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Paralyzed man gives disabled kids hope through yoga

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Pamela Patt, dietitian at Chicago’s Shriners Hospitals for Children, was instrumental in bringing Matthew Sanford there to teach a yoga class for young patients with disabilities.


"My name is Matt. My legs are a little skinnier than many," admits Matthew Sanford, a complete stranger to the wide-eyed youngsters in wheelchairs and hospital beds assembled in the auditorium of Chicago's Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The young onlookers, all with disabilities, know nothing about the yoga this 45-year-old's about to teach them. What they know -- instantly -- is that Sanford is one of them because he's instructing from a wheelchair.

Affectionately calling his audience his "tribe," Sanford guides his wheelchair to each patient to thoughtfully inquire about his or her disability ("What's going on- " "What have you been told- ").

Briefly -- and minus gory details -- Sanford explains that in 1978, at age 13, he was involved in a horrible automobile accident that claimed the lives of his 47-year-old father and 20-year-old sister and left him paralyzed from the chest down. He was told by doctors to forget his lower body because he would never again feel sensation there.

Sanford tells his audience that he believed that prognosis until 20 years ago when he discovered yoga and the healing power of the mind-body connection, a life-changing combination he now shares as an inspirational speaker crisscrossing the country and on his website, www.matthewsanford.com.

"Don't give up on your bodies," Sanford pleads, reminding them -- and himself -- that their bodies didn't ask for the circumstances that caused their disabilities. "Your body's doing the best it can."

Sanford, who contends that deepening the connection between mind and body is more than a personal health strategy -- that "when we deepen the quality of where and how our minds interact and intersect with our bodies, our consciousness shifts [and] we get more connected to our lives, to each other, and to the planet" -- uses a softer sell with his attentive class.

"What I mean by mind-body connection is simple: Sit back in your chair and let your legs splay out. Notice what you feel in your legs -- the dullness, the lack of crispness. Now sit up straight, press gently down through your butt and heels, and lift your chest. Notice the change in sensation -- in how, what, and where you feel within your body," Sanford instructs the assembled patients, caregivers, nurses, and doctors.

"Stretch your arms wide. Stretch more . . . I want more . . . dude, do more than that . . . broken bones . . . whatever . . . do more," he prods, mindful that some are physically unable to follow his commands. When some patients halt participation, Sanford scolds, "Just don't friggin' watch! I live paralyzed, too."

"What matters about what I'm doing is the experience," says the Minneapolis resident.

"For me, everything I do flows from my daily yoga practice -- the time I take to feel and refine the sensation of my existence," acknowledges Sanford, who teaches yoga to persons with disabilities as well as traditional students.

Sanford believes that yoga increases strength, balance and flexibility (both mental and physical), spurs discovery of a subtle level of mind-body sensation not impeded by disability, improves the quality of breathing, provides a sense of lightness and freedom within the body, helps manage stress, and offers a deepened sense of wholeness and connection with others.

"The principles of yoga don't discriminate. I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate.

"On the flip side, when we become more disconnected from our bodies, we become more self-destructive," Sanford notes in an interview before his class.

In his 2006 book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, in which he sheds light on our inner capacity for survival, grace, acceptance and healing, Sanford writes that his mind-body relationship changed in an instant -- "the time for my back to break" -- but reminds that the changing relationship between mind and body is a defining feature of everyone's life. "We are all leaving our bodies. . . . Death cannot be avoided; neither can the inward silence that comes with the aging process."

Saying he now experiences a more subtle connection between mind and body, Sanford explains, "It does not require that I flex muscles. It does not dissipate in the presence of increasing inward silence. In fact, this connection depends on it. It does require, however, that I seek more profoundly within my own experience and do so with an open mind."

"Life is fragile and resilient simultaneously -- it's both," says Sanford, acknowledging both in his own life journey. While he and his wife, Jennifer, celebrated the birth of their son, Paul, now 10, they were grieving the death of his fraternal twin brother, William, who had died in her womb three weeks earlier.

"Life is here to be felt. We need to learn to simplify life -- to appreciate every morning more, to notice little things. We need to be paying attention to the taste of water, what sunlight feels like on your skin, the beauty of a sunset, the serenity of nature," advises Sanford.

"I can never change what happened to me, but I can live within the body I have."

Sandy Thorn Clark is a local free-lance writer.

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