Yoga: discovering the Mind-Body Connection
Mind-Body Solutions is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that teaches yoga to both traditional students and those living with disabilities. The program is a two-time recipient of a Reeve Foundation Quality of Life grant. Here is the story of this unique center, and of its founder.
But yoga isn't just posing. It's about keeping the mind and body in the same frame, even if the body doesn't have all its functions. Sanford figured this out and has made it his life's work to spread the word.
Sanford faced a huge change when he was 13. A car wreck killed two family members; he was paralyzed. He was very athletic and physical before his disability and he longed to reconnect to his body. "I needed to feel my whole body again -- both what I could move voluntarily and what I could not."
"It was then that I came across yoga -- what better way to start than an ancient discipline expressly dedicated to the union of mind, body, and whatever we call spirit."
Sanford found a yoga teacher in San Diego, Jo Zukovich, who taught him that the more efficient distribution of gravity, alignment and precision integrates mind and body -- without muscular action. "Jo and I discovered that this is true even through my paralysis. In other words, the inward energetic experience of increasing alignment and precision crosses the mind-body rupture created by my severed spinal cord. This simple truth is the cornerstone of adapting yoga for people living with disabilities. When I teach my adaptive yoga class, I simply bring this heightened attention on alignment and precision to people who desperately need it."
From the start, Sanford began to feel benefit from the simplest of yoga poses. Upon "taking his legs wide" for the first time, he described a rush of energy he had not thought possible. He says it's "an energetic awareness—a tingling, a feeling of movement, not outward but inward. The mind is not strictly confined to a neurophysiological connection with the body. If I listen inwardly to my whole experience my mind can feel into my legs. I do not have the luxury of confirming my presence through flexing muscles," Matthew says. "And yet, I still experience a level of integration."
Sanford says the subtle flow of energy that makes him feel "whole." It is this shift in consciousness, he says, that the medical people told him to ignore. Now, he said, his goal is to bring these techniques back to the medical community and to educate people who are involved in rehabilitation.
Sanford's began teaching adaptive yoga at Courage Center, a rehabilitation facility in Minnesota, which is a Reeve Foundation's NRN Community Fitness and Wellness (CFW) facilitiy. A few years later he created his yoga business, Mind Body Solutions, around the idea that minds and bodies work better together.
Sanford encourages people living with disability to listen to their body. "This is so they can hear a different level of sensation, so they can experience freedom that comes from connecting to this subtle level of sensation. It's not going to reverse their condition, but if you can listen to it and follow it, it'll lead to a better life," he says.
Sanford sees the benefits in his own life, and those of his students. "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. We need people to come through the health care system and leave that experience more connected to their body, not less. The simple idea is they'll take better care of themselves and help others to live more vibrantly in their bodies."
"I didn't become a yoga teacher because I overcame anything. That's exactly wrong. I'm a yoga teacher because I live in an altered mind-body relationship. Your body is the best home your mind will ever have, and it's the only one you get. I can never change what happened to me, but I can live within the body I have. Yoga is a vehicle to re-enter the body and to explore it."
This approach has a wide range of benefits including increased strength, balance and flexibility. Sanford says he has an easier time making transfers. He also says his capacity to live more fully within his body is better, and that he is better able to manage stress. Yoga helps deal with depression, and some students say they feel more confident, less self-conscious.
Says Sanford, "I want people with disabilities to get the message that they are engaged in a practice that is strengthening them. It is a life skill that will help them build a level of resilience that is amazing. There's more potential there than we've been taught."
Here are several student comments: Samantha Drost is a quad with no hand function. "When you're in a wheelchair you lose the feeling of being grounded," she says. "Yoga gives me a body awareness; I can feel my weight on my sits-bones." Drost adds that yoga improves her lung capacity and allows her to project her voice more. "I feel more confident and present in my body. I don't disappear into my chair. Now, people see me, not the chair."
Tiffany Carlson has limited function due to spinal cord injury. She says yoga makes her feel more connected to her body, and therefore, "more feminine." It's a subtle feeling, but she says she feels the energy in her body. "I know I'm not getting better neurologically but with yoga I do feel more alive. And more attractive."
Kevin Bjorkland, after his first session with Sanford, says he could feel "the outline of my entire body -- for the first time ever. I really notice the difference when I practice yoga and when I don't. When I don't I'm not as content, I'm crabby, I'm out of whack."
Mind Body Solutions offers adaptive yoga classes and workshops for people living with a wide range of mobility disabilities, as well as individual instruction through one-on-one sessions. Workshops and resources have also been developed for caregivers and healthcare professionals. Mind Body Solutions also offers adaptive yoga training for yoga teachers from around the country. The organization is also bringing its work to disabled veterans.
Matthew Sanford has written a book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. It is available for no-cost loan from the Paralysis Resource Center library. Visit www.mindbodysolutions.org for more information about Sanford's program.
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Craig Hospital: SCI Health and WellnessWith funding from the US Department of Education's National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitation Research, has developed educational materials to help people with spinal cord injuries live in the community maintain their health. Topics include skin care, exercise, heart disease, weight control, alcohol abuse and conditions related to the aging body. Use the link above and click on SCI Health and Wellness.
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