How My Yoga Practice Helped Me on a Reality TV Show

I survived Survivor with the help of breathwork, meditation, and especially ahimsa.

Photo: Courtesy of Wardah Hartley

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They say the best way to truly test yourself—to see what you can endure—is to experience an extreme situation. For me, that was participating on the reality-TV show Survivor

If you’re unfamiliar with the Survivor series, here’s a summary: Sixteen to twenty contestants are left in a remote location with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few supplies, and some basic tools. That, and cameras recording their every move and conversation. For more than a month these ‘castaways’ are left to fend for themselves while they compete in a series of physical and mental challenges. Most importantly, they have to navigate treacherous social waters to avoid being voted off the island by the other contestants. A sole “survivor” walks away with a fat cash prize. 

Growing up with Survivor

I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, watching the American Survivor series as a tween. It was like nothing I had seen before. It had a basic structure and set of rules, but the game evolved based purely on the personalities and interactions of the characters. No two seasons were ever the same.

Fast forward to 2018: I left my job as a TV sports anchor to follow my passion for fitness and wellness. In the process, I worked with a life coach and I took my yoga practice even deeper, ultimately completing my yoga teacher training. I had never even been camping before, but I decided to audition for Survivor as a kind of master class—the ultimate test of all the personal growth I had experienced.

Living the Island Life 

During my season on the show, we were based on the Eastern Cape in an area known as the Wild Coast. It’s a beautiful part of the country, but we were there during the rainy season. Our makeshift shelters made of palm trees and bamboo got rained through and I was wet most of the time. Meditation and breathwork helped me find my calm. 

Perhaps what I remember most is being sleep deprived, hungry, anxious, and paranoid while still trying to think strategically. It wasn’t always easy dealing with the personalities of the other castaways, and situations that were carefully constructed to push your buttons. Tribal Councils were the biggest test of my character. The presenter asked questions that often caused emotional, sometimes explosive reactions. I was always very vocal at these gatherings, but I had to remember ahimsa—to fight fair and express myself without being cruel and unnecessarily mean. 

Being a yoga teacher helped on days I was feeling particularly anxious. I would go and meditate on the beach or do some asana practice. I even led a yoga asana session with my tribe and a meditation session with some of my fellow castaways. This not only helped me feel centered, it helped my social standing.

But Is It Yoga?

I drew a lot of inspiration from Sadghuru’s book Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy. It had been a huge part of my personal growth and there was one quote in particular that I took into the game:  “My ability to respond is limitless, but my ability to act is limited. I am one hundred percent responsible for everything I am and everything I am not, for my capacities and my incapacities, for my joys and my miseries. I am the one who determines the nature of my experiences in this life and beyond. I am the maker of my life.”

Some would say deciding to be on a reality show like Survivor is not very yogic. If you cling to a layperson’s understanding of what a yoga teacher is like—peace, love, and light—then, no, maybe what I did wasn’t very yogic. But if you’re looking at the true meaning of yoga—connection to yourself and those around you, self-examination, and exploration—Survivor is probably one of the best places to do “real yoga.”

Yoga teachers are not perfect people who never get angry or irritated. We are not calm and collected all the time. In fact, many people (me!) come to yoga to try to quell the fires of a volatile temper. Or we want to understand ourselves better. Maybe we want to find a deeper connection to the world around us. Yoga teachers are human beings navigating our own human experience.

A Test of Character

Survivor was my whole world for 30 days. (The show ended on day 39.) In that time, I learned so much about myself. The experience allowed me to see things I still needed to work on within myself. It tested the lessons I had learned from all the hard personal development work I had done over previous years.

It is often said that extreme situations will reveal who we are at our core. When everyone is trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast one another, people tend to become more deceptive and cunning. But my experience reminded me that exercising compassion can fundamentally change your interactions with people in the best way possible. I never regretted showing kindness—even to my rivals. That was perhaps my biggest takeaway from the island: Even in “do or die” situations, hold onto your humanity. 

Lessons in Survival

I learned life lessons from being on Survivor that serve me wherever I go—at work, in social settings, with my family. Here are some of the highlights.

  1.  Don’t try to change people. Instead, identify, harness, and celebrate their strengths. Everyone just wants to feel appreciated and know they are adding value to the group.
  2. Your integrity is everything. When people know they can trust you, they tend to show you loyalty and go the extra mile for you.
  3. Pay attention to your triggers. When you do find someone triggering, it may indicate that you have unhealed wounds you need to address.
  4. Fight fair. You don’t always have to agree with someone’s point of view, but always debate with respect and never resort to abusive, degrading, or personal attacks.
  5. Apologize. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather a clear indication of maturity and emotional intelligence. We all make mistakes; own yours, learn from it, and make amends.
  6. Persist. Everything has a beginning and an ending and nothing in life lasts forever. You can always choose to be tougher than your darkest day.

About our contributor

Wardah Hartley, a yoga instructor and fitness trainer based in South Africa. She is co-founder of Yoga In Colour, a health and wellness website movement striving for inclusivity, diversity, empowerment & healing within the yoga community.

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