June 24th 2007
Spinal Cord Injury Information & Resource Directory
Mind Body Solutions
Matthew Sanford Paraplegic Yoga Instructor
At Mind Body Solutions, we are committed to making the benefits of yoga accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of their level of ability. This aspect of our mission results from the work and life experience of our founder, Matthew Sanford. Mind Body Solutions
Matthew Sanford often is still surprised to wake from sleep to glimpse the wheelchair at his bedside that has been with him for more than two-thirds of his life.
Moving cautiously so as not to disturb his sleeping wife, he lifts his paralyzed lower body to the source of mobility that has been his companion for nearly three decades. His yoga students will arrive soon. It is the start of a fresh, new day.
But morning hasn't always promised Sanford so much.
At the tender age of 13, Sanford's spinal cord was ravaged in a car wreck that paralyzed him from the chest down and killed his father and sister. The accident robbed him of something subtler, too, he says: a sense of living in his whole body.
"I became a floating upper torso," he explains.
In his new book, "Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence," the Twin Cities resident chronicles his heart-wrenching struggle and his realization years later of a mind-body connection that allows him to feel whole again. He explores the mysterious gap we all experience between mind and body.
In sessions he leads with doctors, patients and business people, Sanford works to elevate the mind-body relationship to a bona-fide category of health. He hopes his story will wake others to its healing power.
A NEW WORLD OF MOVEMENT
At age 40, Sanford fondly remembers the athletic body he had as a kid. After the accident, he saw how his mind intervened, lifting him out of his body to help make bearable the pain of surgeries, infections and screws and rods that held his broken frame together. In several "out-of-body experiences," as he calls them, he says he watched what was happening like it was on TV. When the healing began, he tuned it all out. The boy in the body learned to consciously ignore the parts of his being that were silenced by paralysis.
"I was given no tools to connect to my lower body," he writes in his book. "I was told it was just a loss." And for 12 years, he believed it.
After the 1978 accident, Sanford returned to classes at his junior high in Duluth, where he'd been the only seventh-grader to make the softball and basketball teams. That part of his life was history. But he was smart, popular and became a student leader. He went on to graduate from Duluth East High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a degree in philosophy.
While a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he studied mind-body consciousness. He was turned off by "the heady mind approach," he remembers. A war in the Persian Gulf and events in his personal life stirred a pot of disillusionment. He realized he was stricken with unrealized grief. "I hadn't acknowledged all that had happened to me," he says.
At age 25, he took up yoga. "I had reached a saturation point with living in opposition to my paralyzed body," he remembers.
Yoga opened a new world of movement to him. His teacher, Jo Zukovich, coached him to spread his legs wide into a V. He felt a sense of energy awaken in his paralyzed body, and he remembers a "huge and wonderful" feeling he calls "the recovery of life force."
He dropped out of graduate school, and yoga became his teacher. "With yoga, I began to reclaim the paralyzed part of my body." He learned to attain surprising poses — one of which projects his legs straight up in the air — with balance and flexibility rather than abdominal muscles, as an unparalyzed yoga practitioner would do.
His transformation stretched beyond yoga poses. His awareness of the mind-body connection came from other sources, too, like listening to the "silence" of his paralysis and the "healing stories" that grew from his life experiences.
The paradox of mind-body connection, he says, is that it can be so ordinary and yet so potentially healing. "I don't have to walk again," he says. Just knowing he can connect mind and body makes him feel more whole.
His understanding of mind-body connection brought him a new view of being a whole person. "Wholeness is not just in your self worth or your accomplishments," he says. "It's a level of nourishing presence that needs to just be."
For able-bodied people, Sanford gives these examples of the mind-body connection: When a weary person sinks into bed and feels relief, or when a hand placed on an arm grounds the person in a stressful experience.
When people understand that connection, they can learn to calm themselves — with meditation or a deep, calming breath.
Sanford feels now that he's "in his whole body." As he talks with a reporter, he pulls one leg up with his hands and sets a foot on the seat of his wheelchair. He squeezes his ankle and feels a surge up his spine.
As he rolls his wheelchair across the floor, he says he feels a buzz in his feet. When his feet touch the floor, he feels "an awareness" in his heels.
He has studied Iyengar yoga, which emphasizes alignment and precision. As he progressed, he became a teacher of yoga, too. He has created two businesses, the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions and MBS Yoga studio (www.mindbody solutions-mn.org). His classes include both able and disabled students.
"I teach people who stand, though I cannot," he explains.
And he has created a rich personal life. He and his wife of 10 years, Jennifer, live in Orono with their 6-year-old son, Paul, and a covey of cats.
His book is the new chapter, he says, in a saga of recovery and discovery.
" 'Waking' is for me like coming home," he says. "It's like I've been off from the group, and now I've returned to the group."
But he admits that writing the book tested his courage. It forced him to relive the intense emotional pain of a personal and family tragedy. He feels like he's had two lives: One that ended when he was 13 and another that began. "My life's been hard. I gained some insights through extreme trauma. But I'm in love with living," he says.
He sees his life now as a river gaining current rather than changing current. His life taught him that bad things are going to happen, but it's what we take from them that matters.
"If you stay patient with your life and listen to it, wonderful things happen a little bit at a time."
Kay Harvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5468.
Mind Body Solutions
Matthew is not only the Founder and President of the Board at Mind Body Solutions, but he also finds time to teach. He has been studying Iyengar yoga with Jo Zukevich (www.sandiegoyogastudio.com) for over fourteen years. When they started, they were in new territory – it was not clear how Iyengar yoga would travel through his paralyzed body, and there were no examples to emulate. They learned and adapted together. Eight years ago, Matthew began to share the results of their work in an adaptive class for people living with disabilities. About the same time, he began teaching people without disabilities. He found that the principles of Iyengar yoga apply the same way in both cases. In fact, his unique perspective on the poses proves invaluable for people who do not share his limitations. Matthew now just considers himself a yoga teacher who happens to know something extra about disability. www.matthewsanford.com
Matthew teaches at Mind Body Solutions Yoga to people of all abilities. He also specializes in adapting yoga for people living with disabilities and teaches an on-going class at the Courage Center, a leading rehabilitation facility. His work with yoga and Mind Body Solutions was featured in the December issue of Yoga Journal, 2003.
Previous article on Matthew:
Paraplegic an unlikely expert on yoga
Matt Sanford focuses on mind-body relationship
by Donna Halvorsen
MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL STAR TRIBUNE 8.17.04
Tickle Matt Sanford's toes and he won't feel a thing. Ask him to stand and he cannot.
Ask him to demonstrate Upavista Konasana, and he makes this yoga pose look easy, gliding gracefully out of his wheelchair and onto the floor. Legs wide, hands by his thighs, toes pointing up, upper inner thighs pushed in and down, stretching out through his heels, he lifts his chest and collarbone.
It's a difficult pose, but Sanford has an agile body that belies his condition. He's a paraplegic - and also a gifted yoga teacher who has founded Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit Minnetonka, Minn., yoga studio dedicated to showing others the benefits of awakening the connection between mind and body.
His journey began 25 years ago when his family's car hit ice and went off a bridge. He was 13, an athletic boy from Duluth who awoke from a three-day coma to learn that his father and sister were dead and that he would never walk again.
Paralyzed from the chest down, he was urged to accept his condition and move on. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester told him that any sensations he felt in his legs were "phantom" feelings, not real ones. Forget your body below your chest - it's lost to you, they said.
His mom told him he should focus on his mind, and he did, eventually graduating from the University of Minnesota Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He also received a master's degree in philosophy but stopped short of getting a doctorate. He couldn't see himself in an ivory tower. Something was pulling him away from the safe world of academia.
It was his body. He wanted it back. He wanted to live in his body - his whole body.
At the Mayo, he learned to disconnect from his body to avoid pain as doctors and nurses worked to mend it. His back, neck and wrists were broken. A lung had collapsed. His internal organs were damaged. His digestive system had shut down. He spent two months in intensive care before returning home for rehabilitation.
Sanford spent the first 12 years after the accident following his doctors' advice, treating his body as something he had to tote around for the rest of his life. It had become an object, he said.
While looking for remedies, Sanford found Iyengar yoga, which stresses stretching and proper body alignment in a variety of poses or postures.
Modern medicine has begun to affirm the importance of a mind-body relationship, and alternative approaches such as yoga have gained credibility. Yoga is seen as a way for people to relax, limber up, even relieve pain.
Sanford doesn't see yoga as the only path to a mind-body connection, but it worked for him, awakening his paralyzed body to sensations that he couldn't have imagined possible. They were not the same sensations that he feels in the upper third of his body, but they are sensations nonetheless. He describes the feeling as that of a "hum" or a "buzz," a surge of energy that travels through his paralyzed body. Feeling the presence of his lower body not only gives him the connection he was seeking but also helps his balance, he says.
Yoga is an ancient discipline that has a mystical, 1960s-type aura about it, but Sanford wants to make it more accessible. He tries to make it practical when he conducts a program called "Bringing Your Body to Work" for employees at Twin Cities-based corporations.
What can yoga do for employees? In a study conducted at Carlson Companies, employees said they had better energy levels, sleep quality, stress management, overall health and job outlooks after Sanford's 10-week, yoga-based program, said Loila Mickelson, Mind Body's business programs director.
Members of the work force are ignoring the mind-body relationship, Sanford contends. "It's not that different from me disassociating in the hospital to avoid pain. The truth is that this level of sensation is available to all of us. My experience is only more extreme."
After years of studying yoga, Sanford now teaches able-bodied students at his 2-year-old yoga studio, the base for Mind Body Solutions.
With a mop of brown curls, a short beard flecked with gray, cheeks flushed from the gentle exertion of yoga, intense eyes and a mouth that's always on the edge of a smile, he looks the picture of health and younger than his 38 years. Weaving around 11 students in his wheelchair, he provides help with yoga poses.
Talk to students such as 43-year-old Chuck Ankeny of Deephaven, and it's clear that he's a revered teacher. "You know how you have teachers once in a lifetime who really make a difference?" Ankeny said. "He's one of those."
With a wife and a 4-year-old son, Sanford said he has a good life, and he wants to help others have fuller lives.
"When you get more connected to your body, you get more connected to the things around you," he said. "I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate. If there was ever a time when the world needed a little more compassion, it is now." - Matt Sanford
Check out another paraplegic yoga teacher: Peter van Kan: yoga teacher, musician, and writer.