Waking Up to the Mind-Body Connection

An interview with Matthew Sanford by Carol Bedrosian

“So I told myself a story, a healing story.”

This is what 13-year-old Matthew Sanford did when he awoke from a 3½ day coma after his car accident and discovered he was paralyzed from the chest down and on a respirator. A healing story helped him to survive.

Matthew’s book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, is full of healing stories, as well as scenes of unspeakable anguish and vulnerability likely to trigger spontaneous outbursts of tears. It feels cathartic to empathize so deeply reading Waking; young Matthew’s endurance of pain and surrender to his paralysis plumbs the depths of strength and courage where few would ever travel without him.

Obliged to explore what it truly means to live in a body, Matthew discovers a startling realm of mind-body activity within the apparent silence of his paralyzed body. However, it’s a hard-won understanding because Matthew is a pioneer in articulating what’s happening in that silent gap between his mind and his body, that place where the subtle and physical bodies meet.

For the first twelve years of his paralysis, Matthew believed the doctors and therapists who insisted his lower body was silent, had no feeling and basically was “lost” to him and should be ignored. Through the interminably long days and months of healing and rehabilitation, he became intimately familiar with that silence, discovering how it helped him leave his body and protect him from intense body pain.

But he also discovered that the paralyzed body is not silent after all; it just speaks on a subtler frequency of hums, tingles and surges. You can’t hear this “hum” with all the busyness of control, volition and sensation layered on top of it, but it has now become the cornerstone of his existence. “This hum within us, it feels good. It feels really good to be alive,” Matthew assures us.

This man who has lost so much use in his body now teaches others to feel and do things he cannot, to live in more of their bodies. Matthew discovered Iyengar yoga after 13 years of pretending his lower body did not exist. Yoga rekindled his energetic sensation of the mind-body connection and his entire body began whispering to him again.

Discovering that alignment and precision helps to increase mind-body integration regardless of paralysis, Matthew practiced and trained his way towards developing his own Adaptive Yoga, which he now teaches to both disabled and able-bodied students in his Minnesota yoga studio, directing a staff of 15.

In 2002, he founded the non-profit Mind Body Solutions to advance his life’s work of transforming trauma into hope by awakening the mind-body connection and making it accessible to everyone. Through MBS, Matt has become a leading voice in the integrative health movement and a popular speaker on the national stage. He will be a keynote presenter at the Natural Living Expo, November 16 in Marlboro, MA.

Mind Body Solutions offers workshops, yoga classes, innovative products and online opportunities to disabled people, caregivers, employers and employees, to access a simple but profound healing insight: minds and bodies work better together. With their “Bringing Your Body to Work” program, MBS staff go into the workplace to actively engage employees in learning to manage their mind-body relationship while at their desks. Benefits include increased employee retention and reduced health care costs.

Matthew’s mother never gave up hope on her youngest son as he dangled precariously over the cliff of life and death in the weeks immediately following the accident. She decided promptly that a purpose and reason for his injury, survival and paralysis would reveal itself and Matthew did not disappoint. The plucky 7th grader who was felled so suddenly and irreversibly returned the following year to 8th grade in his wheelchair and his election as Student Council president. From athlete boy to healing paraplegic to master teacher, Matthew Sanford reminds us that we’re all on a journey of leaving our bodies, aging and putting the physical behind us. Learning to manage one’s mind-body relationship is a secret to living well.

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Carol Bedrosian: Let’s start with the story of the accident. Your life changed in an instant.

Matthew Sanford: It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1978. My family was driving home from Kansas City, Missouri. We were down there at my aunt’s and driving back to Duluth, Minnesota. It seemed like a harmless day — 31 or 32 degrees — and it was misting as we came up over an overpass. The next instant we hit glare ice.

We tumbled down the embankment and my father and sister were killed. My mother and brother were not physically injured except for cuts and bruises, but I went through a shredder. I broke my neck at C1. I broke my back at T4, 5 and 6. I broke both my wrists, my lungs filled with fluid and I sustained an injury to my pancreas that turned off my digestive system so I wasn’t able to eat for almost 60 days. I went from a 119 pound, very athletic 5’6” boy to less than 80 pounds in 60 days.

I was in a coma for three and a half days. That’s part of why my book is called Waking. I woke up to a different life. Basically I was so injured I was just trying to survive. There are many pivotal scenes about this. The violence of the accident didn’t stop at the accident scene. The corrective violence that I experienced in the hospital saved my life — I would not have lived without it — but they had to undo some of that and move my spine back in place. They had to set bones and put screws into my head to stabilize my neck.

matt9thjpg223 vert web250capWhat the thirteen-year-old boy figured out how to do was dissociate from the body to get through all that physical pain. It was so extraordinarily painful that I got really good at merging with the light. I was shown early on that we live in a mind-body relationship, which is not what it first appears to be. There’s a lot more space in it.

But once I get to rehab, I must follow the visions of rehabilitation presented to me — either to reverse my condition, which was never going to happen because my spinal cord was severed, or to compensate. But there wasn’t really a belief that I could live in my whole body in a vibrant way. I was encouraged to get my upper body really strong and learn to drag my paralyzed body through life. That was basically a vision of compensation, and in 1978 we didn’t really know better.

There’s a pivotal scene in Waking where it’s a couple of months after the accident and I’m in a hospital bed. I start telling doctors I feel. I know I have no sensation from that point of injury down, but I feel this tingling hum through my whole body. The doctors were worried because they only saw my injuries on two dimensions — one being the physical injury and the other being the psychological axis. When I started reporting sensation and they knew that my spinal cord was never going to heal, they were worried that I wasn’t going to accept my condition. So they told me those were phantom feelings, mental projections that would slowly dissipate and fade as memory fades. And that was wrong.

Carol Bedrosian: Why was that wrong?

Matthew Sanford: There’s a lot of ways to live in a body. That tingling hum, now I can tell you, is the cornerstone of my yoga practice. There are levels of sensation in the mind-body relationship that are subtler, but we can still feel them. For instance, when you’re in a yoga pose and you get a really good adjustment, it sends relief and awareness of movement through your whole body. In Triangle pose, if someone supports your upper arm and grounds you a little bit, then relief and sensation flood through the whole body. And it happens without your volition; it just kind of happens.

Another example would be when you’re really tired and finally getting to bed after a long day, you feel that relief coursing through your body as soon as you hit the bed. That level of sensation isn’t only travelling through your spinal cord. There’s parts of the nervous system that we don’t quite know how to explain.

That subtle level of sensation in the mind-body relationship was not part of my rehabilitation process. It was left on the table because the PTs and OTs and the doctors hadn’t experienced it for themselves. They only saw my healing path forward as one of compensation, and for that you have to get really strong. Which is a good thing. But too much of me got left on the table. I was basically told that I — the whole of me — didn’t exist.

We have all been told the same story about the subtlety of the mind-body relationship. For many people, it’s seen as a sign of weakness; to feel more is not what you need to do to be effective. But in fact, feeling more is actually crucial to our survival here on the planet, and I don’t just mean emotionally. I mean it is crucial to what it is to live in your body, because when you start to connect to the subtle sensations in the mind-body relationship, you connect more to the world. I’ve never seen someone become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.

As a 13-year-old boy I went along and just believed them. I gave up sensation below my point of injury, at the nipple line. And over those twelve years before I started yoga, I basically became a floating upper torso. That certainly didn’t make me happy because I was a very athletic boy.

At about 25 I started yoga; I just missed my body. I’d gone to a body worker who helped me open to the possibility that I could do my whole body and then I started yoga. I realized that those sensations I was told weren’t real are very much real and they are the cornerstone of living a full and vibrant life. They also speak for what it means to be present in your body as well as the sensations of presence.

Because most of us have not listened deeply enough to our bodies to know there’s a hum — the sensation of presence is a hum throughout your whole body — it’s an experience everyone has. Like when someone gives you a really good hug, and they’re not squeezing too hard, and they’re not afraid to be in contact with your body, any form of grounding creates the sensation of relief. If you’re really paying attention, the sensation of relief fills the whole body.

This level of sensation in the mind-body relationship is affected by how well you are aligned in your body. You’ll feel less connected with the world around you when you slump or roll your shoulders forward. You can refine the quality of the sensation you have of being alive. Alignment changes it, the quality of your breath changes it, and also the way you distribute gravity. The more you’re bringing the bones, muscles and ligaments into alignment, the more aligned you are with the way that energy flows through this world.

So when unhappy, depressed people tend to slump their chest, which ends up disconnecting them a little bit more from the world. As you learn to lift your chest up — and a lifted chest is in almost every yoga pose — it distributes awareness to your limbs, and suddenly you’re not over-gripping your lower back.

One of the things that people don’t realize is that this is a sensation you need to practice; what I’m calling relief is actually a unification of the subtle body and the more gross body. And that’s something that takes a mind-body practice to learn. We wear out our bodies faster than we need to because we’re not distributing gravity back into the earth through our bones, muscles, and ligaments as directly as we could.

Posture is an energetic issue; it’s not a moral one. It’s about energetic efficiency. So a lot of my work is storytelling to show how simple this is —feeling better. It’s about feeling more. And realizing that there’s ways to feel that don’t bring all of your emotional stuff up too. People avoid the subtlety of the mind-body relationship because a lot of your suffering attaches to the quiet parts of who you are, not to the loud parts. So we move away from the quiet parts and get attached to the loud parts so we don’t have to feel. And we pay quite a price for not feeling…too much.

In some ways I actually have an advantage being paralyzed and that’s why I’m a yoga teacher. I’m not a yoga teacher because I overcame my disability. I’m a yoga teacher because of my injury, because of my altered mind-body relationship. Through my paralysis I get access to what it feels like without control and without direct connection.

No matter how hard I try I’m not going to be able to lift my leg. But I was told that because I couldn’t lift my leg, there was no sensation in my leg. That is false. In my paralyzed body I feel the hum more directly. It’s a hum that’s in you and in your ear, but it’s a hum that gets covered up because of all the things you can control. Well, it turns out that at that level of the mind-body relationship, your breath really matters.

Carol Bedrosian: How so?

Matthew Sanford: You can breathe right into that level and energize it. It’s more apparent when you’re in greater alignment. And it will open your heart. When you start to access the subtlety and the depth of sensation that is housed within your body, your heart opens. That’s what happens.

A lot of tough things have happened in my life and the body I live in now has got a lot of pain in it. I’ve broken a lot of bones, and I’m 47 now, so I’m definitely feeling the age thing a little bit, but even despite that level of sensation, I can feel that underneath it all life feels good. I mean the sensation as it hums within us, it feels good. It feels really good to be alive.

If you think about it, by overcoming my body for those 12 years before I started yoga, I made my injury worse because my spinal cord injury is actually a mind-body injury. The main axis of the injury isn’t physical, although the cause is physical. The main axis of my injury is a mind-body injury. On a very simple level it’s harder for me to be present in my feet than it is for you. If I tickle the bottoms of your feet, you feel it. If you tickle the bottoms of my feet I don’t feel it. Now the question is, does that mean that I can’t live in my whole body?

And the answer is no. When you start to recognize it, we all live in the mind-body problem, especially as we age. The backdrop of Waking is the story of aging. We’re all leaving our bodies. This is a process that you should not accelerate. And it turns out that even simple things like stretching out to the outer edges of your body, out to the top of your head, down to your feet, out through your fingertips — these are sensations that as we age we don’t do enough, and really live in more space again.

I remember one of the first times I met my yoga teacher. She had me get out of my wheelchair and sit on the floor, which was a big deal. Living in a wheelchair, if you fall on the floor it’s really hard to get back up, so that was always a place I tried to avoid. But to be more grounded with the floor, that’s a simple thing we all need to do more of. She had me get out of my wheelchair and take my legs wide. This was 12 years after my accident, and it was really emotional. I had tears pouring out, and I didn’t quite understand where they were coming from. And then I realized that I hadn’t had my legs wide in 12 years. Why would a paralyzed guy take his legs wide? What’s the functionality in that?

And the answer is because it’s your birthright. We need to live in more of our bodies. By living to the outer edges of your body a little bit each day, you’ll feel more alive. And, quite frankly, studying and being more aware of what it feels like to be alive within your body, even if it hurts, I believe that is at the core of full living. Are you sitting in a chair right now?

Carol Bedrosian: I am, yes.

Matthew Sanford: So lean back and kind of slouch a little bit and splay your legs out. And just feel that position; it’s not very comfortable on your neck. Now sit up. Feel your sit bones more and press down through the insides of your heels.

Carol Bedrosian: Yes. I come alive in my core.

Matthew Sanford: And you feel your legs more, right?

Carol Bedrosian: Yes, and my core immediately enlivened.

Matthew Sanford: So do I. Even when I’m paralyzed. Three years ago, I went for testing on this level of sensation that makes me feel like I have an inner whole body. They put my head in an MRI at Rutgers University, and then they grabbed my ankles. My sensory cortex lights exactly mapped to my ankles and that shouldn’t be possible because my spinal cord is severed. Then it jumped over to my motor cortex. So clearly there’s a part of our nervous system that isn’t completely determined by the spinal cord. And this level of sensation is real. It’s what happens when you develop a mind-body practice.

Yoga poses get better over time and it’s not just because you’re physically getting stronger. You start to get better at the postures because more of you gets activated. Balance is a sensation in the mind-body relationship. The realization of balance is a mind-body realization, it’s not a physical accomplishment.

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Carol Bedrosian: How do you communicate this to other people?

Matthew Sanford: If you think about how human beings have shifted consciousness over time, it’s through stories. Shifts in consciousness require inspiration. So I wrote Waking as a story. I have a lot of knowledge and technique I could share, and I do. But I think first and foremost it’s about the story. It’s about letting yourself feel.

In my work with my non-profit Mind Body Solutions, we’ve developed all different types of curriculum for people living with trauma, loss and disability. That’s our main group. But we also do a lot of work with people who work with people with trauma, loss and disability — the healthcare professionals, family members, doctors, nurses, PTs, therapists — those trying to help people embody and feel life in a more vibrant way.

There’s an epidemic in healthcare — healthcare workers are burning out. It’s called compassion fatigue. And we also know that the outcomes of patients are dependent in large part on the outcomes of the caregiver, but we’re not taking care of the caregiver.

We teach healthcare professionals who are in these contexts where they’re giving, giving, giving and they’re not deriving enough direct nourishment out of it. That’s not sustainable. But learning how to give and receive simultaneously — that’s a mind body-realization. Another thing that’s really intense for healthcare workers is that they need to learn how to sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix it.

Carol Bedrosian: And still be compassionate.

Matthew Sanford: Exactly. Our approach is to train caregivers how to be in their own body so they can share it in relationship. And when they open at that level and share at that level, they don’t burn out as fast. We train caregivers how to incorporate these things both for themselves and for whom they serve. Basically it’s improving the quality of how you share presence with other people.

When I communicate I do it through story and through recognizing that there are insights about the mind-body relationship that are in every yoga pose. Our mission at Mind Body Solutions is to train yoga teachers how to teach anybody —any body. I’ve been teaching Adaptive Yoga since 1997, and our students are part of the training. So you’ll get insight into the voice of a trauma, loss, and disability that you can gain nowhere else, and why a mind-body approach is so transformative. Because I know at the end of the day that if I’m more connected to my body rather than less, I’ll stay healthier. It’s so simple, but we don’t think of it that way.

Why aren’t we making sure in elderly care that our elders are getting support on the back part of their spine? Why aren’t we pushing in on their knees and articulating the femur bone in the hip socket so they get a surge of awareness up through their spine as they’re sitting in their chair? And when you do that for them, they start breathing more. Those things that are so simple, that’s what we do.

We’re teaching yoga in a way that teaches everybody and is based on figuring out what are the core things that are happening in the poses, like the sensation of the pose rather than the outer manifestation of the pose. So things like lifting your chest, that’s something you can teach any body, and that doesn’t discriminate. A headstand discriminates.

So what happened to the 13-year-old boy is that he had an experience of sensation in his whole body but was told that it wasn’t real. And when he gave up his own perception for another person’s story, it left too much of himself behind. The real simple answer is that I decided to try to feel what I actually felt in the sensation of paralysis, living in a paralyzed body — not what it’s like to live in our culture being paralyzed, but discovering whether the experience of paralysis has a sensation. And the answer is yes. Loss is also a sensation. When you lose a loved one, you feel that great big hole, and it informs the mind-body relationship.

The same sensation that allows you to leave your body — the silence of the mind-body relationship — is also the same sensation that integrates you with your body. So one of the pivotal insights that has guided my life is that the silence within you separates you and connects you simultaneously. Learning how to leave my body, and the gap that’s in the experience is exactly what allows me to feel inside of my paralysis. When someone puts a hand on your back and supports your ribs and you feel a lightness come into your body, I would say that’s the silence getting supported, not just your muscles and bones. That relief is actually a sensation that includes more silence.

We leave our bodies all the time. Think about when you’re driving down the interstate at 60 miles per hour and all of a sudden you startle and realize that you haven’t seen the landscape for 20 minutes. Your brain can disconnect from its senses. It’s a survival mechanism. But there’s a price that’s paid if you get too comfortable being disconnected from your body. When you disconnect from your body you end up getting more destructive. And to me, that’s why mind-body integration is not just a personal health strategy, it’s a shift in consciousness. If we start grounding in our bodies, our consciousness will shift and we would not be as destructive as we are.

I have something exposed in my mind-body relationship that’s in everybody’s mind-body relationship, but it’s more apparent to me because I don’t have all the distractions. Right now as we’re speaking, my legs hum, and if I’m really good at it I can lift my chest in a way that actually amplifies the hum in my legs. Unity is a sensation.

We made a DVD called “Beyond Disability, A Yoga Practice with Matthew Sanford.” It’s all seated yoga and it’s intended so that anyone can do it. It focuses on four basic sensations that I think are in any successful yoga pose: the sensation of grounding, the sensation of balance, the sensation of expansion, and the sensation of rhythm. So in a seated chair practice you can go through those sensations. For anyone who’s thinking they’ve got issues where they can’t be more vibrant in their body — even elderly people, people with diabetes, people who are afraid to move too much — look at this DVD as the bridge between inactivity and activity for any body.

near Matthew Sanford bioA lot of people believe that you have to have really bad things happen before you really know if you’re strong and I don’t agree. If nothing else, my life has taught me one thing: The mind and body that I have are the only mind and body that I have. They deserve my attention. And when I give it, I receive so much more in return.

Matthew Sanford has been exploring the mind-body connection since becoming paralyzed more than 34 years ago. He founded the non-profit Mind Body Solutions, teaches yoga and also specializes in adapting it for people living with disabilities. Matthew is the author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence (Rodale, 2006) and has also emerged as a leading voice in the integrated health movement. For more information, visit www.matthewsanford.com.

Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine. She can be reached at www.spiritofchange.org.