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Memorizing plays, constant body slamming, contract disputes, minimal job security, daily practices—this is the side of professional sports that the general public doesn’t often see. As a five-year-old growing up in the rough Opa-locka neighborhood of Miami, I didn’t understand the ins-and-outs of the job either, but I knew I wanted to play. Where I came from, most kids saw the entertainment and sports industries as their only paths to a brighter future. I had a natural athletic gift, so it seemed like my purpose had found me very early on. Between the ages of six and 12, I played baseball year-round until I moved to Memphis with my mother—where middle and high school coaches convinced me to add basketball and football to the mix. My student-athlete persona carried me all the way to a football scholarship at Kentucky’s Murray State University and then to a competitive roster position in the NFL with the Houston Texans.
I saw vague warning signs in college that this path I was on may not be sustainable: a stage-two quadriceps tear, multiple concussions, and misaligned hips that caused chronic back spasms—and I wasn’t even 21. The issues I would later face in the NFL weren’t so much physical, but mental: constant worrying about my job and financial security, shuffling from city to city, and that little voice in the back of my head that told me I wasn’t good enough to be playing pro football. This was, in my mind, confirmed when I was released by the Texans in 2011 to make room for players that the team had invested more money in during the draft.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on my football career. After I left the Texans, I did stints with the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League, the Omaha Nighthawks in the now-defunct United Football League, and the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League. All were short-lived and incredibly draining physically, mentally, and emotionally. In Orlando in 2012, realizing that my body and mind couldn’t possibly continue taking this kind of beating, I grabbed my iPad, opened YouTube, typed in “beginner yoga class,” and my evolution truly began.
My Yoga Journey
I started yoga for the physical benefits: daily 20-minute sessions for opening my shoulders and hips, building flexibility in my spine and legs, and developing better awareness of my body and control over my breath. As my body opened to my practice, my mind and spirit started responding as well.
What began as a do-it-yourself physical therapy campaign grew into a true holistic transformation. I began to feel peace, a feeling I had seldom known while growing up in a turbulent neighborhood. I found clarity, something I had never grasped in a profession that was laden with uncertainty. I started to seek answers within myself. Relationships—with a greater source, the world, and my Self—started to become clear. Each breath, each pose, each meditation revealed an undiscovered wonder within me, and what started as a practice became my library, my lifestyle, and, eventually, my new profession.
Inspired to Teach
It was football that lead me to yoga, but it was tragedy that led me to yoga teacher training. My uncle was an influential schoolteacher, a notable philanthropist, and a strong foundation in my family. When he passed away suddenly, it shook me—and my family—to the core. It was his legacy, and seeing with my own eyes the way he influenced his community, that inspired me to walk in his footsteps as a teacher and share my yoga practice. My love for helping people discover the best within themselves, a value that my family of educators and social workers holds dear, has led me to travel the world teaching yoga, mindfulness, and self-realization in my own way.
Read also Yoga in Schools Really Works.
People used to tell me how amazing it was that I played in the NFL, but the NFL was just the gateway to something greater. It was the pathway to a practice that would show me new places, new people, new ideas, and a new purpose: to reach underserved and underprivileged areas with my classes, teaching in places like the one I grew up in, and shining a light on minority-owned yoga and wellness spaces. I’m doing what I can to give back to my community and show them the possibility of healing, awareness, and self-exploration. This is so necessary for a people who have seen so much adversity, and through it all, always find a way to persevere.
Through my journey, I’ve learned so much, but one thing always stands out the most: Obstacles you face on your path do not put a halt to your progress—they teach you how to climb. You control your destiny, and there is no limit to who you can become. In fact, you are limitless.
Read more in this series on professional athletes and yoga: Yoga Helped Clare Cui Find Peace In Her Body.
About our author
Derrick “DJ” Townsel is a former NFL player turned personal trainer, international yoga instructor, entrepreneur, TV personality, and brand ambassador who lives his life by this quote: “Whether you are the source or the reflection, be the light.” For more, visit dade2shelby.net.