A paraplegic yoga teacher shares his practice for finding feeling and healing in both body and mind.
This is the eighth in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work. This month, Corn interviews Matthew Sanford, the founder of Mind Body Solutions (mindbodysolutions.org), which offers adaptive yoga and trainings for yoga teachers and integrative training for health care professionals in care delivery.
Seane Corn: You’ve turned an experience that could be debilitating for some people into a healing story. Can you share your journey and how you’ve come to be the man you are now?
Matthew Sanford: At age 13, I experienced a pivotal event in my life. I was snuggled in against my sister in the back of our family car on a 31-degree rainy day. Then, an accident happened—the car tumbled down an embankment. I woke up three-and-a-half days later to a completely different world. I lost my father and sister, and I also broke my back and neck. I’m paralyzed from the chest down and get around in a wheelchair. For the first 12 years after the accident, I followed my doctors’ vision of healing, which wasn’t focused on healing as much as overcoming the obstacle that was my paralyzed body. They guided me to make my upper body really strong, so I could drag my paralyzed body through life. They said that any level of sensation I experienced below my point of spinal-cord injury was imaginary, illusory, a memory that would fade over time.
The problem was that I missed my body. Even though my spinal cord was severed, I wanted to explore whatever sensation was still accessible. That is when I found yoga. It turns out that sensation other than the feeling of muscular action is possible. I have learned to access the “inside” of yoga poses without always flexing muscles, and I have done so in a way that is not simply dependent on breath.
SC: What is the feeling like?
MS: I started listening to a sensation—a sense of humming, or a tingling buzz—that preceded my control and my will, and that is the foundation of everything I teach as a yoga instructor. Inherent to my teaching is an expansion of what counts as sensation. For example, when you’re in Warrior II and you release the front groin more while grounding the front heel, awareness instantaneously goes to the back heel. Then, there is an opportunity to feel the energy of the spine touch the floor between your legs. That is a subtle physical example in a traditional practice that is analogous to what I feel on the inside of paralysis. There’s a humming, a kind of relief. The inner body often disguises itself as relief, but if you listen more closely, there is a resonance at a deeper level.
SC: When you first started doing yoga, did a lot of intensity, grief, or rage come up?
MS: For the first couple of years of practicing, I had to confront the grief of how damaged my body was, but also acknowledge what a remarkable job it had done to help me survive. It was a difficult time. But I got lucky and met a great yoga teacher right off the bat: Iyengar teacher Jo Zukovich from San Diego. The first time I was with her she had me do Hands in Prayer, and with more precision from her instructions, I felt energetic awareness flash through my inner thighs and lighten the lift in my chest. I was hooked. I wanted to do all of the poses. Jo helped me realize that the infiniteness of yoga exists in every pose, and even only parts of the poses. This insight has shaped my practice and my teaching. I also think it helped me love yoga for its essence, not just the accomplishment of difficult poses.
SC: You became a certified Iyengar teacher and started Mind Body Solutions. What does the nonprofit do?
MS: At Mind Body Solutions, we do trainings to help yoga teachers figure out what’s universal to asana that you can teach any body. We also teach adaptive yoga classes to people living with all kinds of trauma, loss, and disability. Finally, we train health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, hospice workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists—just about everyone—on how to integrate mind/body principles into the delivery of health care. In addition, we want to show caregivers how to sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix it, and how to give and receive simultaneously. We want them to realize that these are not simply psychological insights. These also are mind-body skills that they need to master or they will suffer burnout.
SC: When you talk about sensation to people with disabilities, do they consider your language to be magical thinking?
MS: Yes, but over time it’s not the language but the experience that does the work. When I say there’s this sensation that moves through you, the student might ask what I mean. Then I push on his knees as he sits in the wheelchair, and all of a sudden his chest lifts. I ask, “Did you feel that? Maybe you didn’t feel your chest lift, but when I take my hands off your knees, do you feel the sense of gravity come back and do you feel heavier?” He’ll say, “Yeah,” but what’s more amazing is when he says, “But I thought that level of sensation didn’t matter.” It is heartbreaking and negatively impacts long-term outcomes if disabled people do not believe that their subtle feelings of sensation matter. If you cut off people living with disabilities from subtle sensation, you cut them off from the potential for so much healing.
And the same is true for all of us. If you can get the person to feel that kind of humming buzz that comes from a good practice or from a single breath with a movement—that’s all you need. You have opened the door to a better, fuller life.