How a Former Pro Football Player Found Yoga

Keith Mitchell talked to U.S. News about his devastating path to yoga – and his inspiring path forward.   

A new collaboration aims to treat both veterans and former pro football players through a combination of Eastern and Western medicine. 

FOR YEARS, FORMER National Football League Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Mitchell won thousands of fans over with his breathtaking tackles. In May, he won CEOs, senators and healthcare leaders over again when he brought his palms together, smiled and said, "Namaste."

Mitchell was speaking at the first annual Summit in New York, where he officially announced his partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center to create a care plan that will treat military veterans and former NFL players through both Eastern holistic practices and traditional Western medicine. The program will launch in September, when 50 patients will join Mitchell outside of Buffalo, New York for a yoga and wellness retreat after they undergo neurologic and psychiatric evaluations in Rochester.

Mitchell's plan is inspired by a devastating moment in his career. At age 31, he made a routine tackle that temporarily paralyzed him from the neck down. Mitchell talked to U.S. News about how the injury changed his life forever – and launched his journey inward. His responses have been edited.

What was going through your head in the moments after you made that fateful tackle?

When the tackle happened, it was an out-of-body experience. My mind was telling me to do something, but my body wasn't responding. The first thought you think – from the gladiator mentality – is, "This is embarrassing." I was in front of all these people, and here I am, on my back, being vulnerable. I wasn't thinking, "How can I get help?"

When I knew I wouldn't play football again, I thought, "How do I discover a new identity, now that everything I knew in life is gone?"

How did you first get introduced to meditation?

It wasn't mentioned to me as meditation, it was "conscious breathing." One of the doctors suggested it. I was taught that there's a playbook, and you execute it. When I found meditation, this was my playbook.

I was confined to a bed, which created a lot of alone, quiet time. When I learned to breathe, and breathe from a healing perspective, a lot of healing sensations came to me. It was like my body was defrosting. There was a burning sensation. It would go from my fingertips to the knuckles of the fingers, to the palms and so on.

Through that process, it taught me patience. I kept wondering, "When will I get the mobility back?" I started to understand breathing with a nurturing breath to facilitate that healing. I had no idea about that before. I didn't know it was possible.

When did you start practicing yoga?

My yoga practice happened a year or so after the accident. After I gained mobility, every step I took, I felt pain. I was refusing to take the medication. I had to do something – and I found yoga.

My first teacher was an African-American man. I never experienced a masculine presence that was compassionate and patient with me. I was so used to coaches. My first class, I was blown away. I knew I needed to practice yoga.

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