Former NFL Player Keith Mitchell Uses Yoga to Help Vets with PTSD

Keith Mitchell works to empower veterans suffering with PTSD and stress using yoga and meditation.

by Brooke Obie — Posted on Nov 6, 2015

Keith Mitchell teaches yoga to veterans at Fort Bragg

Keith Mitchell had his life planned out by the time he was 13 years old. Growing up in a violent and dysfunctional family in sports-obsessed Texas, Mitchell saw how Sunday football after church unified his family and brought moments of peace and happiness. That’s when he decided he would pursue a career as a professional football player.

“I became heavily recruited in high school,” Mitchell tells Guideposts.org about the start of his professional career. “Though I got inducted into the Texas A&M Hall of Fame during college, I didn’t get drafted into the pros.” But Mitchell didn’t give up.

“You have an idea of how your life is going to go, but you can never find that security, that safety in being certain of the outcome. You just have to hold onto that intention.”

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Soon after the draft, the coach of the New Orleans Saints called Mitchell and offered him a spot on the team as an undrafted rookie.  Mitchell quickly became a starter in his first year. In 2000, he was named to the Pro Bowl, a prestigious and highly sought after honor, despite the fact that the Saints had just begun their winning tradition.

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Mitchell went on to play for the Houston Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars before injury caused an agonizing early retirement at age 31.

One morning before a game with the Jaguars, Mitchell woke up feeling very uneasy. He was so fearful, in fact, that he had his mother, sister and father pray with him before the game. He put the fear behind him and went to the game.

During a play, Mitchell made a tackle he’d made, “a million times before,” except this time, when it was over, Mitchell couldn’t move. “I tried to get up and my body doesn’t respond.”

Doctors diagnosed him with a spinal contusion and feared he may be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

“I’d never been hurt, my whole life,” he says. “It was a very vulnerable situation for me, being this gladiator personality, to be one minute functional and the next non-functional.”

Even at his most vulnerable, Mitchell realized his diagnosis could have been much worse.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘What if I didn’t initiate that prayer?”

During his recovery, Mitchell used his breathing as a form of prayer, holding on to his intention of being healthy again, despite the odds. His breath was the only part of his body he could control.

“When you inhale the diaphragm pushes down and on the exhale, the diaphragm pushes up,” he explains. “What that does is massage the internal organs creating blood flow, creating oxygen. That’s a healing modality that you have the reigns to. That was an amazing tool for me that created the concept in my mind that I could contribute to my healing.”

After six months of paralysis, his medical care and conscious breathing worked and he was able to move his body again. He re-learned to walk and continued to do more research on how to improve his health. He began to focus on detoxifying his life, from the harmful chemicals in processed foods to the negative feelings and unforgiveness he had been holding onto.

Along with changing his diet, Mitchell began writing poems in order to release the hurt and trauma he had been holding onto. “That’s a big contributor to your healing, I always tell people: let it go, let it out, release it—whatever it is. That’s detoxifying: process it, heal from it and let it go. Otherwise it ends up eating you from the inside out.”

A big part of Mitchell’s physical and emotional recovery was yoga, to help regain his strength and flexibility and to release stress. He became so encouraged by the ways yoga, detoxification and conscious breathing helped him heal that he learned as much as he could, became a yogi and a certified master instructor and has been traveling the world empowering others to play an active role in their own healing.

Keith Mitchell teaches yoga to veterans at Fort Bragg

Keith Mitchell teaching yoga to troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Oct. 2015

Through his non-profit Light It Up foundation, he hosts a retreat for at-risk youth, families in need and veterans, teaching yoga, detoxification and conscious breathing as healing tools. His work with veterans focuses on helping our troops who are suffering with PTSD, depression or traumatic brain injuries to transition back into civilian life after deployment, teaching them to manage their nervous system and stress levels.

“Congressman Tim Ryan introduced me to the idea of working with veterans and when I met some I realized there were so many similarities between veterans and athletes—this camaraderie that exists and also this idea that maybe they could be strong leaders in the trenches or in the field but couldn’t necessarily be strong leaders in their communities because of whatever they’re going through. That’s where my work is helpful.”

Just last month, Mitchell visited one of the largest army bases in the world, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, teaching yoga and meditation to the troops.

“I believe my work is empowerment. If you can empower someone through their health, you can empower them through their lives. It’s planting that seed in the ground and giving it a chance to grow. I’ve seen people go on and do great things, so I know it works. And it’s the same protocol I’ve used in my own life,” he says.

“I know it works for me.”

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