2017-07-27
Losing is not something Aras Baskauskas, a yoga teacher from Venice, Calif., knows well: He finished his undergraduate studies in a mere three years and is the only student to have played NCAA men's Division I basketball on scholarship while in an MBA program. Oh, and he won $1 million dollars competing in "Survivor: Panama" in spring 2006. And that's all by age 24. Baskauskas recently spoke with Beliefnet about how deciding to be loving and honest helped him succeed in a cutthroat environment while his every move was aired on reality television. So what's his secret to success? Is it just good luck? No, he says, "Yoga is why I won."



crazydude
Aras Baskauskas





Why did you decide to go on "Survivor"?

I went on because I thought it would be a fun, exciting experience. I didn't pursue it; it kind of fell in my lap. One of my buddies was asked to do it, but then decided he was too skinny, so he recommended me. I had just gotten back from living at Mount Madonna Center, which is a yoga center in Santa Cruz, and it sounded like another adventure, so I said, “Sure, I'll do it.” And boy, was it another adventure.

Did your yoga practice prepare you to compete on the show?


It helped me stay focused out there. I meditated every morning for around 30 minutes and then I'd do some yoga, depending on how I felt. But it was the morning meditations that really let me keep my mind clear in terms of my intentions out there. Obviously everyone's out there to win, but it taught me how to win and how to play and how to acknowledge and face the fears that are inherent in playing that game. I feel like yoga is why I won. I feel like that practice really gave me everything in the game.

How did you reconcile your spiritual values with competing in a cutthroat environment?

This is how I left my house to go to Panama: We had a teepee fire in my backyard and my dad and a couple close friends came by and we talked about intentions. We talked about all of our intentions for our lives and each one of us had a very similar intention, which was to be loving and honest as much as you can for as long as possible. None of us said our goal was to win $1 million. With that, it was really clear what my intention was out there: to stand with truth and love with $1 million dangling in my face, and if I should waver from that, how quickly can I come back to it?

It's just like a yoga class. I teach my students to focus on the breath and very quickly your mind's going to wander, but as quickly as you can bring it back to your breath, come back. So that's the yoga practice, and that's the practice in life, in terms of being honest and loving. There are going to be times that the habit-pattern is such that you're not going to be honest and you're not going to be loving, but how quickly can you come back? So, that was my intention, and I had that as a guiding light throughout the show, because there were times when I wasn't honest, for sure, and there were times when I wasn't necessarily loving, but, in relation to everybody else, I feel like I had so much more intention, and a razor-sharp intention, at that.

When you win something like this, there are so many variables, there's so much going on, it could have easily gone any other way, but it didn't. And this sounds a little bit crazy, but I feel like I was truly blessed. This is the challenge because the growth that's taken place in me since "Survivor" has been so difficult and amazing, and I just say, “Wow, well, this is my course in life and this is why all this is happening.” I've gone through such amazing changes afterwards even, and that's kind of where I am now. That experience was amazing, and now I'm going through a whole other experience.

Do you think "Survivor" reflects yogic principles?

"Survivor" is a contract setting; in life we never have to vote someone off the island, there's enough for everybody, there's abundance on this planet. Even with seven billion people on the planet, there's still enough to live a sustainable life. Maybe not enough for us all to live like Americans, but there's certainly abundance. I feel like most of us feel that there's not enough. Most of us feel like, if we shared, we wouldn't get our fair share. And so, the game has been set up to play on the fear in most people's minds of lack and scarcity.

I felt like at a very real level it was the most amazing experience because I've never connected more with myself. When I got home, I could look at my relationships with everybody I loved and cared about, and I could tell you where all the junk was. I could tell you where the energetic flows got blocked, I was so clear. I'm not that way any more, but when I got back, I was, because there were no distractions for me out there, nothing. You're on an island and, once you've gotten your food and water and your shelter taken care of--and that's an all-day job--you go to bed.

How long have you practiced yoga for?

I've been practicing for about five years. I've really been studying it for, I'd say, two years, maybe two and a half now.

What style of yoga do you practice?

I practice and teach hatha yoga. Actually, my teacher is teaching me this technique he calls "yoga naga." And it's like the serpent yoga. It's the warrior yoga.

During the show you were very vocal about the fact that you're a yoga teacher. What were you hoping to communicate to the other competitors by letting them know?

I really wanted to set up morality in people's minds. If people are conscious of the fact that their moral compass is going to be aired on television, they are more likely to continue with truth and honesty. And I knew I was going to play the game truthfully. I knew that playing the game truthfully required that other people play it truthfully as well, or else I'd be in trouble. And so, I wanted to establish myself as that very early on. It was really important to put that into people's minds as being the overarching theme as opposed to the money.

Do you feel it worked to your advantage or your disadvantage?

I won, so, obviously, it had to have worked to my advantage. I think it was good that we could set up a moral compass right away for people because what happens invariably in that show is that people just keep undercutting each other. But establishing like, “Yo, there's going to be no undercutting here,” and trying to make that the dominant paradigm, it changes the way people play the game.


With the way that yoga is portrayed, or skewed, in pop culture, do you believe that you were stereotyped by "Survivor's" editors in a way that made you look like the kooky, out-of-it, yoga guy?

Yeah. Well, there are some scenes, especially the first episode, where they showed me doing a hand meditation, trying to make a fire. It actually had nothing to do with yoga. That was something that I learned in college from some cheerleaders.

So, what were you actually doing?

I watched these cheerleaders, they were over at my house one day, and they were showing us this thing that they do where four little cheerleaders pick up a giant guy with their fingertips. It is a meditation, and it totally works. On the show it was like day three, we still hadn't had a fire, and the way they edited it they made it seem like we got off the beach and the first thing I did was that. But no, this is like the 19th attempt at making a fire. We were doing so many stupid things to try to make this fire, and I figured, well, this couldn't hurt. But, of course they play that, and so it's like, “Well, Aras is a weird yoga guy.”

Reality TV not only stereotypes people, but also shows them at their absolute worst. Given that, how were you are able to live a yogic life while participating in the overexposure that American reality TV delivers?

I think that it takes a really honest evaluation of what it means to live a yogic life. I teach yoga and I practice yoga, and by no means am I a yogi. I'm dealing with the same demons that everybody else is. Jealousy, greed, and egoism all come up for me. And it was really interesting to watch the editing unfold, and to watch how hurt my ego was when things happened. I would get genuinely hurt watching it. I felt that the editing obviously gave a very skewed picture of what happened. But it really allowed me to look at my own insecurities and my own need for external validation and all that jazz.

What inspires you in your life?

For many years Michael Jordan inspired me. I've been inspired by all sorts of things. Now my inspiration lies in making myself the best person I can be. As I get older and start to gain just a little bit of wisdom, I realize that the best isn't so much in comparison to other people. But I must be the best Aras I can be, and study what that means.

I would like to go over the yamas and niyamas, the "10 commandments" of yoga, with you to hear your opinion of how well you followed them while on "Survivor." Let's start with the yamas: Ahimsa, non-violence, kindness.

I thought I was really, really kind. I mean, we did eat meat out there, so, there was definitely the killing of animals.

Are you vegetarian?

I am, but not when I was out there, obviously. But even in the study of Ahimsa, a human life is the most evolved life there is. And so, if it requires that you kill another animal to stay alive, then you have to do it. I thought I was really, really gentle and kind with people. Here's the thing, however: It's a game where only one person is going to win, so it automatically sets up a knocking-people-off mentality. And I want to pretend like I was totally with Ahimsa but the game doesn't allow for that. But, I thought I was really kind. I was really attentive to my tribe and made sure everybody got what they needed, and so I thought I was pretty non-harming.

Satya, truthfulness.

I was pretty truthful. I think I probably told less lies in 39 days out on that island than I do in my normal life.

Asteya, non-stealing.

I didn't steal anything.

Brahmacharya, moderation, remembering a higher reality.

I'd say I was with that most of the time except for the last, let's see, three days. So, a lot of people associate Brahmacharya with sexual abstinence and in that regard I didn't think about sex for 39 days. But, I translate it as "focusing on God" and really putting your practice first.

Aparigraha, greedlessness, simplicity, non-possessiveness.

I totally was with that all the way until the second-to-last day, when I realized I was going to win. I got very, very attached to winning. I didn't do anything that I've regretted--but I watched myself lose control of my equanimity.

Niyamas: Shaucha, purity and clarity.

I feel like I had that pretty much down. I had a lot of clarity, and I think that was really due to the intention I set first.

Santosa, contentment.

I was totally content. I've never been more content in my life watching the sun set every night; never in my life have I ever watched sunsets with more contentment.

Tapas, austerity or the willingness to do what's necessary to reach a goal with discipline.

I think that was probably why I won. I think I really committed myself to doing the work out there. A lot of people broke down and didn't have the willpower to fight through this discomfort and to stay with what they were all about, you know, and they just kind of buckled. And I feel like I really stood with what I wanted to stand with.

Svadhyaya, self-education or self-study.

Geez, that's happened since the show. A super amount has gone down with that. But, there's so much to do out there that there's not a lot of time for that. You're constantly, like, surviving.


Ishvara Pranidhana, surrender to God, light or energy of the universe.

I'm working on that. I have to say that I feel like I did all those things probably more than I've ever done them in my life. I enjoyed myself so much out there, I enjoyed that connection with the earth and all that jazz out there. And I certainly enjoyed surrendering into something so much greater than me.

How has your relationship with yoga changed since being on the show?

What brought me to yoga was watching this insatiable appetite for external validation ruin me. And so, as I began to explore the yoga more and more, I learned to find the validation inside, and then I win. And now there are truckloads of external validation. And to be perfectly honest I totally let myself feast on that. And so the come-down has been like, “Wow, look at you, Aras, can you sit in silence for an hour now? Good luck with that without someone patting you on the back." So I really, really had to rein it in and start to re-center.

It's been an amazing ride, but now I'm back to what it is that I really love doing, which is exploring myself. And it's been a challenge and it's been so deflating. I've been built up so much by this that the tear-down had to come. Now I'm trying to build with integrity as opposed to the quick build of celebrity, which is completely fabricated, anyway.

Are you using your platform as a celebrity to promote yoga?

The platform that I stand on isn't really a huge one. It may be elevated a centimeter from what I was before, so it's not like everyone wants to hear what the winner of "Survivor" has to say. I really want to have the yoga promote from the yoga. And so my goal is to continue to let myself become the yoga, and so then it will manifest from that. So, I'm really trying to keep those two things separate. The truth is, being on "Survivor" you do have a voice, and if I were just to scream from the top of the mountains, “Okay, everybody come to yoga now,” I feel like it would cheapen the yoga, and I don't want to do that.

How has the money affected you?

I've spent maybe a couple thousand dollars on myself, and I've given a lot of it away. It's given me some freedom. Also it's brought up a lot of fear and attachment to not losing it and not wasting it and the fear of the judgment that would come from my peers if in two years I'd have nothing again.

What advice can you offer next season's competitors on how to maintain their values while being on the show?

My advice would be to set your intention. How do you want to act out there? If you have no frame of reference, you'll never maintain your values, because it's $1 million, and it's so gnarly. But, if you do, if you're clear on what you want, just get clear one way or the other. If you want to rationalize lying out there and say it's just a game, that's totally fine, you know? But, know it before the game starts, and have that clarity coming in because then you'll feel like you didn't disappoint yourself on the way out.

If you can only do one yoga pose on an island, what would it be?

Half lotus, because you can sit and meditate, and it's a little more accessible than full lotus.

Do you have a favorite prayer, meditation, or mantra that you can recite for us?

I love myself. I love myself. I love myself. I love myself.

more from beliefnet and our partners