The tilted saltshaker stands on its own as if suspended by an invisible string or a magic spell. Through round, metal-framed glasses Ashrita Furman looks on amused, yet reassured as his hands hover above it and begin to pull away: like a father setting down his child to take its first steps. Furman then edges his chin down and blows away a small pile of salt that keeps the object propped on edge. From across the robins egg blue linoleum table at Smile of the Beyond Vegetarian Diner, I wait for the glass shaker to topple over. It doesn’t.
“You see,” Furman shrugs with a confident chuckle, “everything balances.” Ashrita Furman — World Record holder for the most World Records in the world — knows the art of creating balance very well. Yes, he can balance a lawn mower or pole on his chin, he can balance 888 eggs on end, and he has achieved the Guinness World Record for both these things, in addition to 400 other feats. He understands balance so well, however, because as someone who practices transcendentalist meditation he sees the inner spiritual life working in conjunction with the outer active life. That equalizing point between ying and yang can only be uncovered through self-discovery and present-minded efforts to find points between the two that keep saltshakers from tipping over.
Unlike the expected arrogance of a World Record breaking limit-pusher, you’re more apt to catch Furman observing the curves of his sneaker laces during conversation and receiving applause with a humble shoulder shrug. He might also accredit his accomplishments to his mentor, East Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. In High School, Furman flunked out of physical education class and today he describes himself as a “shy nerd.” But there’s a wild man’s voice that comes out of him like a raucous, and at any given instant you never know when he might explode into star jumps or boisterous laughter. Sometimes, he blushes afterward.
It’s of no surprise and very little alarm to anyone else in Smile of the Beyond when Furman leaps up from the table to demonstrate squat thrusts. Accustomed to his shenanigans, which have by now become usual antics, regular customers continue sipping their carrot ginger juice while I glance around awkwardly. An earthquake struck, and no one felt it but me.
Furman’s hometown in Jamaica, Queens shares very little in common with the tropical island nation in the Caribbean, although the neighborhood happens incidentally to house many Jamaican residents. Amid Parson Avenue’s commonplace backdrop, a clan of Sri Chinmoy’s followers, including Furman, opened a succession of buildings painted the color of consciousness: brilliant blue. A monochromatic streak of azure, Smile of the Beyond sits next door to Guru Stationary sits next door to Divine Robe Supreme sits next door to Guru Health Foods. And while women who run the gift store sew and sell saris, a few blocks away “seeker-runners” from Furman’s transcendentalist group jog in circles around a school, 60 miles a day for 52 days in the annual Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, which Chinmoy initiated in 1997.
Just down the street, Café Panorama dedicates an entire wall to Furman’s World Record certificates. “I stopped setting records here because they’ve run out of wall space,” he joked.
In his lifetime, Furman has set over 400 Guinness World Records in more than 40 countries across all seven continents. Currently, he holds 151 records including the record for the most records held at the same time by an individual (he has reset many of his old records and other contenders have broken ones he currently holds).
I suppose you could call him multi-talented and well traveled, at the least. While in Mexico, he completed the most games of hopscotch in 24 hours; in China he strode the fastest eight-mile stilt walk; in Bulgaria he performed the most forward rolls in one hour; and on Easter Island he spit a champagne cork the greatest distance. The list continues to grow and becomes more eccentric —hula hooping with a milk bottle on his head, consuming copious amounts of garlic in one minute, swim fin running, cucumber snapping, shirt ripping, frog jumping. If the action can end in the suffix –ing, he probably has a record for it.
Even though he spends his free time riding a unicycle, practicing taping himself and other people to walls, and jump roping on a bosu ball, he thinks it’s insane that there aren’t World Records already for things like throwing grapes into someone’s mouth on top of elephants and suspending off-kilter saltshakers. So, he’s always in the process of inventing and submitting new ideas, practicing to break old records he’s already set, and beating other people who have reset his old records.
One time, while skipping a marathon for the first time in Guinness history, someone asked, “Hey! What are you doing?” Furman replied, “I’m skipping a marathon.” And the onlooker quipped, “That’s easy, I skip marathons all the time!” Sometimes, record setting takes more preparation than his flawless practices let on. In this case, the stranger didn’t know the strife Furman endured to prevent skipping blisters or the effort he went to coating his feet in Vaseline and friction proofing the bottom of his shoes. Sometimes, though, these efforts yield a sweet reward: after the marathon, organizers gifted Furman a jar of Skippy peanut butter.
From skips to somersaults, the hardest record he ever set — long distance somersaulting: 12 miles 390 yards along Paul Revere’s ride from Lexington to Charlestown, Massachusetts.
“I had four slices of pizza the night before, which was really stupid,” Furman said. “I was throwing up the whole time.”
Nauseated, dizzy, and with two miles to go, Furman stopped at the ten-mile mark with plans to simply break the standing record and go home. That’s when his friends came forward with news from his guru Sri Chinmoy whom they had called knowing Furman might give up. As with many incidences in his life, Sri Chinmoy said the exact thing to get him rolling again, “Tell Ashrita he can do it.”
“I had total faith that he saw something in me and I just jumped [up] and started rolling again,” Furman said. “And the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘I am not the body, I am the soul.’ I had never said that before … and it really just sums up everything for me. That’s why I do the records, that’s why I’m on earth, to realize that truth: that I am not the body, I am the soul. It carried me through to the end. I finished. I was fine. I had a big Italian meal afterwards. For about three weeks after the record I was just floating on air.”
Sometimes something as silly as slicing the most apples with a samurai sword in a minute, which Furman asserts is incredibly challenging, is rooted in something more serious that you wouldn’t predict by reading the World Record Book.
In high school, Furman discovered transcendental meditation when he met Sri Chinmoy. Originally from Bangladesh, Chinmoy came to the United States when he starting having visions about teaching the Western World transcendental meditation practices. He believed that world harmony was at first achieved through internal peace and wanted to help others find theirs. A jaunty figure known amongst his community for his jovial smile, commitment to world peace, and unearthly strength, Furman and Chinmoy shared a unique, familial-like bond. Upon induction into the community, Chinmoy gave Keith his new name: Ashrita or “protected by God.”
“As soon as I saw [Sri Chinmoy] he had this halo around him and I knew he was a holy person and I knew I wanted to follow him,” Furman said. “He believed in physical sports, that you could pray and meditate while you were using your body. It’s another aspect in your life you could use to get closer to God.”
Many found Chinmoy’s practices uplifting, in the metaphorical and physical sense. Well-known for long distance running and super-human strength, Chinmoy dead lifted thousands of pounds and everything from cars and people to elephants and planes. As his mentor and spiritual leader, Chinmoy lifted Furman up by teaching him enlightenment through extreme physical activity.
Now, Furman too dedicates his practice to challenging the potential of the human mind, body, and spirit. Whether breaking norms or records, he preaches self-ownership and being unique.
“For me, people have no idea how hard it is doing forward rolls or crawling. So, I learned it doesn’t matter what other people think. And it’s the same thing with my spiritual life,” Furman said. “Each person has to do what makes them happy … This is the most fun life I couldn’t have ever imagined.”