How Yoga Philosophy Helped a Former Athlete Reclaim His Softer Side

Yoga teacher Shane Roberts acted tough in order to fit in as a high school basketball player—until an injury led him to the mat to discover who he truly was.
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Yoga teacher Shane Roberts

As a kid, yoga teacher Shane Roberts, cofounder of Red Clay Yoga, always knew he'd play basketball. But hyper-masculine culture of athletics cost him an opportunity to find out who he really was—until an injury helped him change course. 

As a kid, the first thing anyone ever wanted to know about me was if I was going to play basketball. I knew I was skilled, and Lord knows I dreamed about fame and fortune, but more than anything, I was tall. By the time I was 13, at 6-foot-6, my body looked like the ticket to material success. It was always assumed it would take me all the way to the NBA. I often overheard my mother talk about me as if she were waiting for her boat to come in. But now, 20 years later, I know that wasn’t the real reason I went to high school basketball tryouts. I went to find a tribe.

I was still traumatized from middle school. Adolescent boys proved how tough they were by using their fists. Watching Rambo and playing Mortal Kombat, we idolized heroes who died fighting. Fear of getting beat up consumed my thoughts because battles erupted often, seemingly from out of nowhere, and I believed violence was the only way to ward off threats at school. In other words, I fought a lot to establish a measure of authority.

But when I got to high school, I was back at the bottom of the social pecking order. Although kids seemed much calmer, displays of male dominance never went away. They manifested in the uneasy hierarchy of social groups. As a freshman, I felt I needed popular, attractive friends to have my back. Since sports culture is infused with valor, vigor, and classroom privileges, such as easy A’s, I was ultimately happy to join the basketball team.

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But there was a price to pay. The supreme virtue on the team was obedience, and it went beyond following our coach’s direction in order to win. It policed our personalities, and any show of weakness was immediately checked with discipline. I’m a very sensitive person, and I’ve always wanted to be kind to people. But at some point, I just stopped being nice, because there were times I had revealed my compassionate side only to be punished. Once during a conditioning drill, while sprinting up and down the aisles of the aluminum bleachers on the football field, I spotted one of my teammates throwing up, so I stopped to help him. My coach benched me for going to his aid and started consistently bullying and berating me. I learned not to risk humiliation this way. I learned to fit in.

Basketball became my identity. I thought my sole purpose was to jump high and drain three-pointers to the delight of my classmates. And the more I bonded with my team, the more I needed their validation— proof that I wasn’t different. At the time, Michael Jordan and Gatorade had collaborated on one of the most famous ad campaigns of all time. Perhaps you remember it—the NBA giant was portrayed smiling, dunking, and not saying a word. I thought I had to Be Like Mike: apolitical, raceless, and happy to entertain.

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When I started visiting college campuses, coaches wanted to know whether I’d fit into their system, which was designed to profit off my body. They weren’t concerned with my mind, and definitely not my spirit, which had already been broken.

I ended up attending West Virginia University, where I’d earn my scholarship if I performed. Instead, I dislocated both of my knees on separate occasions during conditioning drills before my freshman season even began. I went back home to Los Angeles to live with my parents. I joined a junior college basketball team but never touched the court.

Benched again, I hated myself. I only identified as a basketball player—a failed one, at that. I started partying and taking drugs to escape the pain of feeling so isolated and lost. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t thrive if I stayed in LA. Being black and doing drugs is different from being white and doing drugs; I was going to end up in jail or dead. So I got in my car and drove till I hit Atlanta, where I had a few friends from high school.

There, I became a personal trainer and went back to school to study English. I knew that sports culture had left my critical-thinking skills underdeveloped. This challenged me to reflect: Who was I going to be in the world?

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Eventually, as a companion to mixed martial arts training, I started practicing yoga at home through the digital home-fitness regimen P90X. It felt so good to stretch, breathe, and get on my mat without fear—knowing that each practice was unique in what emotions it would raise—that I started attending yoga studio classes. Over five years of practicing yoga, I slowly took a journey inward. I was beginning to understand that I wasn’t just my body or my mind but a complex mind, body, and spirit. After I met my wife, Chelsea, she encouraged me to take my practice to the next level and enroll in teacher training at Kashi Atlanta, an urban yoga ashram.

When I started studying yoga philosophy, it opened me up to a region in my heart where love had been cut off by fear. Love opened up a door into my soul and showed me that I could be vulnerable. It was time to find, ground, grow, and share who I was—a man who descends from enslaved Americans and finds strength in these roots built of compassion, patience, and resilience.

After my basketball career, I had set out to figure out things on my own—an attitude many men lean into. American masculinity often reduces issues into “us versus them” or “me against the world”—which plays out on every level of society, whether it’s in high school classrooms, on basketball courts, or in corporate offices, politics, and beyond.

But yoga taught me that individual expression is stronger when it takes place in community with others. Every privilege, every product, and every service originates from the shared labor of other human beings. As we immerse ourselves in social and political realities, we necessarily nurture our inner selves. That’s why Chelsea and I co-founded a nonprofit organization called Red Clay Yoga, which organizes programs specifically for teen boys and girls. Through yoga, we wanted to teach the next generation of men and women that they can rise above stereotypes, shed their defenses, and be rooted in the glory of their own lives.

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About the author

Shane Roberts is a yoga teacher and the co-founder of Red Clay Yoga. He studied yoga philosophy with Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati at Kashi Atlanta. Learn more at redclayyoga.org.