NFL Star Athlete Keith Mitchell #59, a former linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars, was at the top of his professional game when he ascended into the 2000 Pro Bowl.
Without warning, his football career suddenly ended after being confronted with a paralyzing spinal injury during a game, resulting in the agony of early retirement by the young age of 31.
Unwilling to surrender to the plague of emotional depression and physical defeat he often observed in many NFL peers facing similar traumas, he channeled his energy into the practice of yoga and meditation for healing.
By great surprise, he discovered that these two daily practices not only helped him physically recover from his injury but created a refreshing sense of self-awareness and fulfillment which surpassed his love for football.
After experiencing a profound life-changing transformation from daily yoga and meditation disciplines, Keith developed a desire to share his liberating encounter with others, soon realizing that few urban, minority, and male audiences had yet been exposed.
Compelled to address this need, he chose to speak out, leading by example. Today, Mitchell is a respected pioneer Master Certified Yoga Instructor with more than 10 years of experience. He is committed to inspiring self-empowerment transformations in the lives of millions through his movement which now reaches multi-cultural fans beyond the confines of traditional yoga studios.
Furthermore, Keith passionately teaches individuals to become liberated, first within the mind, working from the inside out in order to achieve complete fulfillment.
Before I met with Keith Mitchell, I discussed his story with my own yoga teacher and former professional dancer Carla Chernencoff and together we laid the foundation of my interview with Keith.
Interview with Keith Mitchell
Dirk Terpstra: Coach Ditka says that you always played hard on the field. What drove you to always play your best? What was your inspiration?
Keith Mitchell: I have two mentalities – I have an understanding of what I know now and I have an understanding what I knew then. Back then, it was all more centred around anger and validation and now I understand the reasons why.
Erich Fromm was a very inspirational writer, I studied a lot of his work and I teach from his book “The Art of Loving”. Fromm talks about why we are all born narcissist, because we learn love without having to work for it. So, in the development stages of finding that consistency of the love that we received as children, we find a niche to create our validation and create a consistency of that love. Whether it be your looks, your brain, your athletic ability, whatever you find your niche in, you will find your way to excel in that to get your validation.
Dirk: You were just mentioning anger. Where does anger come from?
Keith: Anger can come from the extremes to the subtleties – It can be things you don’t understand and you don’t have a concept of expressing it and the little things as we know, add up to big things. It can be the slightest things that we carry with us, like people at middle school telling us that we were not attractive, we have big lips or we have this or that and we still hold this insecurity inside of us.
A lot of what I just talked about is also related to the people who made us – our parents. In my life for example, I saw this building and it came to a point where my own father, who was my motivation, told me: “I don’t think you can do this, I don’t think you should focus on sports, I think you should focus more on the academics”. That was my boiling point I guess. It was so weird for me because I wasn’t even playing sports at this point, I was in the process of convincing my mother to let me play. That’s really me, forward thinking, I wasn’t even on the field yet, I wasn’t even good yet. I guess it was me manifesting. So I guess we have to be mindful in passing on the fears that we have to not install those in our kids.
Dirk: What do you mean by “An Athlete feeds on doubt and set goals fuelled by fear”?
Keith: Because there’s always that fear in the back of our mind and I guess in some cases it’s inherited and it comes up because being an athlete is so incredibly competitive. These guys are the best of the best and they have to perform at these high levels, especially the more money they make, the more things are on the line for as winning. So the dynamics are fear, everyone has it, until you find that zone, you have this fear and it builds up until the first hit and when the hit goes… it’s real and it goes away. It’s weird but it just happens. It goes on in every athlete from middle school to the pros and it never seems to go away.
Dirk: I heard you saying “It was embarrassing to lay vulnerable on the ground as a tough NFL linebacker.” What did you feel?
Keith: What I was speaking about at that point, is that you are really a gladiator in this game and your mindset has to be: “I can conquer all, I am the alpha male”. So you are this machine, you are performing and the next second you are helpless on the ground, that’s such a big difference. I had never been in this position, so I didn’t really know what to do. I had never been hurt and I had never been laid on my back and added to that, I had no feeling, I couldn’t move. Then you think: “What’s wrong with my body? Will I be able to walk?” What came to my mind is: “This is embarrassing, get me out of here”. I saw these movies in my head like “Kill me, I am helpless”.
“Yoga not only helps heal the physical, mental and emotional damage we have put ourselves through, but replaces it with love, compassion and patience.”
Dirk: How does being vulnerable feel to you now?
Keith: It feels amazing Dirk. First and foremost, vulnerability to me is being open, open to experience. The things that stop us from having the experience or embracing what is truly inside of us and not suppressing it, is to let go and be able to absorb it all. What happens a lot of times through our conditioning is how we have been made to see ourselves and perceive ourselves. We resist the softer stuff because our society has made vulnerability into a weakness, but it’s not, it’s an empowerment. It’s about being open and the only way that we can understand and have empathy is related to being vulnerable, they go hand in hand. You can’t understand empathy without understanding vulnerability. When I am looking at our fellow men, it gives me an inclination of understanding, why there’s a disconnection from men to men, from person to person and from culture to culture.
It’s all about the real connections and when I started to grow in my life and peeling the onion, I started to recognize something – My parents for example have been married for 38 years, but the real connection is to be able to speak the truth. I think that is difficult for people, they just don’t do it, like in relationships, whether it’s intimacy, whether it be just the real truth about marriage. We say we love these people in our circles but we give them no information for creating the best opportunity to excel in life, we give them no truth about life.
Dirk: Football and yoga are two completely different worlds and cultures. In the video you mentioned: “My journey truly began after that injury happened and I see life on a whole different spectrum”. How did you discover a new identity in your life when everything you thought that mattered was gone?
Keith: I think the concept of me, which wasn’t really me, was the role that I was choosing to play as an athlete and when I really discovered me, I also had the opportunity to nurture me. I was telling you earlier that we find these roles to create a niche to play in and to create and sustain this validation – The character that I played was a football player and how everybody perceived me while I was performing. But Keith was isolated, Keith was malnourished and then when the football player died, I was left with Keith. I had to build Keith up and understand what Keith liked and to figure out who this guy was. Our challenge is that when we talk about roles and characters, is not to get lost in those things.
I teach people now that something can be a characteristic of you, but it does’t define you. You are the deity and everything that you are will attract these characteristics but they don’t define you. All these things depreciate, they fall away, we spend money, we lose money, but you’re going to sustain, you’re going to be here but if you have yourself worked in those things, as they go so are you.
Dirk: When yoga was first suggested to you as a therapy choice after your accident, what did you think yoga was all about?
Keith: I took a yoga class while I was playing in New Orleans and I didn’t like it at all, I thought it was weird. That was one class. And then, coming around, when I was in the hospital and meditation was being introduced to me as a practise of conscious breathing – a healing breath – for some reason I gravitated to that. If you can imagine being locked in a pit and someone throws you a rope, that was the rope that I held on to, the meditation and the conscious breathing of healing myself, I figured this is gonna save me. I had belief in the Creator, but I believed this was the tool he has given me so that I could save myself and I held on to that and it was my practise.
Dirk: Do you remember the moment you truly felt drawn to yoga? Was it something you read or was it one particular practice on the mat?
Keith: I was in that space of vulnerability, when you want to heal, you want to heal, and it was resonating with my body and I was connecting with my body on a whole different level then before and it was channelling into nurturing myself – the conscious breathing is nurturing yourself with every breath that you take. I have a philosophy: We have 21,000 breaths a day and an opportunity to nurture, heal and massage the organs, 21,000 chances every day!
All the internal trauma that we have in our first, second and third chakra, is something we can heal by connecting to movements – you create another twist, you got the spinal twist, you’re extending… it’s like a towel that is wet and you kind of wringing it out. These components made sense, it was an alignment and I just flowed with it. I am still flowing [laughing loud now].
Dirk: “We are all athletes playing the game of life and trying to find our niche.” What is your niche in life right now?
Keith: Well, my niche and what I see as my calling is to share and to serve. I started working in developing a holistic wellness facility for athletes and now that I met congressman Tim Ryan, I see a perfect fit for this facility to work with the Veterans Bill and I also created Mindful 5K which is a wellness expo that we are going to do for kids and educating them with our tools. Here in LA I have the opportunity to take a kid from Beverly Hills and connect him or her with a kid from South Central and they can stay connected, they can meet each other, they can connect through social media, can go through high school together, through college together and the continuation of this network is unlimited.
There’s also a way that conscious companies can come together because they need support as well and they can create a network between themselves and then connect with the media to help people understand they exist. Meditation reclaims the mind, Yoga reclaims the body and this, in my opinion, reclaims and builds our community.
Dirk: What would you say to those who are trying to find their niche in life?
Keith: In regards to the Mindful5K we have a component for the adults as well and we like to explain to them what we’re doing and getting them excited about it. We have a 5K run (or walk) and hopefully their experience will be so great that they want to come inside and try to experience what we’re serving them.
The interesting thing is, I am really drawn to men and I think we can create a nice movement with people like yourself, with all men and connecting them so they can still hold this masculine presence but also embrace the femininity.
When we consider what we’re made of and that we’re just functioning on this for 50%, we have another 50% that hasn’t been explored yet. What if we bring some of that in and then look at the dynamics. We can change the man which changes the relationships from father to son, from father to daughter and that trickles down and suddenly we change the whole dynamics of the family – the son who is not stuck in his masculinity anymore, the daughter who is going to really date her father. Now she’s got an open understanding of what love is and it’s not just a ‘heart love’, that it’s also a compassionate and patient love as well. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
I really love that niche and I am not isolating the women here, the women are open already, they are already participating and they are the leading part of the market of yoga right now.
For more information, please visit Keith Mitchell’s website: KeithMitchell59.com
INTERVIEW BY: DIRK TERPSTRA – SOUL LOVE FOUNDER