Lelihana: The Climbing Flame

faceWhen she was a little girl lelihana says she used to look out from the windows of her music school and long to be outside with the children playing there.  For 7 years however, from the age of  7 until 14, her time was caught up in studying the piano.  The adventure and thrill of the sports world was always enticingly just beyond her reach.  At that young age she was simply following the steady predictable path that many Russian children do if they want to be able to reach University.  With her mom working in a kindergarten and her dad working as a cook the family did not have much interest in athletics. The rarefied world of international sport was far from being an easily anticipated option in her life. She admits that at the time, she just didn’t like music.

Of course great dreams and divine opportunities can stride into one’s life at their own time and in their own unfathomable way.   It was the encouragement of one of her music teachers who was able to shift the focus of her life.  He, along with others, saw in her an unquestionable wealth of talent that she had as an athlete, that far surpassed her musical abilities. It was clear to many that her feet could move her much further and faster than her fingers.

nike-start-2So at age 14 she at last found herself able to be outdoors, but it was not at playing frivolous games.  Instead, she quickly became focused on the disciplined and challenging world of track and field.  As she talks about it today she speaks with an easy confidence, as if she was destined for the life of a world class sprinter.  She advanced very quickly in the sport and by the time she was 15 she was winning meets.  When she was just 17 she represented Russia at a World’s junior competition in the 100 meters.  She ran her personal best at this time which was 11.84.  She says of this experience, “I was a little bit scared but otherwise it was okay.”

She has been competing internationally now for more than a dozen years.  Her specialty has become both the 400 meters and 4×400 relay.  The track and field world knows her as Olesya Zykina, but to those who are her fellow students of the late Indian Spiritual teacher, she is Lelihana, which means the Climbing Flame.  When asked what her spiritual name means to her she says, “I like it.  It is beautiful, this is my name.  When it is difficult for me I repeat my name.”

P1000003New York now for her has become a very special place ever since she became a student back in 2007.  Her decision to devote herself to the spiritual life is of course a not so obvious choice as simply peering out from a school window and wishing to join the kids outside. The success and disappointments of our lives can appear to change the way we look at the world but sometimes simply the heart wants to travel forward quickly and leads us onward to a deeper goal within.  In Lellihana’s case it was her friendship with another Russian athlete, Sarbottama Tatyana Lebedeva who became a close friend to her on the Russain team.  She encouraged Lelihana to learn more about Sri Chinmoy and his teachings.

Sarbottama and her husband had been inspired by Sri Chinmoy for several years and she said of him, when he passed away in 2007, “We are grateful to the Supreme that in the course of life we met this man. Sri Chinmoy taught us to take correct decisions by listening to our hearts; he made us more spiritual. He is and will always be for us an inspirer, a wise Teacher, a worthy example. The intellectual and spiritual inheritance that Sri Chinmoy has left us gives us an opportunity to continue perfecting ourselves endlessly.”

Lotika, Lelihana, Bipula, three friends

Lotika, Lelihana, Bipula, three friends

Lelihana’s birthday was October 7th and this year she turned 29.  She visited Queens shortly afterward with  her good friend Lotika.  They are very comfortable in each others presence and one could easily imagine them to be playful sisters and not just friends.  Recently over breakfast at the Smile of the Beyond restaurant, Lelihana answered some questions about her life’s journey with Lotika offering smiles, encouragement, and some translating.

The anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s passing was on the 11th and she and Lotika where here for the events that took place in and around that date.  Training for Lelihana of course continues.  The fall is usually a transition period for track athletes.  It is a time that exists between the outdoor and indoor competitive season.  Though her future is not clear, and she has no plans as of yet, she continued to train every morning while in New York.  For her traveling companion Lotika, it also means daily training sessions inspired by Lelihana.   “She is my friend for real and she is fun to be with.  She inspires me to run here.  We go out every morning.  I have already improved my 2 mile run time.”

Heart Garden anniversary run-Photo by Jowan

Heart Garden anniversary run-Photo Jowan

I can remember all too well the first time I saw Lelihana run.  It was during a sports day competition in 2007.  These meets have been held every August, usually around the time of Sri Chinmoy’s birthday.  There were a few fine athletes competing, but none where anywhere near the caliber of an international athlete such as her.  Almost out of the blue, Sri Chinmoy then invited Lelihana to run her distance, the 400 meters.

When she bolted from her crouch in the starting position, there was simply no comparison between her and everyone else.  There had been a suggestion to give the other girls a 100 meter head start, but it was soon dismissed.  It was like watching a high performance race car hurtling forward being chased by puffing mopeds.  Even though she did not run at her top speed her awesome strength and power was evident with each long swift stride. Her red hair bobbed rhythmically as her heels flicked lightly up behind her.

You can see her winning form in the world indoor championship in March 2008

2008 World Indoor Championship

inside-shotWhen she first came to New York in August of 2007 she says simply, “I wasn’t really searching.”  Yet from the first moment she saw Sri Chinmoy meditating and driving one of his little carts, “I simply felt that I wanted to please him and make him happy.”  It was all a very wonderful and different world for this ginger haired sprinter from Moscow.  But from the beginning she says, “I could feel his inner peace.  I could feel that he loves me.”

There are often many new experiences that occur within when one enters the spiritual life.  The inner connection between the student and teacher is one that is deeply personal and is unique to each and every seeker.  It is in and through this inner connection that the teacher inspires the student, and from that, the transformation of the inner life takes place.  There are no stop watches, no strides counted, no baton is passed, the goal is within.   It is clear that Lelihana has found herself once again on a new path, but this one lies within.  It is also one that has helped and inspired her as well in the outer world.  When the world indoor games came around the winter after she became a student, Lelihana won her first gold medal in 400 meter individual competition.

Sitting in the small Queens restaurant she is clearly at ease.  From time to time she looks wistfully out the window at the busy street.  There are a few brief silent moments when it seems as though she is searching for answers.  Finding the best words to describe the wealth of her inner and outer experiences.   It is for her after all, an amazing journey that she finds herself now taking.  Most of the time she simply laughs with ease.  When asked what she likes about the little Spiritual community in this Queens neighborhood she says, “I like that you people are always positive and always smiling.  I feel nice around you all, very comfortable.”

When asked what awaits her in a few days when she returns to Moscow her answer is, “I don’t know.  I don’t know when my next competition will be be, my coach and I haven’t made plans.”  When one examines her accomplishments it is a lengthy list. Her record of achievements stretches back more than a dozen years.  Many times she has appeared on the world stage.   At two Olympic games she has returned home with medals in the 4×400 relay.  She received a bronze medal in Sydney and a silver medal in Athens.  When asked whether or not the London games of 2012 are in her plans, she admits, “Yes this is my dream.  I don’t have a gold medal.” Also she still hopes to run the 400 meters under 51 seconds.

When asked if the World of music is gone for ever, she smiles with delight and laughs lightly.  “Now I am inspired to start playing again.”  As of yet, she has yet to purchase a piano.

nike-start4When asked what Sri Chinmoy may have said to her, she smiles wistfully, recalling his conversation.  She says he told her how he used to run barefoot in competition when he was a young boy in India.

When asked what changes she has seen come over her in the past few years she says, “I became more patient.  I became kinder.  I became more attentive, more observant, and more responsive.  I have learned how to live day by day and get happiness just by living.  To be happy just because we are living.  To enjoy every single day.”

She admits however that she will miss New York when she returns to Moscow and the long winter ahead.  One in which indoor competition may or may not happen in late December and January for her.  She says, “I will miss the smiles.  I will miss the sincere joy of the people here and I will miss the sincerity.  I will try and preserve inside me, the light that I got here.”

She met Sri Chinmoy in person only during her short trip to New york, in the summer of 2007.  When asked what are her feelings about him are now she says, “I still want to please him when I do something. I also hope he is pleased at my self transcendence.”  She then tells me that on her birthday, October 7th 2007, just days before he passed, he called to wish her Happy Birthday.  It is clear that he spoke to her words that could inspire her for a life time. When asked how high the climbing flame in her can reach, she smiles with such sweetness and says, “I think if it wants to climb high, it can really climb high.”

3 Comments to “Lelihana: The Climbing Flame”

  1. chanakhya says:

    Nice piece Utpal. Very inspiring!!!

  2. pavitrata says:

    Utpal, your writing just gets better and better. This knowledgeable and informative article is also infused with warmth, clarity, insight and empathy. Well done. Also, excellent use of photos!

  3. joe says:


Leave a Reply