Meditating Millionaire: Is spirituality for wimps? Ask a Survivor.
Name Aras Baskauskas
Career Yoga teacher
In May 2006, Aras Baskauskas won $1 million on CBS’s reality TV show Survivor Panama: Exile Island. Before the series, he successfully competed in other arenas: At the University of California at Irvine, he was the only student to play NCAA Men’s Division I basketball on scholarship while in the MBA program. He went on to play professional basketball in Lithuania. For a time, he ran a donation-based yoga studio in Cape Town, South Africa. He now teaches yoga in Santa Monica, California, and credits his spiritual practices with helping him operate with consciousness and integrity. But, like most men, Baskauskas initially resisted the practice.
“Aha” yoga moment
Hatha yoga had been inaccessible to me because I wasn’t comfortable with my own limits. Walking through Helsinki at nearly midnight, with the sun still on the horizon, I was halfway across a bridge, and all of a sudden I realized that I was OK. I was eating the most delicious ice cream cone ever. Everything was magnified in its beauty. I didn’t pine for anything. I was happy walking in my own shoes, not much money in the bank, no definitive plan for the future, right where I was. I felt I was floating as I walked around the city that night. Afterward, I felt this amazing sense of peace and finally started to face my boundaries without so much tension.
The first time I did yoga, I hated it. The second time I did yoga, I hated it. In fact, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and I don’t know how many times after that, I hated yoga. When I started, I was a 19-year-old college basketball player doing yoga for one reason and one reason only—flexibility. Surrounded in class by women and what I thought at the time were wimpy guys who practically had their elbows on the floor in a forward bend, I was unable to touch my toes. It drove me absolutely crazy. I, a “real” athlete, couldn’t do a quarter of the things with my body that these housewives did effortlessly. What’s worse was holding poses—poses clearly not for me—for what felt like days. I’d judge myself for my lack of flexibility and curse the instructor for making us hold these awkward asanas for so long. Yoga proved difficult for me because I was unable to accept where I was, which was ironically the root of the tension that I wished to relieve.
I returned to the mat, hoping this yoga thing would produce a more limber body. But my frustration continued.
Then, something happened. On that evening walk in Helsinki, a mental shift occurred. For whatever reason, I realized that I was all right. I didn’t need to beat myself up. I didn’t need to walk around with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I could just be, and that was enough. It was as if a backpack full of brick expectations fell right off my shoulders.
I still couldn’t touch my toes, but it didn’t matter anymore. I was just fine. With acceptance and persistence, eventually my body started to open. I became a student of yoga. Two and three times a day, I’d roll out my mat, excited to discover more about the greatest unknown, my Self. I became entrenched in the study of not only my body but also the mind that for so long resisted self-reflection. Even with my newfound vigor in the practice, sometimes I still find myself anxious, competitive, and judgmental. As my understanding grows, those moments grow shorter and less frequent. Vipassana meditation has also helped me.
Yoga and meditation are great tools for dealing with all of life’s challenges. I have a little bit more calm in a world that I tend to fill with chaos. As my teacher Nzazi Malonga says, “Yoga is a like a hammer. Leave it sitting and it will do no good for you. But put it to use and you can build a sturdy house to protect you from the storms that life throws at all of us.”
Quiet Mind: Drugs took him out of bounds. Yoga gave him a whole new playbook.
Name Ricky Williams
Career Pro football player
Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy in college and later led the NFL in rushing. But professional pressures led him to use drugs and almost sacrifice his athletic career. Yoga and introspection helped him regain perspective, quit smoking, and become a vegetarian. Here’s the yogi running back’s story.
“Aha” yoga moment
I enjoyed Ashtanga, but then a swami from Grass Valley [California] taught me Sivananda Yoga; after the first class’s Savasana, I was rushed with insight into my life and thought, “Wow, this is powerful.” After that, I was sold and started going to the ashram five to seven times a week.
Growing up a young black male in Southern California, I had a hard time understanding the inequality of life, but I dedicated my life to earning respect. I could run like the wind. Next thing I knew, I was selected by the University of Texas to play football. Then I got drafted by the New Orleans Saints to play in the NFL. Respect followed. I had finally reached the top! But more fame and money were out there, and I wanted to grab them.
As the media attention rose, so did distractions. I was expected to act like a superstar. I tried to be what I thought people expected but eventually forgot who I really was. I went through a depression and was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. With treatment, life got a little better. Eventually, I was traded to the Miami Dolphins. I got caught up in the media frenzy again and felt lost. I smoked marijuana to regain focus and enjoyed the best football season of my career, leading the NFL in rushing. But the side effects of the marijuana caused more anxiety and paranoia.
I realized there must be a better way, so I quit football to find my way by traveling. While I was traveling, a man shared an <a href=”/health/ayurveda“>Ayurvedic book with me that changed my life. Stateside, I thought of becoming a healer, and so I attended the California College of Ayurveda. We studied yogic philosophy—it was love at first sight, and I started visiting the Sivananda Yoga Ashram.
Two months later, I signed up to take a yoga teacher training course in India. The focus and clarity I gained from the knowledge changed my entire life perspective; I realized that happiness doesn’t come from external objects like cars, money, fame, or even from family. Happiness is our true nature when our minds are still.
Marijuana, drugs, alcohol, and anything else people abuse are a result of not having balance. Yoga is the source of my balance. I went on to play for the Toronto Argonauts and teach a donation-based Sivananda Yoga class at Toronto’s Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center. It’s all karma yoga, volunteer work.
I had searched my whole life for something that resonated with my whole being, something that made sense, something I could believe in. Yoga is now my dharma. As I continue to do my sadhana meditation, my life unfolds for me. As soon as I think I am the “doer,” I begin to lose my balance.
In December, I bought a house in Grass Valley. I plan to return to Miami, resume my NFL career, and teach my teammates about how the yogic lifestyle can help them. I’m developing a “Yoga and Sports” program I’ll teach at the ashram. I want to integrate my inner spiritual side with the outer football player and contribute to the peace mission of Swami Vishnu-devananda by spreading the teaching of Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, and Realize. (As told to Lisa Cherry Cherniak.)
Warrior Poise: This former Marine finds good karma after doing yoga in some bad places.
Name Mike Cerre
Career Journalist and documentary producer
A former Marine officer and Vietnam vet, Mike Cerre established trust and gained personal access to the Marines during his various journalistic assignments. He recently earned an Emmy for his reporting of the Iraq war for ABC’s Nightline. He covered Saddam Hussein’s capture and the Abu Ghraib scandal. Earlier, Cerre reported on the Gulf War and conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Mexico. Cerre is the founder of Globe Tv, an independent production company. This newsman has also learned that the benefits of a regular yoga practice go beyond the physical.
“Aha” yoga moment
Cowering in the back of my wife’s yoga class so as not to embarrass either of us, I discovered how invigorating yoga can be. Instructor Tim Lenheim, a former military guy, got me past self-consciousness. In this rare hour, I found myself concentrating on something other than my work and took this opportunity to fill a spiritual void in my life without being religious.
My wife Gina introduced me to yoga in 2001, just as I was embarking on a three-year assignment covering the war on terror for ABC News. From Afghanistan to Iraq, with detours to a coup in Haiti and California wildfires, I tested the limits of my newfound fascination with yoga as an exercise that can be done on a flat surface of eight square feet. In war zones, a mat is optional.
I’ve practiced on the sacred Afghan mountainsides near where they carved the Buddhas out of the rock 1,500 years ago. I thought my fledgling yoga practice reached new heights at a hippie retreat in Bamiyan. The crackle of radios and a mujahid locking and loading his .50-caliber machine gun brought me back to reality. I had to make a quick transition from Half Lotus to taking cover on the roof of the U.S. Special Forces safe house. The Taliban, who had blown up the Buddhas a year earlier, were now ruining the Rodney Yee vinyasa I was trying to follow on my laptop.
The hood of a Humvee turned out to be the best place for continuing my practice while I was embedded with the Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was the only way to relieve my aching 56-year-old back and soothe my vertebrae, compressed from wearing 37 pounds of body armor over chemical suits for 32 straight days without a hot shower or a bed. The company’s gunnery sergeant, anything but a tranquil yogi, ordered the turret gunner to cover me when we stopped for the night. I’d remove my Kevlar protection vest and do asanas on the hot hood in hopes of being able to touch my toes again. At first, the gunner stuck with his practice of chewing tobacco and listening to heavy metal. Eventually he confided that watching me do yoga calmed him as well.
On later assignments in Iraq, I couldn’t leave the ABC compound without four bodyguards and two bulletproof vehicles, so I retreated to a 6-by-12-foot storage room our former British SAS bodyguards had converted into a makeshift gym. The bodyguards weren’t impressed with my awkward yoga attempts, until they tried following along with a Baron Baptiste DVD. The 100-degree Iraqi heat made for an ideal Bikram class. Only the roar of the generator—powering the compound when the city electric power regularly shut down—compromised the moment.
During the 2004 coup in Haiti, an angry rebel sniper interpreted my Downward Dog position, ass pointing his direction from my hotel roof, as a personal insult to his cause and manhood. If you hear a rifle shot “pop,” it’s traveling away from you; a “crack” means it’s coming at you. After two “cracks” I quickly assumed my favorite war zone yoga position—the fetal pose behind the closest shelter.
Now when I’m in tranquil yoga classes at a gym, I feel grateful to practice in such safety.