It had been 15 years Keith Mitchell performed in front of thousands of fans in the greater New York City area. In his past life however, the crowd wasn’t widely splayed in front of him on yoga mats.
“I guess the more traditional way that we are supposed to greet each other in the yoga community is we say ‘Namaste,’” Mitchell, a former Pro Bowl linebacker with the New Orleans Saints, told the audience at Wanderlust 108 in Prospect Park on Saturday. “That’s so different from where I’ve come from because normally when I’d journey to the East Coast and New York City I would not be bringing peace typically. We would come here to beat up on the New York Giants and New York Jets.”
While it may seem strange to see a retired NFL veteran leading a series of “Ohm” chants at an outdoor yoga festival, Mitchell’s journey to his current profession as a certified yoga and meditation instructor actually started with a very scary moment on the football field in 2003.
In a Week Two game versus the Buffalo Bills, Mitchell, then playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, ended up suffering a serious injury while trying to make a routine tackle on running back Travis Henry.
“I ended up on my back and was diagnosed with a spinal contusion,” Mitchell told For The Win. “My C2 to C4 [vertebrae] fused together and I suffered paralysis for about a six month period. I found meditation first through a rehabilitation program my doctor gave me. It was just a basic rehabilitation program but I couldn’t do much because of the limitations of my spine. A nurse suggested conscious breathing, which tapped into the healing modality of breathing from the abdomen creating blood flow and oxygen to heal the body. It was a practice of urgency, it was a practice of openness due to the circumstance and this is why I go around talking about meditation. This is how I got into it or how it got into me and found me.”
While he tried to briefly return to the field after the injury, Mitchell’s NFL career was done at age 29. Now 40 and living in Los Angeles, Mitchell gravitated to yoga and meditation more and more over the past decade as he sought a way to make peace with the physical and mental consequences of no longer being a football player.
“The concept of the role I took on as athlete, you take on that role and Keith Mitchell the individual is gone in a corner isolated, malnourished to a point. Now I’m this athlete doing everything and committed to everything outside of self and committed to the role of football player and how writers write about you and how people perceive you in the community,” Mitchell said of his playing days. “You’re having to hold this persona. The higher the stakes, the more committed to the personality you have to be. As soon as you fall out of that posture, you lose your edge.”
“When the character has died out and you’re left with the insecure person that was never tendered to and you’re hitting a wall there, a midlife crisis at the age of 30-something. You’re lost and you’re trying to live in a fast-paced world and trying to maintain that rush you had playing football. That’s not sufficient enough.”
Mitchell, who grew up playing high school football in Texas and then at Texas A&M, says that the continued education in his new profession was necessary in helping him understand his previous one.
“Typically as men, we’re taught to suppress the expression so our voices can even come to truths like this,” Mitchell said. “Where I’m standing is very new. We go from extreme to the subtleties. That alpha, alpha male or that gladiator in sports, to be able to come back from that and say ‘Hey, these are my truths.’ I played football because I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to have friends. I wanted to have people like me. All these types of things start coming out. Ten, twelve years ago I couldn’t say that.”
It’s a message that he’s trying to relay to men and boys of all ages now. Mitchell focuses much of his current practice on helping fellow athletes and military veterans heal the physical and mental rigors of their past experiences.
“Every week we have a meditation session for staff,” Congressman Tim Ryan [D-Ohio], a fellow speaker at Wanderlust 108, said. “We had Keith come and lead one and brought some veterans in from the DC Veterans Association who meditate. It was this wonderful picture of this All-Pro NFL star, veterans going back to Vietnam [era] all sitting in a room practicing things that help transform their own lives, whether it was post-traumatic stress or the injury Keith had. He’s an All-Pro NFL guy. You don’t have to say any more. Close your eyes and picture it, you got it. And he’s a practitioner of this. It’s really important for average dudes from Youngstown Ohio or wherever who played sports to see this as a way to make yourself feel better. It’s a tough workout and to really bring some balance and stress reduction to our ever-increasingly busy lives.”
He’s also very involved in trying to provide an outlet for meditation in kids, especially those in at-risk environments, through his Light It Up charity foundation. While children might not be willing to listen to a traditional yoga teacher, they’re a more captive audience when there’s a former NFL linebacker in front of the class.
The same can be said for men in general, who are often initially resistant to anything that seems too “new-agey.”
“A lot of people take yoga and meditation and look at it like ‘It’s girly and a lot of women do it,’” Mitchell said. “It’s really out of their element in a sense when they first look at it. But when you can create images of guys who can see themselves. ‘He’s doing it, I can at least try it.’ Once you get in, that’s when you’ve tasted it. The easiest way to expand consciousness is to create that feeling and have that experience. Once they get in, they’re got.”
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As a handful of recent incidents around the league have certainly proved, there’s certainly a desperate need for some athletes to figure out how to channel the aggression they’re expected to show on the field so that it doesn’t bleed into their personal lives. Mitchell hopes he can be at the forefront of that effort, as he’s led yoga classes for current and former players and is currently working on proposals for the NFLPA to institute more holistic wellness facilities around the league.
“I really want to expand [my practice] to really connect with players as they transition to life after sports and as they’re involved in sports currently,” he said. “You have a lot that suffer from college. Again, as your play changes and speed gets slower, reflexes get slower, you have an idea of self-worth in that. You start looking at yourself as less than before. Unless you create a system of healing or working through it, it just gets bigger and bigger and it grows and manifests. The family that person gets involved with or the kids they have, they suffer.”
Source: USA Today