Embracing Hope, Healing and Strength
Mar 31, 2011 08:27PM
By Beth Davis
Matthew Sanford with Students
Matthew Sanford lived an ordinary life. He was a typical boy—his days were filled with being outdoors, playing soccer, climbing trees, shooting hoops and running around with his friends. Life was good.
In 1978, at 13, he and his family were in a car accident, which claimed the life of his father and older sister. His mother and brother escaped with injuries, while Sanford ended up with a broken neck, back, wrists, and injuries to his pancreas. He spent three-and-a-half days in a coma until he woke up to an entirely different life. Sanford was paralyzed from the chest down.
Doctors advised him to “ignore his lower body” and concentrate on strengthening his upper body through exercise. However, something didn’t sit right with Sanford. He knew he could feel sensation in his whole body, but was told those were only “phantom feelings,” comparing them to that of an amputee. “Even at 13, this just didn’t make sense to me,” says Sanford. “I knew what I felt was real, but I was humiliated and made to believe that it couldn’t. It made me put away a part of myself.”
For the next 12 years, he went through the motions of life—high school, college, and graduate school. But, something was missing. “I realized I missed my body and I felt completely disconnected—like a floating upper torso,” he explains. “I wanted to experience that same joy that I had felt as a boy.”
At age 25, Sanford met lyengar yoga teacher, Jo Zukovich. It was a meeting that would change his life. While at a local martial arts studio, Zukovich helped Sanford out of his wheelchair to sit on the floor. He then had him spread his legs wide. “It was really loud and really emotional,” says Sanford. “I had tears in my eyes—I hadn’t had my legs wide for 12 years.”
It was a moment of transformation —a moment that reconnected him to those phantom feelings. “I realized that 13-year-old boy was right. I did feel something, and yoga brought me back to that.” He was encouraged to use yoga to strengthen his mind so he could use it to train his body. It didn’t take long for him to realize the healing power of the mind-body connection.
“Yoga helped me feel whole again,” he explains. “For the first time in many years, I could feel the energy move through my entire body.”
Sanford says all of us should focus on being more self-aware—living more fully in our bodies with a stronger mind-body connection. “Notice the taste of water, the sunlight on your skin, the silence around you. Feel more, rather than less.” By doing so, we can improve our connection to life and our relationships—thus giving us the power to learn from, or transcend, obstacles that may come our way.
Wanting to share his experience with others, Sanford began teaching adaptive yoga to the physically challenged, as well as those who felt they might be “beyond yoga.” As he watched them experience a similar transformation to his own, he knew his message about mind-body connections applied to everyone, not just people with challenges.
At 45, he is a public speaker, healthcare pioneer, award-winning author, and nationally recognized yoga teacher who shares his philosophy on the importance of mind-body relationship and our inner capacity for strength.
He teaches at national yoga conferences, studios and institutions around the country, and in 2002, he founded Mind Body Solutions, a non-profit dedicated to transforming trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body. Two years ago, he underwent an MRI of his brain for a study at Rutgers University. A team of doctors mapped his brain as they squeezed his ankles. The images showed that his sensory cortex lit up in the same way it would in a person that wasn’t paralyzed.
It proved what he had known all along—somehow, there was still life in his lower body. It is information he uses to encourage the health care industry to embrace the mind-body philosophy. “If workers are trained to understand the nature of the mind-body connection, they can pass that information on to patients they are trying to rehabilitate.”
Sanford shares his personal story in his critically acclaimed book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. He wrote the memoir, he says, not to tell people something about himself, but to teach them something about the mind-body relationship.
And though Sanford has certainly touched the lives of thousands, he says his own inspiration comes from the basic hope that people will embrace his mission, live more fully, and have a true sense of self.