When former New Orleans Saints linebacker Keith Mitchell suffered a severe spinal contusion during a routine tackle in 2003, his football career came to a premature end after seven years. He was only 29.
But now at the age of 40, the former football star has experienced a "reincarnation" — a rebirth to what he calls his true Self as a prominent yoga and meditation teacher, as he explained in an interview with Deepak Chopra.
The injury that left him temporarily paralyzed steered him away from professional sports, toward a gentler path of yoga and meditation, which he attributes to his extraordinary recovery.
These days, he's teaching yoga and meditation to youth communities as part of the Light It Up Foundation, helping veterans who suffer from PTSD, and even touring with Wanderlust festivals around the country as a guest motivational speaker. He's also a leader on the forefront of teaching mindfulness tactics to injured pro athletes and NFL players, with hopes to aid in their recovery. He's also got a book deal in the works.
MindBodyGreen recently spoke with Mitchell over the phone, to learn more about his incredible story.
Could you ever have imagined doing anything but football?
At that level you have to commit — especially something as highly competitive as pro sports. As soon as you come up with a backup plan, you've already failed. In pro sports, there's no backup plan. Failure is not an option.
When did you realize that you couldn't play football anymore?
As a football player, when you can't use your neck, any slight trigger is a risk. So I could heal from that injury, but I might not have healed from something that triggered my neck again. At the same time, I had an expansion of consciousness about myself, and why I was holding on to this role — it's like I was reincarnated.
The role that I was, died out — I was left with the essence of my truth. It took me to places of depression and anxiety. Through my meditation practice, I was able to come to a certain level of clarity and liberation.
And now I'm able to use my experience with depression to help the soldiers with what they're going through — I can relate to that. I understand the hurt and frustration of depression. Meditation was a crash course of my own history, my being, and my soul.
What do you think about how the NFL has handled the long-term physical and mental effects of the game on the players?
The NFL has surfaced and created patches for the issues, but not deeply connected solutions. Even in my discovery of healing, there were no resources in place to help me besides doctors and/or meds. My idea was not to indulge in the medication, as I did when I played — the anti-inflammatories caused internal bleeding and the pain meds were addictive. I knew that wouldn't be good for me during the depression and anxiety of going through the transition.
I'm proposing to work with the NFL to create programs through yoga and meditation. Holistic healing modalities can give players an alternative to medication, simply by introducing practices that give the body access to the ability to heal itself.
A nurse suggested that you try meditation as part of your recovery; is that correct?
Yeah, she just spoke of it as conscious breathing. We create our own oxygen and blood flow. That creates prana in the body. We can access that. I went through physical rehab to get functional. It was a year or so after the injury. I was in a place of openness and wanting to heal — I wanted to be well, functional, and to live. The majority of my practice was the yoga of the mind. That's my preference, to talk about the mental capacity of yoga. That's how I came into it.
Do you believe that yoga and meditation played a large role in your recovery?
Of course — yoga saved my life. The trauma that resided in me from years of neglecting my body and sustaining bumps and bruises was a huge discovery. I'm still learning things about what my body can do. There's so much there, and that's just the physical aspect.
There are also the emotional and spiritual aspects, too. Our bodies have all of this capability that many of us haven't even connected with. We have to be honest and truthful with what's inside of us. We have to connect with that within ourselves.
Did the contusion in your spine leave you with some level of paralysis?
Yeah, my entire body would go in and out of numbness. I was on pins and needles constantly. Some days I was stuck on the floor. At the time, I lived in a big house and I had to have someone come and watch me. As a male, you're conditioned to suppress your fear — your need for help. It's like, suck it up, be a big boy! Big boys don't cry! That's how we were wired. We internalize everything. I was just acting out what I had been wired to do.
As a football player, were you an angry and aggressive person?
Of course, are you kidding me? That's from the insanity that goes into trying to achieve something like playing pro sports. The reason we feel driven, is that we're trying to compensate for things that are missing. We're looking for completion. When I teach now, I try to make the emotional tangible. When you can hear yourself, that's when you can see yourself.
As a yogi, what are your thoughts on violence in the NFL given all the recent news about violence both on and off the field?
I believe everything is ultimately a practice, and the amount of violence that happens in
the game of football naturally seeps into to your personal life.
I see similarities with veterans — when you look at the creation of sports, it's like they were created to prep our youth for war. That being said, we must create a balance. Realizing the extent of suffering not only resides on the pro level, but the collegiate, high-school and early stages of Pop Warner levels as well. We have to influence this culture on all of these levels. This is a game changer.
In addition to your work with kids, you also work with veterans and athletes?
I recently had an opportunity to go to Capitol Hill with Congressman Tim Ryan, and we did a guided meditation with Congress members and veterans. I'm also going into communities and working with people who are suffering — youth and military.
My work is to help people feel open to try yoga and meditation. They think that they're not flexible, so they think they can't do yoga. But you never go into anything being the best. You build up.
So when I hold postures, they see that I can do it, so they want to try it. It's not so much about me — they want to use me as an example. But it's really about what they find once they try yoga and meditation. They get hooked. I teach meditation from a metaphysical perspective of understanding how you function. I've had some amazing teachers in my life that have created confidence within me to teach.
What style of yoga and meditation do you practice?
I can do all kinds of flows — hatha, vinyasa, tantra… I like to mix all of it in my practice to connect with, and explore myself. When we have the idea of giving ourselves to someone — in marriage, a relationship, even intimacy — we don't even know what we're giving because we haven't explored ourselves to know what we've got. That's missing from our perceptions. That's an opportunity to create a new paradigm of understanding.
We're accustomed to a warped perspective of love. The man has only been understood as an authoritative disciplinarian, not a gentle or compassionate figure. When you change that, you change the idea of the male. Then the female gets elevated because she gets to feel the gentleness, patience, and compassion that's been missing in her life. We can go into a whole different paradigm with this idea.
With so many yoga teachers in LA, do you think your backstory as a professional athlete helps you stand out?
Maybe… but it's not about me. It's really about what we can create together. If I can touch someone that has never taken yoga before, then we're just adding to our community of consciousness.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Photos Courtesy of Elizabeth Bensinger and Ali Kaukas for Wanderlust Festival