964 he emigrated to America to pursue that goal.

Since then, he has written hundreds of books of poetry and philosophy, composed thousands of devotional songs and completed large numbers of mystical paintings and miniature bird drawings depicting the freedom of the human soul. But perhaps his most dramatic contribution has been in sports, where he has shown most graphically the unlimited and ageless capacity of the human spirit.

"The physical world that we see with our eyes is not the only world. There is also an inner world, where everything finds its source," he says. "Because of my weightlifting, many people will be inspired to enter into the spiritual life. Again, spiritual people will be inspired to enter into the physical world."

Sri Chinmoy has spent most of his life uplifting body and spirit and now, at the age of 67, is still on the fast track. "I feel that God does not want human beings to retire. God Himself is always doing something new, always transcending His own Infinity and Eternity. Since we all have God within us, we also have to keep going on, going on, going on -- until our last breath."