Matthew Sanford Demonstrates Grounding and Expansion
by Susan Leem, associate producer
“In order to go up you must go down, you must go down through your base, down through a sense of grounding, and move energy through your spine.”
Matthew Sanford has spent the last 20 years trying to reconnect his mind and body through his yoga practice. In this segment from his video, Beyond Disability, he demonstrates a simple pose with his hand that develops one’s sensation of grounding and expansion (and their relationship to each other).
If you don’t know yoga, this is a good one to start with. It illustrates some core principals that will benefit all practitioners, beginners and advanced. As Sanford reminds us, “It takes patience, moving with your breath not against it.”
The More Alert We Are in Our Bodies, The More Compassionate and Connected We Become to the World Around Us
by Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several Matthew reads in this show — that made me want to understand more.
“I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.”
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that Matthew Sanford, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after my radio conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
Living with Yoga
Kate Moos, managing producer
I went to my first yoga class in eight weeks last night, and remembered that we are broadcasting our program with Seane Corn this week, which we originally produced about a year ago. At that time I was in the local Bikram yoga studio three or four times a week, sweating and smiling at the instructor’s injunctions to “struggle harder!” I love the arduous athleticism of Bikram practice.
But I had foot surgery over the summer, and am still nursing it eight weeks later, my right foot three sizes larger than the left. It’s healing nicely, but it takes a long time, and the Bikram heat just isn’t the right thing for a swollen, healing appendage. That has meant no yoga for the first few weeks, and then being restricted to some basic stretches and breathing execises at home. I miss the community, the sense of building on other peoples’ energy and strength that I get in group practice, and I was nourished to join the teacher and two others holding long, slow, challenging poses in an extended floor series last night.
During my hiatus, people told me to do any yoga I could manage — even if it was just mindful breathing at my desk at work, or listening to recordings of asanas while lying still on my mat. One tool I turned to was this video of Seane Corn, which I watched in my early recovery, when I could barely hobble to the kitchen.
Corn reminds us that the yoga we do on the mat is only part of the story, and that yoga is not only for beautiful, young bodies. That’s a message also underscored by our program with Matthew Sanford, who was rendered a paraplegic at the age of 13 after a car accident. His unique experience of the mind-body connection, and the lessons about inhabiting his entire body, is related in Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.
Even a temporary disability like the one I am now impatiently enduring has an effect on one’s sense of self, of one’s personal power, and one’s vulnerability. The “spiritual technology” of yoga, these teachers help us understand, gives us a way to be more fully ourselves, whatever our physical strength or limitation might be.
What’s your practice? How do you bring body, mind, and spirit into alignment?