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Matthew Sanford - Paraplegic Yoga Teacher

Updated on October 3, 2014

Matthew Sanford - Yoga Teacher, Speaker, Author

I first heard about paraplegic yoga teacher Matthew Sanford a number of years ago when my mother sent me a newspaper clipping about him. Like my mother he lives in the Minneapolis metropolitan area. I've since heard more about the work he's been doing with disabled and able-bodied yoga students, from other yoga teachers and in yoga magazines.

Matthew is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, which takes much study and skill to obtain. He's one of the most inspiring people I've heard about.

At the age of 13, Matthew Sanford was in a devastating car accident that killed his father and sister, and left him paralyzed from the chest down.

When he was 25, he was introduced to yoga. Yoga can't cure his paralysis, but by learning to more fully experience his mind-body connections through his study and practice of yoga, he has been able to learn to "live in his whole body again", rather than to ignore his legs and to focus only on the parts of his body that he can control.

Sanford is now a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, and teaches able-bodied and disabled students. He also teaches and lectures at yoga conferences and other motivational conferences across the country.

Matthew Sanford's book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Trancendence, is about his life journey, including his experience in intensive care and rehab; his experience with yoga and as a yoga teacher; and founding the non-profit organization Mind Body Solutions.

His message is that we all can live more fully in our bodies with a stronger mind-body connection. He says "Your body is the best home your mind will ever have, and it's the only one you get."

All images on this page from the media kits on MatthewSanford.com or Mind Body Solutions.

The Body's Grace
The Body's Grace

"The Body's Grace" on NPR's "Krista Tippett on Being"

Matthew Sanford's Story

Watch and listen to the fascinating The Body's Grace: Matthew Sanford's Story on NPR's "Krista Tippett on Being".

Or read the transcript of The Body's Grace.

This was first broadcast in 2006, and re-broadcast in late May 2010.

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This interview is periodically re-played, including May 5 or 6, 2012. Check your local NPR station for when "On Being" airs.

Matthew Sanford and Yoga

Matthew Sanford teaching yoga
Matthew Sanford teaching yoga

Guided by his yoga teacher, Jo Zukovich, Matthew began to explore what it truly means to live in a body, and discovered new meaning and purpose in the "distance" between mind and body.

This excerpt is taken from the transcript of The Body's Grace on NPR's "Speaking of Faith:

"One of the big healing things for me was to recognize that my paralyzed body didn't stop talking to my mind. It changed its voice. It went to a more subtle whisper that doesn't have as much clarity. It's sweeter, it's quieter and it doesn't as quickly react. I try to describe it as energetic presence. Like if you were to squeeze my ankle, it would feel like you're squeezing a tube of toothpaste, I can feel the surge up my body through my spine.

Ms. Tippett: But you feel it as energy rather than as nerve endings.

Mr. Sanford: Right. It's not as loud. It's not as crisp. For me, it's also very auditory, and I don't know if that is because I'm just auditory, like that's how my brain's wired, or, you know, I don't know if I were more a visual person, but I kind of, I inwardly listen and hear. I pay attention and I can feel these changes....."

Matthew Sanford brings this awareness of the body-mind connection into his teaching of yoga. He teaches to both able-bodied and disabled yoga students in a way that can help everyone understand the importance of the mind-body relationship.

Even though Matthew can't do most of the poses that his able-bodied students can do, he knows how the poses work in the body, and with his unique understanding of the connection between body and mind he can guide his students deeper into their poses by teaching them to pay attention to their body's subtler sensations.

Iyengar Yoga and Disabilities

Matthew Sanford teaching yoga
Matthew Sanford teaching yoga

Matthew Sanford considers himself lucky in that the first yoga teacher he encountered was an Iyengar Yoga teacher, Jo Zukovich.

Iyengar Yoga focuses on developing a heightened awareness of alignment, clarity, and precision in the practice of the yoga poses, making this practice a good fit for people with disabilities. The work in each pose can become more and more subtle as practitioners are able to focus their attention more and more fully within the pose.

As Matthew Sanford says, "This is essential for me as a student living with a disability because I will only gain full access to a limited number of asanas [yoga poses].....I have to learn more from the experience of less. I also have to learn asanas from both the "inside-out" and from the "outside-in". Iyengar yoga is the only yoga I have encountered that makes this possible "(from Iyengar Yoga and Paralysis, in Yoga Rahasya, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2007, pp. 62 - 66)

Iyengar Yoga is also useful for anyone with disabilities (and many of us have the more minor disabilities of weakness or stiffness in different parts of the body) because of its use of props. Props such as blankets, straps, chairs, benches, or even walls, can help us move into and stay in poses with more integrity, so we can start to experience more clearly what is really going on in the body and mind as we stay in the poses.

In the same Yoga Rahasya article, Matthew ends by saying, "I live in a different mind-body relationship than an ordinary yoga student. The more I practice, the more I explore, the more I encounter the profound genius of Sri B.K.S. Iyengar. He has left a trail even for someone like me. When I hear people criticize Iyengar yoga for being a strictly physical practice, I smile and shake my head because I am living proof that they are mistaken. I also know to whom I am grateful."

Matthew Sandford and his yoga teacher Jo Zukovich
Matthew Sandford and his yoga teacher Jo Zukovich

Matthew Sanford's Accident and Recovery

When Matthew was 13, he and his family were driving back home after spending Thanksgiving with relatives, and their car skidded off an icy bridge, killing his father and his sister. Matthew's mother and brother just had minor injuries, but Matthew broke his neck, back and both wrists, and sustained internal injuries.

All of his injuries healed over time except for his severed spinal cord, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He's talked about how a hospital is a necessarily "violent" place -- the pain of surgeries and rehabilitation are necessary to heal injuries that can be fixed, and to make him learn to live with his paralysis.

When he told people that he could still feel tingling sensations in his legs, his doctors were quick to point out that any "feeling" he thought he had in his legs were just phantom sensations. They advised him to ignore these sensations and to "forget his lower body" since he'd never be able to use his legs again, and focus instead on developing his torso and arms. Matthew took their advice to heart, and said he lived life as a "floating torso" for the 12 years after his accident.

Then when he was 25, he met Iyengar Yoga teacher Jo Zukovich, who introduced him to yoga. Through the practice of yoga, Matthew has learned to reconnect to the parts of his body that don't work, and has become aware of subtle energies between the different parts of his body, and between his body and mind. He's discovered the healing power of the mind-body connection.

Matthew has learned that the awareness of this connection can make us more "whole" even if it can't "cure" our disabilities.

Teaching Yoga to People with Disabilities - Volvo for Life Awards Documentary

This shows Matthew teaching students with disabilities, and we hear from some of these students how this has benefited them.

I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.

— Matthew Sanford
Yoga for disabilities
Yoga for disabilities

Mind Body Solutions

Matthew Sanford's non-profit organization

Matthew Sanford started teaching adaptive yoga classes in 1998, and founded the non-profit organization Mind Body Solutions in 2002.

The mission statement for Mind Body Solutions is, "Our mission is to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body. "

Mind Body Solutions is a leader in adapting yoga for people with disabilities, and has training programs for teachers to learn adaptive yoga instruction.

Of their program, they say, "We believe the mind-body insights that come from yoga poses are accessible to everyone. We adapt yoga by teaching the experience created through each pose, giving our students access to a level of mind-body sensation not affected by their disability."

Mind Body Solutions also runs a yoga studio in Minnetonka, Minnesota which offers yoga classes to disabled and able-bodied yoga students.

Matthew Sanford - Inspiring Speaker

Matthew's life experience makes him an inspirational speaker. He's traveled across the country to give motivational presentations about the mind-body experience at yoga conventions and various other organizations.

Source

Waking - A Memoir of Trauma and Trancendence

I recently finished reading Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, and was amazed at the sometimes horrific process that Matthew Sanford had to go through for his healing.

This book is an account of Matthew's story; from when he was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of 13 in a car accident, his long recovery afterward, his experience as a paralyzed yoga teacher, and becoming the founder of a non-profit organization. He learns what it truly means to live in a body, and "he delivers a powerful message about the endurance of the human spirit and of the body that houses it." (From the Amazon product description)

Matthew Sanford Speaking at the Center for Spinal Injury Recovery in Detroit. - Early 2010

In early 2010 Matthew Sanford spoke at the Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute, home of the Center for Spinal Injury Recovery. This video includes some of his talk, and it also includes one of the short videos that's shown earlier on this page.

Matthew Sanford asks the audience, "How do you live more vibrantly in your body?", and also states, "I've never seen someone become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate. Never seen it happen."

I'd love to hear from you!

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    • KarenHC profile image
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      Karen 3 years ago from U.S.

      @SmartYoga: Sanford is a very interesting person, and his book is fascinating!

    • profile image

      SmartYoga 3 years ago

      Yes! So interesting to read about the benefits of being connected to the whole body even if it may not be working "normally"! Makes sense, I just never thought of it that way! Thank you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      What an inspiring story.of a life well lived. The able-bodied can learn much from this amazing young man.

    • KarenHC profile image
      Author

      Karen 4 years ago from U.S.

      @aesta1: Thanks, aesta1! If I weren't so involved with yoga, I'd be doing Tai Chi too :-)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Yes, certainly. I am learning Tai Chi now and will go back to yoga once more when I get a good instructor. Your lenses on yoga are always very good.

    • KarenHC profile image
      Author

      Karen 4 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: I'm so sorry to hear that your brother was paralyzed! For Matthew Sanford's event schedule, you can visit http://www.matthewsanford.com/content/event-calend...

      The rest of his website is interesting too. Best wishes to you and your brother.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Yes, I would love to know where he is teaching/lecturing or has classes. My brother was paralyzed from his chest down this past October and I'm looking for inspiration for him to find ways to get out of pain and keep trying to move his body, etc.. Thank you!

    • YogaAngel profile image

      YogaAngel 4 years ago

      INSPIRING!

    • JaredMDwyer profile image

      JaredMDwyer 4 years ago

      This is absolutely amazing!

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 4 years ago from Maryland

      Wow! Incredibly inspiring! :) SquidAngel Blessed!

    • Sara Krentz profile image

      Sara Krentz 5 years ago from USA

      His is a very inspiring story - great lens!

    • profile image

      TheresaBesaw 5 years ago

      WOW! This is an amazing lens, and what a powerful story. I can't wait to share this with my family. My son just returned from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and we are waiting to find out the extent of damage to his back from a fall on a mountain. Thank you for this information.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      My yoga tracher mentioned Waking - I read it in one afternoon. This is my 3rd bout of Bell's Palsy and Matt has opened a window/door/world for me. He gave words and clarity to what I had a shadowy inkling of, and, has inspired me to go more gently, and, respectfully, into my practice, and, into my body. Thank you.

    • Demaw profile image

      Demaw 5 years ago

      He is an inspiration to us all. Great lens

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very inspiring! Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      maryctucker 5 years ago

      Really,God blessed to matthew.Yoga is important part of his life.

    • howtocurecancer profile image

      howtocurecancer 5 years ago

      Blessed by a SquidAngel.

    • KarenHC profile image
      Author

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: Hi Tali, Have you worked much with pranayama (breathwork -- but nothing vigorous right now) and some restorative (resting, recuperative) yoga poses as well as the more physically active poses? That may help some. Ideally you'd find a yoga teacher or meditation teacher in your area to help you through your problems and questions. Best wishes to you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Salaam Light being,

      I have been doing yoga now for three years and it has changed my life. I can feel the presence of the huge ego my farther programmed in to me and it seems to be getting clearer and clear but it do not say anything. I could do most of the postions when I first began and I realised it was all very ego based, meaning I wanted to be better that everyone but I did not realised this at the time. Now I am not able to do many postures due lower back tension and have tension in most postures I carry out. The tension loosens and lightens at the end of pratrice but each time I begin again it is exactly the some, basically my tension is bigger then when I first began yoga. I This realise that I ma getting in touch with my body more and more as I have areas of my body knocking on my consciousness to get its attention. This ia all a new way of life for and I have opened up like never before but I feel fustrated and wonder what I am not doing because the tension is always there. I also have being dialysing on a Kidney machine for 22 year and am aware that, that may have something to do with my lower back tension. I would like to teach yoga and pass on what I experienced. This has been huge learning for me as I have opened up to many different parts of who I am and I feel very grounded, but in dark energy I feel very caotic its like one extreme to the the other I have learnt to go though the eye of the kneedle when this energy is sucking me dry by learning not to judge myslef. I have realised that I acturally enjoy these periods as it is what I have known most my life and without them I feel like I don't exist . I am learing how to just being. But because right now I am not able to let go of whatever I am holding in my lower back and kidneys due to something I am fearing it is causing me to though dark and heavy energy on a regular bases. My life is so different to everyone I know and I am not able to explain to others what is happening as there are no words. I feel like my balance is all out of sync and as my kidney's control balance of fluids etc... and as they are not fully functioning I think, how will l gain any balance? How can I move aways from that deep rooted thought and become the light being I am? I no that it is all a process and everything happens for a reason and I am very appreicative of my patience. Please can you send me some words of wisdom? I no that I am changing all the time but why do I feel so stuck?

    • ElizaRayner profile image

      Eliza Rayner 6 years ago from Boulder, Colorado

      What an inspirational story!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      He is certainly an accomplished teacher -what with such severe injuries. Yoga can heal both mind and body.

    • reflectionhaiku profile image

      reflectionhaiku 6 years ago

      Very inspirational lens on the art of Yoga & Matthew Sanford - congrats on the Featured Lens Review. JM

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 6 years ago

      What a great story! Angel blessed and featured on November Blessings.

    • Jhangora LM profile image

      Jhangora LM 6 years ago

      Certainly. A very motivational story indeed. Thanx a lot for the share.

    • profile image

      who-i-am 6 years ago

      Matthew, I love what you say: "Your body is the best home your mind will ever have, and it's the only one you get.".... Thank you for being who you are in this world. Namaste

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Check out my lens on some of the Sexiest & Trendiest Yoga Gear with most outfits (Top & Foldover yoga pants) UNDER $20 http://www.squidoo.com/trendy-yoga-clothes

    • spritequeen lm profile image

      spritequeen lm 6 years ago

      Being physically challenged, myself, this was VERY interesting to me! I will DEFINITELY be looking deeper into this subject. Thanks for sharing!!

    • AnnRadley profile image

      AnnRadley 6 years ago

      Wow - this lens is SO inspiring. It puts my daily aggravations into perspective. And - although I've never experienced paralysis - I can feel the suble changes in energy throughout my body, from doing yoga. So glad to know about this teacher.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very inspiring lens about how a person can beat the odds. I see that there is a lot of awareness on natural and holistic healing.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image

      corinnemwestphal 6 years ago

      Amazing story, amazing lens. Thank you for this. Truly inspirational.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

      A beautiful tribute to this amazing man. So glad Leanne brought our attention to this one. Angel blessed.

    • profile image

      kimmanleyort 6 years ago

      Excellent page on an inspiring teacher, in more ways than one.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      What an inspiring man, Matthew Sanford is. We all could learn from his example.

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 6 years ago

      Excellent. I had never heard of Matthew Sanford, but he is indeed an inspiring figure.

    • PRam1 profile image

      PRam1 6 years ago

      Great lens! Thumbs up

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Mathew is indeed an inspiration. What a gift he has for helping people connect their awareness with their body. Thank you for creating this wonderful lens!

    • triathlontraini1 profile image

      triathlontraini1 6 years ago

      Inspiring and wonderful! It just goes to show that Yoga can benefit everyone.

    • Mickie Gee profile image

      Mickie Goad 6 years ago

      Inspiring! Blessed today by this Squid Angel.

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 6 years ago

      Wow - inspiring lens. I'd love to feature all your yoga lenses on my Hinduism and Yoga group. Just lensroll or feature the group, and let me know you want in. http://www.squidoo.com/groups/Hinduism-yoga

    • KarenHC profile image
      Author

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      @KamalaEmbroidery: Yes, yoga is a wonderful activity to get back into :-) And Matthew Sanford's story is so inspiring, I agree.

    • KamalaEmbroidery profile image

      KamalaEmbroidery 6 years ago

      Wow, how inspiring. I need to get back into yoga and in touch with my own body. Thanks for the lens. Blessings to you both.

    • LoKackl profile image

      LoKackl 6 years ago

      Wonderful, inspiring. Blessed

    • burgessvillian profile image

      burgessvillian 6 years ago

      I find more examples everyday that people with limitations show the world that there are no limits to what can be achieved. Great lens.

    • Kyecerulian profile image

      Kyecerulian 6 years ago

      What an amazingly inspirational story. Thanks for sharing!

    • brandonmotz lm profile image

      brandonmotz lm 6 years ago

      Great story of hope and inspiration. Cool Lens. Keep up the good work.

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