Aras Baskauskas saunters into Real Food Daily restaurant in Santa Monica carrying a giant bowl of strawberries and smiling. Tanned with a scruffy beard, piercing brown eyes, and gentle hands, he’s wearing board shorts and a faded Jackson Hole T-shirt. When the waiter approaches, Aras doesn’t lift the menu. “I know what I want,” he says: a pot of chamomile tea. In May the twenty-four-year-old yoga instructor won $1 million on CBS’s hit reality television show Survivor: Panama—Exile Island. Before spending thirty-nine days sparking fires and tapping coconuts, Aras received his M.B.A., played Division One basketball, and opened a donation-based yoga studio in South Africa. His asana practice eventually led him to Buddhism. When someone approached him to be on Survivor, Aras agreed, thinking it sounded like a “heck of an adventure.”
—Caitlin Van Dusen
Professional sports, business school, and Survivor are all team pursuits, yet Buddhism is a solitary practice. How do you see these parts of your life complementing each other? The best way to be a good team member is to carry your own weight. I sat every morning while I was on the island; it was that much easier to do what I needed to do as an individual, and I was that much clearer on the way other people interacted with me. The way I approached Survivor was: How much can I stand in truth and love with a million dollars in my face?
Can you tell me about the time you scolded your teammate Bruce for wasting time building a Zen garden? Well, at that point we didn’t have a fire. It’s great to develop consciousness, but if you don’t have water, it doesn’t matterhow much you sit, that’s not going to work out.
What about when your rival tribe approached you, hungry, and your tribe didn’t share your pot of rice? How did you confront selfishness? We thought: they’re not going to die, this is a game, and we’ve got to use everything we can to keep ourselves fed and give ourselves a competitive edge.
You took a pretty nasty slip on the rocks on your last day on in camp. Was it a humbling experience to take eight stitches on national television?Throughout the game, I became more and more adept at “surviving” and grew into the provider for my tribe. Along with that, the ego grew as well. I had been out on those rocks barefoot hundreds of times, but on day thirty-nine, I decided to walk the rocks with shoes on and a bottle of champagne in one hand and a glass in the other. After I was all stitched up, I was able to laugh at myself and see how easily I let myself be led astray by the ego.
How did you feel the night Danielle was choosing between you and Terry to make the final two? Prior to that, I had never allowed myself to fantasize about what one million dollars would mean to me, and once I started thinking about what I could do with the money, the attachment became real. So I gave her a hard sell. Was it manipulative? Absolutely. But it was also the truth.
Now that you’ve participated in a reality TV show and returned to reality here in Santa Monica, do you view reality differently? Reality seems fleeting to me. My preferred reality is actually just sitting on my cushion.
Obviously, you’re pleased with how you performed. Do you get attached to that feeling? There’s that risk. I’m like, so now this is who I am, I’m Aras, I was on Survivor. And you know, editing is wonderful because I can tell you, “In this challenge, I was Aras the Great,” and in the editing it’s going to show you something completely different, and people will view it the way they want to view it. And that’s kind of like the way life happens, right?
How did you feel about being on a corporate-sponsored TV show? I remember going onto some news website and seeing a picture of our group, and below it talked about bombs dropping in Afghanistan, and I remember thinking, now I’m just a part of the distraction. But that distraction’s going to be there whether I’m there or not. I don’t want to pretend like I did anything that special or great, because I didn’t: I was on a reality television show, playing a game. I’ve gotten a lot of fan mail from people who’ve said, “Hey, Aras, because of you I tried yoga. Thank you!” And I’m like, there it is, it’s working, you know?
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