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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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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.

Matthew Sanford teaches the ancient secrets of yoga, even though he can't do the most basic yoga moves. Forget about the downward facing dog. He can't do the dolphin, either, not without a lot of props. If you think yoga in terms of its physical new-agey pretzel logic, Sanford, who has paraplegia without much trunk stability, would be hopeless before the gods of gravity.

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, on right, leads a group in adapted yoga
Sanford, on right, leads a group in adapted yoga.

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."

Sanford helps yoga student, Chantilly, who is paralyzed below the waist due to spina bifida, to find balance and expand upwards
Sanford helps yoga student, Chantilly, who is paralyzed below the waist due to spina bifida, to find balance and expand upwards.

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.

Visit the Fitness and Nutrition Center.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Nutrition and Weight (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Fitness and Exercise (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on FES Treadmill Information Sheet (PDF)

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.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Features numerous articles and resources on fitness, nutrition and healthy living.

Inclusive Fitness CoalitionAddresses the policy, environmental and societal issues associated with the lack of access to physical activity among people with disabilities.

ILRU: RRTC on SCI: Exercise InformationThe ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization) program is a national center for information, training, research, and technical assistance in independent living. Its goal is to expand the body of knowledge in independent living and to improve utilization of results of research programs and demonstration projects in this field. It is a program of TIRR (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research), a nationally recognized medical rehabilitation facility for persons with disabilities.

The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD)Resources promoting physical activity for people, and for health, fitness and exercise professionals.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and SportsInformation on making exercise an important part of your life

The Uppertone SystemIntroduced in 1990 by a C4-C5 quadriplegic, the Uppertone System allows people with C4-C5 paralysis and below to do upper body exercises necessary for rehabilitation and maintenance, without assistance.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.