Day 11: Head to Toe

Last week, I started a series of posts about “people you should know.” Technically, it started with one person, but no one called me out on the fact that there is no such thing as a series of one. Now that there are two people, it’s official! (Related: There is no such thing as a “first annual” event. Don’t even try it. I won’t go.)

Matthew Sanford

Sanford is a yoga instructor. He teaches all types of students from all walks of life, all over the country. He is often quoted as saying, “Your body is the best home your mind will ever have, and it’s the only one you get.”

Sanford’s home/body is that of a paraplegic. He became paralyzed from the chest down during a car accident at age 13. In “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence,” (a phenomenal book) Sanford describes his spinal cord injury as fundamentally a mind-body injury—one that is experienced internally as a separation between self and body. His journey to reconnect to his paralyzed body, rather than overcome his injury, brought him to yoga at age 25.

If all you know about yoga is that it can be a little mushy (love all beings, live in the present, breathe, etc.), think about this: yoga is hard. It’s strenuous and frustrating. Focusing on pressing through the heel, engaging the inner thighs, breathing smoothly, not thinking about grocery shopping, not thinking about not thinking about grocery shopping, etc. is hard enough with all limbs intact. What does a person do when he’s asked to press though a heel he can’t even feel?

Through years of continued practice and a few harrowing setbacks (he once broke his femur while trying an advanced yoga posture), Sanford learned how to live in his body and engage his mind in the experience. As he healed, he began teaching adapted yoga classes to students with a wide range of abilities and impairments. In “Waking,” Sanford writes, “I teach them the subtleties of sensing energetic sensation, about moving inward and connecting through their bodies on a level that includes the silence, and it works! They experience gains in strength, balance and flexibility. They too gain a measure of calm and a feeling of wholeness. The practical benefits of energetic realization are not just flukes of my particular experience.”

In 2001, Sanford founded Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to “transforming trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body.” Currently, he teaches a form of yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, who said, “When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.”

For more from Sanford in his own words, check out The Body’s Grace, Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with him from May 2012.