On a snowy Iowa road in 1978, Matthew Sanford’s life changed forever. The car that he and his family were riding in swerved off an overpass, killing his father and elder sister instantly. Matthew awoke three and a half days later in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the chest down.
Confined to a wheelchair and told by Western doctors to ‘forget his lower half,’ Matthew spent twelve years disconnected from his body, searching for purpose. At age 25, his physical therapist introduced him to yoga, and again his life was changed – or re-awakened.
Today, Matthew is a certified Iyengar teacher (authorized by the Man himself) and author of the award-winning Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. In 2001, he founded Mind Body Solutions, a non-profit organization specializing in “adaptive yoga” which has trained over 500 yoga teachers and offers classes for persons with disabilities and traditional students alike.
Matthew spoke with Michael Laskaris about his life, vision, and awakening the mind/body relationship.
Michael Laskaris:What does your daily practice consist of?
Matthew Sanford: It’s constantly evolving. My asana practice used to more physically rigorous, but now it has become less aspirational and slightly more restorative (I’m also currently nursing a rotator cuff injury, so I’ve had to adjust accordingly). But when I first started, I did it all, especially anything that would open my chest. I would do adaptive versions of sun salutes, standing poses, shoulder stand, arm balances, seated twists. I still do some of them, but not as intensely. Nowadays, my asana practice is primarily designed to prepare me for my pranayamapractice (pranayama is intrinsic to my daily living, and I’m practicing it constantly).
ML:What is it like to practice asana with your body?
MS: Yoga (and specifically asana) allowed me to reconnect to the lower two-thirds of my body, when before, I was told to forget about it. I can now feel energetic channels pulsating throughout my waist and legs. Because of this, I’m really able to sense the dynamic energy between my legs and spine, and feel the sensations of the poses from the inside out. For instance, if you were to tickle the bottom of my foot, I wouldn’t feel it, but right now, I’m completely aware of the placement of my legs in space, and where my weight falls. Think about when your legs fall asleep – I can feel tingly, energetic sensations in my lower body. These sensations were always there, but yoga helped realize their existence.
ML:What are some of your favorite postures?
MS: I love encouraging my body to live in more spaces, and the beauty of the asanas is that they allow you to extend beyond the edges of your body. I ceaselessly love down dog. And I love the seated poses, especially siddhasana and janu sirsasana.
ML: Have you had any asana-related injuries?
MS: I once broke my femur while practicing padmasana. It wasn’t from complete mindlessness; it was a fatigue-related injury that was a result of consistent use. Like many yogis, when I first came to the practice, I was curious to see how far I could push my body. I got too full of the effort and consequently hurt myself (a reminder to all that an asana practice should have gradations of energy...your body is different each day).
ML: Could you elaborate upon what you offer/do at Mind Body Solutions?
MS: Our regular trainings prepare yoga teachers to teach anyone that comes through their doors (young, old, healthy, sick, disabled, etc.). This is especially important for our current demographic of post-Millennium ‘yoga boom’ teachers – everyone is aging! Teachers are going to have to offer much more adapted styles of asana as we all get old. I don’t necessarily think that this means restorative, though. I think we’ve discovered a solution at MBS…
We also educate healthcare providers on how to integrate yogic principals into the professional health environment (and all professional environments, for that matter). The realization that yoga reveals is something our culture desperately needs, and unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t going to become yoga practitioners. We need to help translate yoga’s essence into daily lives. For instance, instead of teaching asana, we’ll ask healthcare professionals “…what are you doing with your hip? With your feet? What’s happening with your spine? Your gait?” We’re teaching them stuff that we discover in the yoga practice, and making it practical for them. And it’s working! We have people coming in droves.
ML:You also teach asana to traditional and/or non-disabled students. What is that like?
MS: I sort of teach postures backwards. My situation allows me more subtle access to the mind/body relationship than the average person, and that’s why I’m a yoga teacher; I can really teach the Inner Body to students. I help them become inwardly focused, while being physically dynamic. Contrary to many teachers, I start from the inside and work towards the exterior. The asanas allow us to become congruent with the flow of prana in our systems, and if you just work physically, you won’t find the subtleties of the poses and thus hinder your practice.
ML: In your book, you describe a coping mechanism wherein you completely “leave your body” and detach your mind from your physical being. This may sound contrary to yogic ideal. Could you elaborate?
MS: There are some traumatic experiences that the mind simply cannot handle and the ability to disassociate from the body is a psychological survival tactic that all humans share. But you can’t become too comfortable in this detachment, nor should you become too comfortable with integration. There is a constant flux between the mind and body, and this is the “mind/body relationship.” The goal of the yoga practice is to recognize the constant ebb and flow and not to judge it.
ML: Amazingly, you maintain a positive narrative towards your life story. How do you do this?
MS: The body that I live in suffers, and it has a lot of pain in it, but through my yoga practice, and at my very core, life feels good. I feel it in my bones, even though they may hurt. There’s an existential feeling of being alive, and when you can experience it without judgment, life feels really great. I’m also not afraid of my suffering, and I’m not afraid of my own sadness either. I know that any unease is going to come like a cough, and then it’s going to go. You have to keep navigating your life, accepting the fact that part of it’s going to hurt, and part of it isn’t. And when we share that, the best of humanity is released.