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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 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.


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.


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."


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