Former NFL Linebacker Keith Mitchell Once Paralyzed on the Field Becomes a Yogi: 'It Changed My Life Forever'

"We have the ability to change and live great lives, but we need to be truly connected to our bodies," former NFL linebacker Keith Mitchell tells PEOPLE

Photo: Elizabeth Bensinger

One tackle changed everything.

It was 2003 when Keith Mitchell, the 29-year-old NFL linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars, collided with another player and terrifyingly couldn’t move when he tried to get up.

“My body wouldn’t respond to my mind,” Mitchell, now 40, tells PEOPLE. “It was an out-of-body experience.”

The athlete, who says he had a “gladiator mentality” at the time and had never hurt himself on the field before, found himself paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury.

“It was beyond devastating to learn that I would never play football again,” he says. “But I had the will to be functional and to do something else with my life.”

More than 10 years later, Mitchell is far from the football field – and nowhere near the wheelchair and neck brace he once needed after being told he might never walk again.

“I always had this idea of success which looked like homes and nice cars, but when I thought about it, I realized I wasn’t close with my parents and I was pretty unhappy,” he says. “I opened my mind to other things.”

Finding Peace

This past Saturday morning, Mitchell walked around barefoot on a small beach in Highlands, New Jersey, and greeted around 25 people with a confident ” Namaste.”

The tough, 234-pound athlete was introduced to yoga in the hospital after his traumatic injury, which left him unable to walk for six months. After that, what started off as a hobby soon turned into a passion, and then a career.

Mitchell now teaches athletes, kids, families and veterans yoga and mindfulness – something he thinks saved his own life not just physically, but mentally.

“It changed my life forever,” he says. “We are in this world and we are just not connecting as much as we should be. We are on the surface and we crave more. I thought that our community needed to have this.”

In order to live those principles, Mitchell sold his most prized possessions and uprooted himself to Los Angeles to create a yoga retreat. Eight thousand people showed up to his first event at The Los Angeles Coliseum.

He now helps military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other debilitating and chronic health problems.

He also founded the JUST BREATHE campaign, a fundraising effort to support a unique integrative medical care program known as the KM5.9 Care Plan, which seeks to heal wounded military veterans.

Helping Others

At the beach in Highlands, Mitchell led the Mindful Fitness Festival, which included more than 25 events such as yoga sessions, a 5K Fitness 50 run and Bubble Palooza for children. Kids from the Newark area even came to try yoga.

“These kids are the best,” he says. “It’s a rewarding feeling to teach them.”

Later in the day he led a workshop for veterans.

“My dad is a veteran and I know what PTSD is all about,” Mitchell says, stressing that more than 2.3 million U.S. veterans have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I really do believe that yoga is important for our soul and it helps us understand our relationship with ourselves.”

He also helps athletes – a group of people he knows very well.

“One would think athletes are connected to their bodies, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” he says. “If they did, they wouldn’t put themselves in harm’s way.”

Mitchell looks at his life now and his future with pure excitement.

“I can’t wait to help more people and open up their minds,” he says. “People need to be present. It’s amazing what our minds can do.”

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