For Matt Sanford, it has been a long journey for both mind and body to get to where he is today in his life. When Sanford was 13, he was in a fatal car accident with his family and tragically lost both his father and brother. Sanford himself ended up with broken wrists, neck, and back causing his body to be paralyzed from the waist down. During this time, he began to think about his rehabilitation, and how to overcome his disability. This made him feel that in order to live, he would have to be in battle with his own body to become strong enough to drag his paralyzed body through life. Twelve years later, he realized that this wasn’t the best way of thinking. “I could tell that I was living at odds with my body, and that’s a hard thing if you’re living with a disability, if you think of your body just as an obstacle that you need to overcome, that’s not a good long term health strategy,” he said.
In 1991, Sanford was 25 and began to feel the need to become one with his body, which ultimately led him on his journey in yoga. Fortunately, his path crossed with Joe Zoukovich, an instructor that would change his life. Sanford explained that Zoukovich made him a partner in this journey of discovering what yoga would look like for his body and the benefits he could expect. Sanford explains that, back then, there weren’t really any adaptive yoga classes being offered. In partnership with Zoukovich, Sanford became one of the pioneers for adaptive yoga. His instructor allowed him to feel comfortable and not confined by the ‘stereotypical’ yoga practices that people see and hear. “Yoga isn’t about everyone else’s poses, nor is it about doing full out poses, it’s much deeper than that. It’s more about bringing the essence of yoga to the body you have and using the focus on breathing techniques, balance, and strength. There are many ways to integrate, the mind and body.”
In 2002, Sanford started an adaptive yoga practice called Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit which is all about helping people transform trauma loss and disability by connecting the mind and body. Throughout his instruction, he has been able to work with a variety of abilities and through these experiences he has been able to learn and grow within yoga. “It’s much more of a shared process when you teach someone with a disability, because you don’t know everything about the person living with the condition… you don’t know what they have been through.” He believes in order to help that person, you have to actually work with that person to see the benefits versus telling them to follow along with certain poses.
He wants people to come to his sessions feeling that they are relieving exertion that may be built up from participating in adaptive sports as well as increase their strength, attention, balance and flexibility before doing so. Even though instructed sessions help these abilities, he also realizes that just like yoga, many sports (like skiing for example), are also a form of yoga. “Having to focus on balance and being one with the snow, the hills, and one’s self is part of it.”
He hopes that through Mind Body Solutions, a leader in integrated health movement, he will help bring adaptive yoga to more people. In 2020, Mind Body Solutions will be offering training in partnership with Disabled Sports USA’s Adapt2Achieve program with support from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). With a goal of making yoga more accessible for disabled veterans, they will provide free training to healthcare staff, yoga instructors, and other adaptive sport providers who serve disabled veterans. The trainings are based on the insights and firsthand experience of Sanford, who has lived with a spinal cord injury for 41 years and is a leading voice in adaptive yoga.
An innovative 2-day workshop, “Yoga as a Complementary Approach to Whole Health Living” will be delivered at six VA Medical Centers nationwide. In this interactive, experiential workshop, attendees will explore yoga as a modality to help people live a more embodied life and apply yogic principles to become a more effective provider that is resistant to the strains of “compassion fatigue.” Funding is also available for equipment grants and scholarships to support current yoga instructors who wish to pursue advanced training.
For more information on Sanford, check out his book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence (2006) or visit www.mindbodysolutions.org, which is described as “a great place for people with disabilities interested in mind, body integration.” For more information about the upcoming yoga trainings, visit www.moveunitedsport.org/yogatraining.