It was an ambitious plan and it actually worked – well, almost! Since I was scheduled to go overseas for a few weeks in September, the plan was to attempt 4 Guinness world records in 4 different countries in less than a month. And to make it even more exciting, if I succeeded, the fourth record would mark my 100th, the culmination of more than 25 years of record-breaking that began with 27,000 jumping jacks way back in 1979! Looking back on it, there was no compelling reason to try to reach so quickly, but the mad scramble made it ever so much more fun!
The first of the 4 attempts would take place at the end of August right here in the U.S.A., New York, to be specific. This would be a team effort involving a bunch of my friends who are almost as over the top as I am! While flipping through the 2005 Guinness Book, the candle-lighting record caught my eye. The record was for the most simultaneously lit candles on a cake: 12,432 to be exact. Since my meditation teacher’s 74th birthday was coming up in a few weeks, I figured it would be cool to present Sri Chinmoy with an historic 27,000-candle blazing tribute! However, unlike the previous record holders who crammed all their candles onto a 6-foot cake and ended up with a giant bonfire, I wanted our cake to have 27,000 individual flames. After some experimentation, I quickly realized that this would be a massive project requiring a cake 3 feet wide and 47 feet long, and 50 fearless guys with blowtorches to ignite it!
The hours of practicing were crucial. We discovered that we would only have about one minute to light all the candles and no more than another 60 seconds for the official counters and videographers to do their job before the candles melted down. We also determined which brand of candles burned the longest (they have to be traditional birthday candles), the most efficient way to set up the candles, and even the best type of footwear to use. (Once the lighting starts, within seconds a river of melted wax begins streaming off the cake onto the ground and the guys quickly learned that wearing sandals was hazardous to one’s health!)
I also learned the hard way about fire extinguishers. People kept warning me that I should be worried about the fire getting out of control, so I bought a fire extinguisher and decided to test it out a couple of hours before the attempt. The birthday festivities are held in a small park in Jamaica, Queens, and were already underway. I was on the outskirts, along with a few other people who were waiting to get in. My friend Satyajit was sitting about 15 feet away, meditating quietly with his eyes closed. I was sure he was safe when I pointed the extinguisher in his direction and lightly depressed the release lever. Oh, my God! To my disbelief, a huge white burst of powder emerged from the hose and was headed straight for the tranquil Satyajit, who had no idea what was about to hit him. I froze in horror. By the time I yelled my friend’s name to warn him, it was too late – he was already invisible, engulfed in the unstoppable cloud. Fortunately, after a quick trip home for a shower, he was fine, but my friends banned me from ever touching the fire extinguisher again!
The actual attempt went well. The 50 guys were lined up on both sides of the cake with their blowtorches turned on high. The intensity was palpable. I gave the signal to start and within 70 seconds, amidst the cheers of over a thousand bystanders, the cake was fully ablaze. A few unlit patches of candles remained and, to his credit, my pal Virendra braved the fierce heat and made several kamikaze lunges to successfully complete the cake, burning off parts of his eyebrows in the process!
Sri Chinmoy offered his deepest gratitude for our presentation, and then it was time to blow out the cake – a task easier said than done. Eventually we got most of the flames extinguished except for a small section which raged out of control. We were about to call for the fire extinguisher, but Aryavan realized that the guys who were blowing from the opposite side of the cake were actually fanning the 3-foot high flames. Once we curbed their enthusiasm, we managed to get the fire out. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. The Guinness rules state that the cake has to be eaten, so afterwards, Sundari and her crew peeled off the hardened wax coating, re-iced the cake and everyone enjoyed a piece of the delicious, although admittedly slightly waxy, record-breaking pastry! So far, so good – #97 was a glorious success.
Exactly a week later, Sri Chinmoy began a concert tour dedicated to world harmony that would bring him to Cambodia on September 5th and then continue on to Switzerland and Germany. I was fortunate to be able to join him on the trip and I hoped his performances would energize me in my quest to break 3 more records in 3 countries while on the tour. My plan was to go for #98 in Cambodia, fly from Switzerland to Italy to break #99, and then take off for England at the end of the tour to attempt the big 1-0-0. So, a day after the 20-hour flight to Cambodia, my friend Udar and I took a quick side trip over to the famous ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat. Here I would attempt to break the record for the most turns with a jump rope in a minute while bouncing on a pogo stick. I hoped to better the 156 jumps that I did in front of the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park in September 2004.
I had been to Angkor Wat before, but it was even more spectacular than I remembered and also much hotter! Udar set up the video camera on a tripod, our official witness took control of the stopwatch and, after several attempts, I was thrilled to reach 170 jumps. The record was achieved – or so I thought! You see, to validate this particular record the count on Udar’s mechanical counter had to agree with the count on the videotape. There was a problem – Udar apparently had missed a few jumps, so we would have to attempt the record all over again!
I was drenched with sweat, my quadriceps felt like Jello, and I was feeling drained, but then something happened that really turned things around. A middle-aged Australian couple came over to inquire what we were up to. As soon as we explained, the wife, presumably noticing that I was overheated, suddenly and spontaneously unscrewed the top off her bottle of water and, without saying a word, poured its contents over my head! It both cooled me off and gave us all a lift! After I stopped laughing, I was able to do 173 jumps in a minute, and this time the video confirmed that it was a new world record!
Following an inspiring concert by Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, the tour headed off to Zurich, Switzerland, but I took a detour to Pisa, Italy, where I met up with my co-conspirators, Bipin and Sanjaya. It had long been a dream of mine to break the milk crate balancing record at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I could just see in my mind’s eye an awesome photo of a tower of 22 milk crates stacked up on my chin next to the world-renowned architectural mishap. Someone had just surpassed the milk crate record I had held for several years, so it was the perfect time to try to get it back. Unfortunately, I had my own mishap at Pisa! The area I was assigned to, as stipulated by the permit, was severely sloped, and the angle affected the mechanics of my balancing. Although I gave it my best, I could only manage to keep the stack of crates balanced for 8 seconds, a mere 2 seconds short of the mandatory 10 seconds required by Guinness. The ironic part of the story is that instead of the photo I had imagined, Reuters Press Agency got a spectacular shot of me dropping the crates which appeared in newspapers all over the world!
Before leaving Pisa, I promised myself that I would return next year and make another attempt, but in the meantime, I rejoined the tour in Zurich, one record short. Very uncharacteristically for me, I had a contingency plan. When I left New York, I had packed a regulation pool cue. There was a record for running a mile while continuously balancing a pool cue on one’s finger in 7 minutes and 24 seconds. Although I had practiced this event in the past, it had been quite a while ago. Still, I decided to give it a try. Within 24 hours, my buddy Hutashan got permission for me to use the world-class Letzigrund Track, and he also rounded up the required number of reputable witnesses. Although I felt a bit sluggish, and nearly lost balance of the cue on the final turn, I managed to run a 7-minute and 6-second mile to clinch record #99! Of course, Guinness would have to verify the last 3 records, but barring any unforeseen problems, I was now within 10 days of making my dream to go after record #100 in London a reality!
Just before I left for London, I got the good news and the bad news. The good news was that all the record attempts to date had been officially accepted. The bad news was that Guinness had been unable to get permission for me to break the giant hula hoop record at the Eye (see “The Cosmic Circle” on the STORIES page) and instead, arranged for me to go for the century mark on live national TV. I dislike attempting records on live TV because there is much more pressure – it is unforgiving. On live TV you only get one chance to succeed and if you mess up, you are history; whereas when a show is taped, you can make several attempts until you get it right. Even so, I was excited.
I was booked to attempt the giant hula hoop record on the popular Richard and Judy Show. Being an ignorant American, I had never heard of the program, but I soon discovered firsthand that it was popular because when I told the scowling immigration lady at London/Heathrow airport about my purpose for visiting England, her eyes lit up, and she actually smiled at me!
I didn’t have to be at the studio until the afternoon, so I called some of my British friends, including Devashishu, to check on the giant hula hoop that I would be using on the show. Devashishu had attended Sri Chinmoy’s birthday celebration in New York and had transported the disassembled hoop back home with him to England. This new hoop was 16 feet in diameter, more than a foot larger than the hula hoop I had used to set the previous record. The larger the hoop gets, the more wobbly it becomes, and the more energy and skill it takes to meet the Guinness requirement of rotating the aluminum ring at least 3 times around one’s waist without the hoop touching the ground. I had managed 7 revolutions of the new hula hoop in practice just before leaving for the tour, but that was 3 weeks ago. I was desperate to practice, especially considering that I would only have one chance to bring home the prize.
I thought it would be fun to hold the practice at a London landmark and, after some discussion, my friends and I decided that Trafalgar Square would be the ideal location. However, as soon as we pulled up to the Square in our unmarked white van and began to assemble the hoop, we realized we had been a tad optimistic, because the police immediately converged on us and unceremoniously kicked us out! Undaunted, we drove over to Hyde Park and quickly riveted the hoop together, hoping not to be noticed. Of course, it’s hard not to notice half a dozen guys putting together a hula hoop the size of a small house, but the Park police were too amused to chase us away! Bipin and I then carried the hoop across one of the busiest intersections in London to the Marble Arch and, after several unsuccessful attempts, I was able to do 8 revolutions of the monster metal circle in front of the famous Arch. I was exhausted, but ready to finally meet Richard and Judy!
The actual attempt was slotted to take place in the parking lot outside of the studio, a fine location as long as it didn’t rain. Of course, by the time the director called for a rehearsal, it was raining cats and dogs, but I agreed to give it a whirl anyway. I had never practiced in the rain and soon discovered why. The rain makes everything slippery and you need good traction to overcome the inertia of the heavy hula hoop. Anyway, I finally got the hoop spinning and then something really unprecedented happened. Suddenly, the hoop flew off my body and over my head, and went sailing like a giant flying saucer through the air! I was in shock, and so were the cameramen who were in the line of fire. Luckily, the errant hula hoop veered off to the left and crashed into a fence, leaving all unharmed.
The time for the live performance had finally arrived and I was blessed with good fortune. The rain stopped in the nick of time and both Richard and Judy turned out to be delightful people. I said a silent prayer and gathered all my strength to give the hoop a mighty spin. I think everyone on the show was worried that the hula hoop would become airborne again (the cameramen had relocated to the roof of the studio!), but I was able to keep it down to earth. The Guinness judge, Sue Morisson, was on hand and I could hear her counting aloud as the gigantic hoop circled my body and bruised my ribs – “one, two, three-” Halfway through the fourth revolution the hoop scraped the ground, ending the attempt; but as I had completed the required 3 revolutions, Sue announced, “It’s official, a new Guinness record, congratulations Ashrita on your 100th world record!” Sue handed me a certificate commemorating the occasion, and Richard and Judy were beaming.
I didn’t find out until after the show when we disassembled the hoop that, as a result of the crash into the fence, several of the rivets holding the hoop together had been damaged. During the attempt, the hula hoop did feel wobblier, but I thought it was just my imagination. My heart was full of gratitude to my meditation teacher who, I am convinced, not only gave me some inner help for this event, but inspired and encouraged me every step of the way. Of course, the journey is far from over – as of this writing I’ve broken 3 more records – one while holding a small dog! As Sri Chinmoy so aptly says, “There is only one perfect road and that road is ahead of you, always ahead of you.”