Yoga and Disability: Matthew Sanford Heals Bodies

This blog is a short book review and book recommendation about the true story of a Midwestern American man who survives a terrible car accident in 1978, losing both his father and sister, becomes disabled and then decides to take up his new path of being a yoga teacher. It is told by Seth Davis, author of this incredible story.

Matthew Sanford has a dream- one in which he is not dismissed as a New Age nut when he extols the virtues of yoga as a form of rehabilitation. The 42 old Minnesota man credits yoga for relieving the damage inflicted on his body and mind after a serious car crash in 1978. The crash severed his spinal cord when he was just 13 and took the lives of his father and older sister. According to Sanford, the resulting physical and mental trauma was locked inside his body for years, an internal wound that refused to heal.

For 12 years, doctors convinced him to write off his paralyzed lower body as a lost cause and focus only on strengthening his upper body. By following that advice, he effectively disconnected himself from his body and lost his sense of being complete. As a gangly teenager, Sanford said the intensive weightlifting regimen prescribed by the people treating him did not jibe with his athletic interests or dissipate his trauma. “It didn’t turn me on or light me up, but it also felt like it was being piled on top of the trauma I’d already absorbed”, he said. He felt as though weightlifting might have helped him travel uphill in his wheelchair faster, but it didn’t resolve the fact that he missed fully living in his body.

In 1990, Sanford discovered Iyengar yoga, which stresses alignment and precision in the body. It helped him to realize that although he wouldn’t be able to walk again, he could still feel sensations and energy coming from his legs. This discovery gradually allowed him to reclaim his entire body and enjoy a renewed sense of wholeness. There was no precedent at the time for teaching yoga to paraplegics, so Sanford and instructor Jo Zukovich worked together to adapt the yoga poses. The resulting lessons have found their way into Sanford’s classroom, where he now teachers yoga to people with and without disabilities.

When imparting his knowledge of yoga, Sanford welcomes people with all levels of disability because he is confident that he can adapt his lessons to let everyone experience the sensations conjured by a healthy mind-body connection. He and his nonprofit organization, Mind Body Solutions, has been providing truing to members of the Western medical community about how to understand and foster the mind-body connection in patients.

“Part of the message I want people with disabilities to get is that they are engaged in a practice that is strengthening them. It is a life skill that will help them build a level of resilience that is amazing” he said. Citing the years following the Vietnam War, Sanford said people with disabilities benefited greatly from the advancements developed for Vietnam vets such as better wheelchairs and prosthetics, as well as the increased returning bets using the mind-body approach.

With his quest to reintroduce people with disabilities to their bodies, Sanford said he believes he can entirely change their outlooks on life and the promise it holds. “I really, really, really encourage people living with disability to listen to the body so that they can hear a different love of sensation, so they can experience freedom that comes from connecting to this subtle feel of sensation. It’s not going to reverse the condition, but if you can listen to it and follow it, it’ll lead to a better life” he said.

This book review was written by Amy Gonwa, a recent yoga teacher training student of Clayton Yoga.

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