Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "The Body's Grace: Matthew Sanford's Story."
Yoga teacher Matthew Sanford's body was permanently altered in a car accident at the age of 13 that killed his father and his sister. He's spent more than a quarter-century in a wheelchair. And this hour he describes his unusual experience of the mind-body connection through paralysis and yoga. We explore what he's learned about the grace of the human body — even through trauma and aging.
Mr. Matthew Sanford: I know, I think more, I don't know more deeply, but differently than most people, how much my body has absorbed and moved towards living still.
Ms. Tippett: This is On Being. Stay with us.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. U.S. culture glorifies beautiful, strong bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. My guest this hour, Matthew Sanford, has charted another way. He's been paraplegic for almost three decades, since he was 13. Now, he's an expert practitioner and instructor of yoga, which he also adapts for people with mental and physical disabilities, including military veterans. I interviewed him in 2006, after he'd published a lyrical book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Matthew Sanford has wisdom for us all on the strength and grace of our bodies, even in the face of illness, aging, and death.
From American Public Media, this is On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "The Body's Grace: Matthew Sanford's Story."
In his memoir, Matthew Sanford describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis. But like every story well told, this one contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person's experience. It is a tale about moving through our culture's many layers of denial of the limits of the human body. It reveals how we've historically treated the connection of our minds to our bodies as a battle of will over matter. Here's Matthew Sanford reading from his book.
Mr. Sanford: (reading) In principle, my experience is not so different from yours, it is only more extreme. … My mind-body relationship changed in an instant — the time it took for my back to break. But the changing relationship between mind and body is a feature of everyone's life. We are all leaving our bodies — this is the inevitable arc of living. Death cannot be avoided; neither can the inward silence that comes with the aging process.
I now experience a different, more subtle connection between mind and body. It does not require that I flex muscles. It does not dissipate in the presence of increasing inward silence.
… It does require, however, that I seek more profoundly within my own experience and do so with an open mind. It means that I must reach intuitively into what may feel like darkness.
Ms. Tippett: I sat across from Matthew Sanford, who was in his wheelchair, to understand more. He has an immensely energetic physical presence, even as he describes the accident in 1978 that first plunged him into what felt like darkness.
Mr. Sanford: I was 13 years old. I was sleeping in the car when it happened. We were traveling from Kansas City, Missouri, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, because we spent Thanksgiving every year down with my mom's sister. And we were driving home and it was 31 degrees and misting. It seemed like a harmless day. And we were coming up upon a bridge and hit a slick — a patch of ice, preferential icing, you hear about that in Driver's Ed, I didn't really know what that really was, but we just slid off the embankment, went down, tumbled front to back three times in the car.
My father and sister were killed. My mother and brother — my brother just jammed his shoulder, and my mother got a bruise on her face, on her eyes. And I was — I broke a lot of things: broke my back and my neck, both my wrists; I filled a lung with fluid and sustained an injury to my pancreas that didn't allow me to eat for about three months, two and a half months. So pretty as about as banged up as you can be on an accident.
Ms. Tippett: And it was pretty clear early on that you would be paralyzed, partially paralyzed, right?
Mr. Sanford: Well, yeah, you know, I didn't, I was in a coma so I was out of it for three and a half days. When I woke up, pretty soon I was told pretty quickly what happened. But what was so interesting about that, you know, is that I was 13; I could hardly process really what happened, you know, like I …
Ms. Tippett: Anyway, I mean, you'd lost your father and your sister as well as …
Mr. Sanford: Yeah. It's kind of like getting the weather reported to you.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: You know, "Laura and Dad are gone." And really, what was interesting about it is that I saw right away that my remaining family, they were desperate and they needed me to live. And it was a great way for me to attach to something living. So, you know, trauma happens not just to an individual. It happens to a whole community, to a family. And a lot of those initial early times was me connecting to my family and thinking, "Oh, I need to live for them," right away, which I think was a healing story to myself.
Ms. Tippett: Right. You talk about healing stories in your memoir, and you talk about healing stories all the way through life. And it's often a line, right, that your mother and your brother needed you to live.
Mr. Sanford: It was a way for me to not feel how injured I was. The concept you're talking about of healing stories, I think it applies all over the place. We're constantly losing our trust in the world. Things happen, you know, even loss of childhood innocence, anything, you know, a death of a loved one — where suddenly the world changes its shape and you have to confront how are you going to connect back to the world.
Ms. Tippett: And can healing stories also be negative?
Mr. Sanford: I think healing stories can definitely be negative. But some of them can be good at the time. Like for example, for the first few years after I was injured, I would often be asked, "Well, how'd you get through everything you got through?" And my answer would be, "Well, I've had two lives. I had one end at 13, my life as a walking person ended at 13. And I've had this second life, so it's actually — I'm kind of getting two lives." Well, that was a very smart healing story because I had to put away, at first, the childhood love of my body and trying to confront this new reality so that positing a discontinuity …
Ms. Tippett: You kind of, you just closed the door and …
Mr. Sanford: Yep.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: And went on to the next one. And that was, at the time, exactly what I needed to say. However, eventually, and eventually through the practice of yoga, is that I needed to reconnect to the boy that loved his body, too. I needed to have all my ages, and the process of doing yoga allowed me to reconnect with the boy that's really disappointed about what happened to my body and what happened to my life.
Ms. Tippett: Matthew Sanford. Here's another passage from his book, Waking.
Mr. Sanford: (reading) I am told repeatedly that my arms must now "do double time for both my arms and my legs." Building in my mind is an image of my arms, a fantasy of a bodybuilder's arms rippling with flex. Many people add to this image. The rehab specialists do it to motivate me. A male nurse tells me that "chicks are going to dig it," and with approving eyes, my friends and family beam, "Wow, those arms are going to be huge."
… During my workouts in rehab, however, I drift out the window, not into my arms. … The rehab gym is full of people: standing people, walking people, sitting people, unable-to-talk people. Most of them are older, their dysfunction brought on by age. I am in between, too old for pediatric rehabilitation and definitely the lone boy beginning puberty. As I watch this scene, I set it against the view out the large south-facing windows. … I am not making the progress they would like, but through silence, I continue to smile. I am aging much too quickly.
Ms. Tippett: And so you had to grieve and it's almost like you had to grow into the stage where you could grieve at different levels. Then you also talk about your body grieved at different stages, in different ways. Tell us about that, because, you know, you just, you have this — I don't want to use, you know, insight into your own body, that's too mild. And, and you're in touch with your body. You know, all these phrases are kind of clichéd, but you know things about your body, you've had to live with it more intimately by way of the fact that it was damaged and …
Mr. Sanford: You know, for sure, and part of that was that I had to, I mean, the overt connections between my mind and my paralyzed body, the ones that are most easy and most efficient, aren't here anymore, the spinal cord.
Ms. Tippett: Which is that I think a thought and I don't know that I'm thinking. I'm going to — my hand is …
Mr. Sanford: You move.
Ms. Tippett: … gesturing because I'm animated in this conversation.
Mr. Sanford: Right. But same with your toes. You might be pressing or wiggling your toes at the same time.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I'm shaking my foot, which I do when I'm …
Mr. Sanford: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: I mean that's just part of, you know, the, the connection between your mind's intent and your body, so intimate they seem as one. Well, that connection got changed in my case. So what ends up happening with me is that I have to go inward and listen to levels that we all share. You have the same connections in your mind-body relationship that I use to do yoga and that I use in the rest of my life. And I believe that we need those connections. I am forced to do it. I am trying to reconnect my body …
Ms. Tippett: Right, because your more easy, obvious connections were severed.
Mr. Sanford: Right.
Ms. Tippett: And I think the rest of us often, we don't, I don't have to go there. I don't have to seek those subtle connections.
Mr. Sanford: One of the big healing things for me was to recognize that my paralyzed body didn't stop talking to my mind. It changed its voice. It went to a more subtle whisper that doesn't have as much clarity. It's sweeter, it's quieter and it doesn't as quickly react. I try to describe it as energetic presence. Like if you were to squeeze my ankle, it would feel like you're squeezing a tube of toothpaste, I can feel the surge up my body through my spine.
Ms. Tippett: But you feel it as energy rather than as nerve endings.
Mr. Sanford: Right. It's not as loud. It's not as crisp. For me, it's also very auditory, and I don't know if that is because I'm just auditory, like that's how my brain's wired, or, you know, I don't know if I were more a visual person, but I kind of, I inwardly listen and hear. I pay attention and I can feel these changes. But, you know, at the same time, it's a lot easier for me to get distracted. If I'm really nervous, I don't hear these levels as well. If I'm at a rock concert, I don't hear it at all, right? I mean they're there. It takes some attention. And if you focus too much on it, you, you can amplify it to the point of exaggeration. I mean, there's a reason why people like me weren't surviving two million years ago.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Sanford: This probably isn't great for survival when you're getting chased by tigers.
Ms. Tippett: Right. The flip side of this, what you're describing that you've learned over these years — how many years is it?
Mr. Sanford: Fifteen years since I started yoga.
Ms. Tippett: Fifteen years. Is that you had real experiences, as you say, of leaving your body early on, not only after the accident, but just through excruciating rehabilitation and other operations that followed. I mean, tell me about that.
Mr. Sanford: It's so interesting because there's one experience in particular that happened to me soon, right when I got to the Mayo Clinic, that I call an overt, out-of-body experience, although I don't know what really happened. I was drugged when it happened. I don't know if I really was watching from above, but I had some screws twisted into my skull to stabilize my broken neck. And I got shown something there about the fluctuation and movement that can happen between mind and body, that there isn't the crisp boundaries that we think there are or that it's all the same. I got shown that, oh, what we think is all a tight knot, is actually much more loose. And so that insight got revealed to me early, and what ends up happening to me through the first three months where there's a lot of corrective violence, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Sanford: People don't get that hospitals are a violent place.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Sanford: It's all good, and I wouldn't be here without it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: You know, corrective violence. We had to counteract what happened to me. But …
Ms. Tippett: You had to have your wrists broken again …
Mr. Sanford: Rebroken and …
Ms. Tippett: … because they healed incorrectly.
Mr. Sanford: … and the spine straightened and all the things that, like, literally. But, you know, when you take a knife and cut someone open, even if you're using anesthesia, it's still really hard on the body. But what I did is I learned how to move away from it to avoid pain. But one of the things that I think, my story, I think, is just more extreme. I think that we do that all the time through the course of our day. When we're daydreaming, you know, when we're just kind of not paying attention and kind of off somewhere else, that we have that capability within our mind-body relationship, within our consciousness, and that I got shown that really early and in a really dramatic fashion. And the question then became for me was, when I encountered then, after I start to feel better and I'm still in the hospital, but I'm aware enough to, what's going on here? I was being told over and over that I didn't have sensation. My sensation in my paralyzed body was over. And I came up to the doctors and I'd say, "Well, yeah, but I feel stuff. I feel tingling and kind of burning and itching and, you know, that's not exactly all the way gone." And they were really worried that I'd think that would be helping me walk again, that that would be some like somehow, my spine's regenerating. The only healing they were focused on was like if my spine couldn't regenerate, then the rest of is just going to be lost. And those sensations, listening to my own experience, ends up being those sensations I were told weren't real then at 13 and I believed. I mean, you're only 13, you believe the adults around you. I mean, the innocence …
Ms. Tippett: And you believe doctors. All of us believe doctors when we're sick. Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: And we all believe doctors. They're well-intending, but what ends up happening is that level of mind-body connection is not one that we recognize here. It ended up being the cornerstone of my yoga practice. And what I only figured out over time was that it isn't just the ability to disassociate. I mean, that's, we kind of all know that. We kind, you know, we know that kids who were abused as children can't remember, and that's just something that we can do.
But what I found that was so amazing was the silence in those experiences. And then for me with my particular injury, being a mind-body injury at core, it's got a physical cause, but the real injury I live with is that my mind has a harder time being in my body than yours does, that that was a form of silence, too, that literally a level of silence or absence of normal sensation, silence, got infused into my mind-body relationship, but I think that's happening to all of us. I think that's aging. Like our mind-body relationship is changing over time.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, "The Body's Grace" — Matthew Sanford's insights into mind and body through life as a paraplegic and an expert practitioner and instructor of yoga. Yoga is an ancient discipline, with roots in Hindu metaphysics, which uses movement, breath, and posture to bring mind and body into convergence and balance. For Matthew Sanford, yoga became a way to delve into the "inner silence" he describes at the core of his disability and all of human experience.
Ms. Tippett: I want you to talk about the term "silence." You use it a lot in your book. I mean, here, there are many evocative lines. I mean, here's one: "The silence is the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy. It is the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe." In another place you're talking about you're dealing with physicians and you say, "This silence demands grace, not rupture." Really talk to me about what that silence is, because you're using the word in a completely particular way to your experience.
Mr. Sanford: Not an easy question …
Ms. Tippett: No, I know. It's a big word.
Mr. Sanford: … because I've been trying to define it many, many times.
Ms. Tippett: It's a big word, the way you use it.
Mr. Sanford: But part of what I try to do is make it seem more ordinary. When I do compare it to our experiences, I, you know, like when you're washing your dishes for another day after another meal and you have that kind of quiet feeling, I think we all know what I'm talking about. You can kind of feel it, when you feel beauty.
Ms. Tippett: It's the silence within us.
Mr. Sanford: Mm-hmm. For example, you know, when you learn to soften your organs of perception, let's say if I'd ask you right now to soften the inside of your mouth, and in particular, relax your tongue, something will happen to your perception inward in your body and you will hear something different. The world will suddenly get a little quieter; you'll feel a different kind of presence in you. That's what I mean by silence. And I do think it's an ordinary experience. I think that we have it all the time. We just don't recognize it. I think that's where stress lands. I think that there's an invisible aspect of our consciousness that's here, that we need to manage better, we need to be more present with for a lot of reasons because I think this same silence we're talking about both connects us to other people and separates. It goes either way.
Ms. Tippett: In a way, I understand it also goes towards life or towards death.
Mr. Sanford: Or it is both. You know what I mean? It's not like the silence can only go towards life. In fact, I kind of think that level of absence that we carry within us that I'm calling silence is itself some level of dying or death that we carry within us. And so it's not that the silence can go away from it. I think in trying to listen, for example, to the silence of my paralysis, that it itself has texture, that it itself has life in it. And it's a kind of life that mixes. In a yoga pose, for example, you try to make what I would say the silence congruent with physical exertion, not just physically exert with a lot of will. Think about what you can feel in your body. You only feel a little portion of it. If I were to ask you to stretch the intercostal muscles right now, you wouldn't exactly know how to do that.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: Like you have silence, too, in your mind-body relationship. If I'd ask you to lift your inner — the arches of your feet directly, you wouldn't be able to do that. If you were to try to go there, you would encounter a wall, a brick wall. Now, the question is, is it just a brick wall? Or if you start, and start to listen and to be quiet, you can start hearing that brick wall. It isn't just a wall. It's a different quality of awareness that's residing within you, that in that silence, sounds can gain texture again. And I say one place the moon might reveal itself, life reveal itself again, only darker. I compare it to walking from a well-lighted room into a dark one. At first you can't see anything. But if you sit and you pause and you listen, usually there's enough light to get across the room, you know? It's not going to be like turning the light back on, but in fact, the world gets this other kind of texture that makes it beautiful. Also makes it scary in the dark. You know, it goes either way.
Ms. Tippett: Here's how Matthew Sanford describes this silence in his memoir:
Mr. Sanford: (reading) Imagine walking from a well-lit room into a dark one. Imagine the darkness as a visual expression of silence. My rehabilitation made a mistake with the silence by focusing on the absence of light. It too quickly accepted the loss and taught me to willfully strike out against the darkness. It told me to move faster rather than slower, push harder rather than softer. It guided me to compensate for what I could not see.
Another course of action, however, is patience. Stop moving, wait for the eyes to adjust, allow for stillness and then see what's possible. Although full-fledged vision does not return, usually there is enough light to find one's way across the room. After a while, the moon may come out, sounds might gain texture, the world might reveal itself once again, only darker.
Ms. Tippett: A reading from Waking, by my guest Matthew Sanford.
Mr. Sanford: I feel a little bit like I've got a set of experiences that make me different than other people. I mean, a lot of my close friends are now reading the Waking for the first time and knowing that I went through stuff that they're shocked at. But that's always been between me and them, that there's been a gulf between us, that silence has always been there. But I think we all feel that. We all feel it, individuals. I mean, there's a whole movement of existentialism that talks about the radical separation of the individual from everything else.
Ms. Tippett: Right, right.
Mr. Sanford: And I think they're describing some of the same stuff, that they're trying to put in context and into story — an experience that we all have, where we all move.
Ms. Tippett: But I think that what's happened to you is that with yoga, in particular, you're kind of staring that straight on and not accepting it as a wall or as a separation.
Mr. Sanford: And to get to your — the practical answer to your question is that when I started to do yoga, there was a time where all, and I knew I could feel stuff, I could feel. The first time I met my yoga teacher, I was so lucky I got …
Ms. Tippett: Tell me that story about how you came to meet her or be doing this. Did you know you wanted to do yoga?
Mr. Sanford: No. I was in — I was having lots of pain in my body, because my body has a lot of pain in it. But I was at a body worker and she says, "Why don't you try yoga?" And so I tried yoga because I thought, "Well, a 4,000-year-old discipline that's about integrating mind, body and spirit seems like a good place to start." But then I got extraordinarily lucky.
The first teacher I met, Jo Zukovich, that relationship, I don't think I would, I know I would not be where I am now and been able to stick with if I also hadn't had an extraordinary personal relationship with my yoga teacher and her family. They kind of took me in. Because it was hard, because I had a lot of things, when I was first starting yoga, a lot of, like I said, I was asleep in the car. I had no memory of that day at all. I had a lot of post-traumatic flashbacks where I was encountering that my body had memory.
Ms. Tippett: And that body had stored it, right?
Mr. Sanford: Had stored it. And, in fact, that I had left my body to avoid the pain. But what I had done is made my body absorb it alone. So as I started to reconnect to my body, I had to reconnect to the fact that not only was it conscious in a way that I hadn't thought was even possible …
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: It's got memory. I still …
Ms. Tippett: Your body was alert to that car accident.
Mr. Sanford: The whole thing. I don't have any visual memory of that day. I can feel the skid off the bridge, I can feel where the blow came from, my lung was collapsing, I had trouble breathing, I can feel that angst. It's all in my body. And so I had to, like change.
Ms. Tippett: It's like a physical narrative rather than an oral narrative.
Mr. Sanford: Exactly. And it completely changed my life. But what's ended up happening, and this gets back to your earlier question, is that what ends up happening is that that silence that I used to disconnect, I start to realize is embodied in my paralysis and that the paralysis is itself a teacher of presence to me. And I compare it to an artichoke. You take an artichoke and you pull, as you eat an artichoke, you pull off leaf after leaf — thriving muscle off of my outer body, off of my legs, after muscle — and eventually you get to the heart of the artichoke. That's what I think I experienced in my paralysis. I experienced what existence would be like before toil, before action. Like this is what it is when it just hums. And to whatever extent I can feel and intuit that, which I call energetic awareness or sensation, I'm getting a glimpse into a level of existence that we have a hard time hearing. And that's part of why I came back to tell my story.
Ms. Tippett: First of all, you practice Iyengar yoga, which, I mean, it sounds to me, from the way I read the story, you kind of happened upon this teacher who happened to teach Iyengar yoga. I mean, there are many forms of yoga …
Mr. Sanford: Oh, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: … but this one is about alignment and precision, which …
Mr. Sanford: Is what I need, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: … seems perfectly suited to you, with your spine.
Mr. Sanford: And also it focuses on each individual pose, right, instead of sequences that have to go together. So Mr. Iyengar, he's alive in Pune, India, still; he reveals the universe of yoga in each individual pose. There's a level of depth and precision to it that's mind-boggling, but it was exactly what I needed because I could only do and started off with a few poses. But I could see the whole depth and clarity of yoga right away because each yoga posture, regardless of what it is, have developed, I think, over time because they seal energy or they make it resonate through the mind-body relationship. The particular positions make us, it flowed differently. I can feel that. That's how I can teach you yoga if you wanted to do yoga, is that I can feel that energy flowing.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Because the doctors will tell you that you don't have sensation in your legs, right?
Mr. Sanford: Mm-hmm.
Ms. Tippett: But you say, "My mind can feel into my legs."
Mr. Sanford: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: What's that like?
Mr. Sanford: If you're really, really tired and you finally get into bed, and you have that sinking feeling, you're laying there and you feel that "ah" relief, and you feel like you're falling even though you're just laying there, you keep falling, 'cause you're so tired, that level of dropping into your body and feeling, like if you were to take that experience and start listening then to your body from that level, that's what I think it is. It's a landing, it's a grounding, it's a feeling of embodiment. There's a reason why, when my son who's six is crying, he needs a hug. It's not just that he needs my love. He needs boundary around his experience. He needs to know that the pain is contained and can be housed and it won't be limiting his whole being that he can — he gets a hug and, hmm, he drops into his body. And when you drop into your body, paradoxically, typically pain is less. Pain gets more intense and more …
Ms. Tippett: When you're afraid and try to keep it at bay.
Mr. Sanford: … and then pull out of it, it really denies freedom. And it's a great short-term strategy. That's what I did when I was 13. I pulled out of my body to get it, but it's a short-term strategy. And a lot of the process of my life is like embodying again and letting — and surrounding what's going on, so I can be part of the world.
Ms. Tippett: At speakingoffaith.org, you can watch my entire conversation with Matthew Sanford and witness how he draws energy from his whole body during our in-studio interview. Or download an MP3 of that conversation, in which he speaks in greater detail about the role of integrative medicine in the healing process. Look for links on our home page — speakingoffaith.org.
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more of Matthew Sanford's subtle and intricate experience of the mind-body connection.
I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.
Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "The Body's Grace: Matthew Sanford's Story."
Ms. Tippett: Paralyzed since a car accident at the age of 13, Matthew Sanford has been describing his long arc of learning to be physically whole, even as he accepted that he would never walk again. He's written a lyrical book, Waking. It is a memoir, as he puts it, "of trauma and transcendence." It's also a reflection on deeper lessons his life has for our culture as a whole. Here's a passage he read for me:
Mr. Sanford: (reading) As I wake up to the horror of traumatically induced body memories, I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person.
… In principle, my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. … If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion.
… Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren't going to be an astronaut or the queen of Sheba? Feel the silent distance between yourself and how you felt as a child, between yourself and those feelings of wonder and splendor and trust. Feel your mature fondness for who you once were, and your current need to protect innocence wherever you might find it. The silence that surrounds the loss of innocence is a most serious death, and yet, it is necessary for the onset of maturity.
What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with a hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying, so that another part can live.
Ms. Tippett: You know, I want to talk about how the way you've lived with what happened to you. I think our culture tends to like heroes, it tends to have phrases like "beating the odds" and "conquering" and "being victorious." And I'm sure you wouldn't want to diminish the example of somebody like Christopher Reeve, but, you know, that was an example of someone for whom healing was only going to be reversing …
Mr. Sanford: Overcoming.
Ms. Tippett: … reversing what had happened to him.
Mr. Sanford: Mm-hmm. And that would be a perfect example of a healing story. And I think that's a very pervasive one in our culture.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: And when it comes to healing, when it comes to a whole bunch, when it comes the aging, we admire that 80-year-old guy that runs a marathon.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: You know, we want to see that proof that mind can overcome matter because the body is going to be what ends up shutting down. And believe me, I didn't get this right away. I mean, I broke my leg doing yoga, you know? I'm …
Ms. Tippett: Because you were trying to be heroic. Right.
Mr. Sanford: Oh, I was — all of a sudden, I wanted to do the poses and, like, show how much I could do and, whack, and …
Ms. Tippett: Stretch it to the limit.
Mr. Sanford: And I, unfortunately, had to not, you know, I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed. I had to break a bone again before I learned nonviolence.
Ms. Tippett: You mean nonviolence to your body?
Mr. Sanford: To my body. But you need all kinds of strength. You need to be able to also — and it's overused. And I am now, just now, after 15 years of yoga, understand this word deeper and deeper, and that is "surrender." And it comes from being more present, surrendering into the world, feeling more. But I don't mean intellectually. I mean literally having your body as if you're getting hugged like my son. It has that like, "ah" feeling. That is really strong. But your heart feels vulnerable when you let yourself be in the world like that. That's why we avoid it. You know, the kind of strength that I'm talking about that has guided a lot of my exploration makes you feel, oh, so vulnerable and makes you have to feel more.
Ms. Tippett: In your story, there were times when you — say, one stage of your understanding of this and your grappling with it was to decide that you still had the use of the upper half of your body and that you would make that as strong as possible, and you would live in that part of your body and kind of declare the rest of it gone.
Mr. Sanford: That's how I was guided to believe, in my opinion.
Ms. Tippett: Right. And did you, in fact, feel more invulnerable when you had made that kind of declaration?
Mr. Sanford: You know, did I feel invincible? No. But that idea of being willful and being able to attack any problem with a lot of will …
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: … that makes you feel a type of control over the world …
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: … that can make you feel less vulnerable. But I also know the unthinkable is possible. You can have as much control as you want, but the world is so big. Life does its own thing with us on some level.
Ms. Tippett: You know what's so interesting? The, you know, the phrase — I think all the language around something like a mind-body connection is a little bit loaded, just like a lot of the language around religion and spirituality can sound New Age-y. And, I mean, you had the experience with physicians that you did yoga and they thought of you as New Age-y. And I think part of that is just a language problem. But what you're pointing out is that a lot of our — the culture's glorification of will and triumphing by determination, that's also a form of mind-body, you know, we're asserting the mind-body connection without calling it that.
Mr. Sanford: Right. It's a form of integration. Dominance over bodies …
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Sanford: … is what human beings have done for thousands of years, whether it be nature, whether it be each other. That it's — my whole point is that we also need — that's one thing we want in the tool belt, to use will when you need to have it. But we, I think, are just on the beginning of realizing that there are many other ways to integrate with body. And, in fact, I believe our human survival over time is going to depend on us getting much more subtly aware of bodies.
Ms. Tippett: And even in bodies that don't function with the perfection to which we aspire, which, in fact, is a fallacy.
Mr. Sanford: Which is one of the things about yoga …
Ms. Tippett: And I mean, aging is an example of that as well.
Mr. Sanford: And also, you know, I also specialize in adapting yoga to people with disabilities.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Sanford: And one of my — it makes me love yoga so much more. Yoga can travel through any body. It's not about the perfect pose. It's not that. It's like literally it's a phenomenon that occurs at your mind's intent and your body's limits. I thought when I first started teaching adaptive yoga, that's what I started teaching first. I thought, "Well …
Ms. Tippett: And adaptive yoga means?
Mr. Sanford: Just adapting yoga poses and whatever you can to allow or have someone that lives with not as able a body.
Ms. Tippett: For whatever is physically possible.
Mr. Sanford: Right, to do whatever they can do with yoga, adapting it to someone who doesn't have as easy of a mind-body relationship. But you see in class what they're already doing. The things that some of my students already do just to live their everyday life are themselves miraculous solutions to a mind-body problem. It's not, like, "Oh, do it this way. This way is better. This way is better." You better make sure you understand why they're moving the way they're moving, what problem it's solving. And it makes you just go, "Oh, my goodness, there is so much ingenuity in the human mind-body relationship." And then you try to help them do it with not so much will.
Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you about something you wrote. "I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate." What's that about? What's that? Why is that?
Mr. Sanford: Well, it's just true. It's an observation.
Ms. Tippett: But why do you think it's true?
Mr. Sanford: I think it's true for a lot — I think exactly — in my opinion, when mind separates from body, we get more self-destructive. We get more destructive in general.
Ms. Tippett: If we're more separate from our own selves, are we more separate from others as well?
Mr. Sanford: I think so. As you're more in your body, you do feel more connected to people. You think about the importance of other life. And when you're part of the world, it's much harder to not feel compassion about the world.
(sound of yoga class)
Mr. Sanford: All right, so now, you know, lay flat on your mat — are we staggered in here? Everyone OK?
Ms. Tippett: We visited a class Matthew Sanford taught, one Monday evening at the Courage Center, a rehabilitation complex in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He's also worked in the past few years with military veterans returning home with changed bodies. Volunteers assist the students, most of whom are paraplegic, to move their bodies into the poses Matthew Sanford calls out from a mat.
Mr. Sanford: (instructing class) So now everyone that's — we're trying to get everyone all set. But if you're already laying on your back, take your arms over your head. Take your arms over your head. Straighten your arms. Straighten your arms and stretch out through your heels. Literally grow. Get taller. But then I want to — have you pick a point in the center of your body, like lay in — where your back is touching the floor in the mid-back. Like literally try to grow from the center of your body out through your fingertips, out through your heels.
One of the things we give up, you know, when we have difficult mind-body relationships is we give up presence, stretching from the fingertips out through the feet. And I don't even care if you can't physically do it, right? I want you to start seeing your presence in your body as if it's growing, like it's organic and it includes your body. Mm-hmm. So this next couple of breaths, breathe with your back body, breathe …
Ms. Tippett: To view videos and images of Matthew Sanford's adaptive yoga class at the Courage Center, go to our website, speakingoffaith.org. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today, a conversation with Matthew Sanford about the story he tells in his book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. He's been a paraplegic since the age of 13, and I asked about his take on our culture's ever-evolving language about disability.
Ms. Tippett: And I mean, I have to say, I'm sitting here with you and your body is very alive and it seems to me to be very connected. You know, you're in a wheelchair, but you're animated. You have incredible energy. And do you use that word, "disability," for yourself? Do you think of yourself as disabled? And if you do, what does that mean?
Mr. Sanford: I have a whole bunch of thoughts about that. I get tired of having the language have to be correct.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: And I think the language is the first step of moving consciousness, so I tolerate it, you know? But when someone tells me that I can't call myself disabled or a paraplegic or something, or whatever the word may be, I kind of want to look at him and go, "Wait, it's my experience."
Ms. Tippett: And probably — don't want you to use the word because it's uncomfortable for somebody else.
Mr. Sanford: For them.
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Sanford: Well, that's my point, you know? It's like I realize it's an attempt to bring more awareness to the issue that surrounds disability. But I think it brings too much morality around it, like there's a right thing and wrong thing to say. And I think that that's not consciousness, that's just words.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Mr. Sanford: Right. So that's the level on that. But do I think of myself as disabled? I have to tell you honestly that there are times, even now, 27-plus years later, where I will see my shadow and be shocked. You know, like I'll look at it. It's in a wheelchair and it's like, "Wow, that's what I look like when I'm wheeling through the world." Like, I don't, but at the same time, I definitely am disabled.
But my life force isn't completely determined by the ability to flex muscles, that there's something here. I don't know what it is and I don't care of it's neurophysiologically explained, but there's a presence here that flows through us that isn't solely determined by the fact if I could stand up or not. And I've always felt that surge. I also know that that connection was what made me such a good athlete as a little kid. It's like, you feel a free throw. And it comes from your legs, and it comes from your arms, and it comes from unity. All that unity is still here, right? I just can't quite stand up.
Ms. Tippett: So, you know, you describe in your book that at different times in your life, and through all the operations, and your initial injury and other injuries, you then, at some point, started to realize that healing could look like something different than being able to walk again. I mean, do you feel that you are healed?
Mr. Sanford: I think my mind-body relationship continues to heal, that as I practice yoga and pay attention and be in love with the world, actually, it continues to heal. Before I started yoga, I really did feel like a floating upper torso. And like when I'd be talking here with you, I'd be more talking just with my upper body. You can still see it. And a lot of people have …
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but you are — I feel like you're talking with your whole body.
Mr. Sanford: The whole thing. It's moving through the whole thing. And that presence was not realized in me before I started yoga.
Ms. Tippett: And you're saying that that presence is about your mind being connected to your physical …
Mr. Sanford: And like I'm talking with you with my whole being. It's like yoga poured water on me and through me. And I was really dry and kind of tired before and that there was so much more here that needed to just kind of be here, right? And so I practice yoga not just to become, like, really great at yoga poses. I practice yoga to feel this.
Ms. Tippett: You say at one point in your memoir that you completely disagree when people say, "My body is failing me." I'm in my 40s too. You know, people start to say this after they're 40. It's your eyes or your knees, right? But you say that that's absolutely wrong.
Mr. Sanford: And I say that and it's full of grief for me because I took advantage of my body as a 13-year-old by leaving my body to absorb all the trauma that it did. And one of the lessons that I've learned is it was my body that kept me living. Your body, for as long as it possibly can, will be faithful to living. That's what it does.
Ms. Tippett: I mean, even despite the fact that it — that there's decay that comes with age.
Mr. Sanford: It's coming apart. It's because — like, my body didn't ask to get hammered and break, and to have its spine shredded, and many bones broken. And it went, "OK, let's regroup. Let's go." And only a little part of my body didn't heal. Only — you know, an inch or two of my spinal cord was not able to regenerate. It went to work, right, and that's what it'll do. It might get confused. It might not know how to grow the right cells, but I'm telling you, it's moving towards living for as long as it possibly can.
Ms. Tippett: So if we know that about our bodies, even as we age, even as there are things happening in them that we don't like, how might we live differently in that awareness?
Mr. Sanford: You know, there's a thing in yoga. It's called pranayama. It's yogic breathing. And you breathe in a yoga pose for the spaces — I believe this — for the spaces that you can't feel. You don't just breathe for the bicep that you can really flex. You are trying to get life force through the spaces you can't feel. When you do, your balance increases, your strength increases, your flexibility increases. I think that when you talk about in terms of honoring your body, but don't make that a moral insight, you know? Like, "Oh, no, I better only eat this or not that," and get all caught up in …
Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. And that is the other way we do it too.
Mr. Sanford: And that's the other way we do it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: We work until we think that that's a moral insight. So, you know, grace — I like grace — or responsibility to my body. That, boy, doesn't inspire me at all.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And you're saying be graceful with your body, is that what you mean?
Mr. Sanford: Or know that the places you don't feel in you are graceful. They're not lost. They're not absence. They're part of your strength, of your fiber. In a piece of wood, it's not just the grains of wood. It's the empty space and spaces between the grains of wood that make it strong. It's both. And so the world gets lighter and easier when you include more of yourself here.
Ms. Tippett: And how do you think about — deal with those parts of your body that you don't like what's happening to them, the skin that's aging, the knees that hurt? I mean, those are minor problems compared to the pain that you …
Mr. Sanford: No, no. But — no, this is hard. This takes patience. I'd like to tell you there's a one magic insight and suddenly it's all easy. No, it's work, like everything else. I know, I think more — I don't know more deeply, but differently than most people, how much my body has absorbed and moved towards living still.
So I look at — you know, I have places — skin on my body, you know, old pressure sores and old stuff that happened — that you can see the skin is struggling to stay and hold. I don't, "Oh, it's not holding, dang it." I feel like, "Man, it's working as hard as it can," you know? How are you going to see it? Are you leaving here? Is your presence changing as you leave here that allows for other things? Yeah, my body does not heal as well as it used to when I was 13. That's true. My physical body doesn't do it. But because of the compassion I can feel for my body, for others, something else is healing.
Ms. Tippett: You have a six-year-old son. There's nothing in the world more embodied than a six-year-old boy. Pure energy.
Mr. Sanford: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Pure physicality. How does your son think about your body?
Mr. Sanford: I was so worried about this before I was a parent. I thought that he would have more issues than he does. He likes the idea that he's going to be taller than me sooner.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Mr. Sanford: And he hasn't quite grasped that I'm actually almost six feet tall.
Ms. Tippett: Because you're in a wheelchair.
Mr. Sanford: Right.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Sanford: He doesn't quite get that. So he likes that part. He's always kind of measuring himself against me. Paul is amazing. There are a couple of times when we've been in, like, on "Daddy and Me Days." There is one story that it was a relay race at, like, his nursery school or preschool. It was like this kind of running down this mat and going to the end and coming back. And I couldn't line up with them and do the relay with them, so the other dads and sons were doing it. But he did it on his own right down along the side, and ran down and then came back, and came back and gave me a big high-five. And so he knows that I can't do all the things. But when he came back and high-fived me and went, "Hey, we did it anyway," it was like silence and love.
Ms. Tippett: Matthew Sanford's book is Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. He's the founder and director of a nonprofit organization, Mind Body Solutions, based in Minnesota.
Ms. Tippett: Like many of you, I and several of my colleagues practice yoga in varied forms: core power, Iyengar, hot yoga — to name a few. On our staff blog, Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog, we've revealed a bit of our personal experiences with yoga and would love to hear yours as well. Share your story at speakingoffaith.org. Also, for another profound perspective on the meaning of yoga, listen to my interview with master teacher Seane Corn. She talks about yoga's practicalities and power — including what she calls "body prayer." Download an MP3 of that program, "Yoga. Meditation in Action," and my unedited interview with Matthew Sanford on our website and podcast. Find it all at speakingoffaith.org.
On Being is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor.
Kate Moos is the managing producer of On Being. And I'm Krista Tippett.
Mr. Sanford: And then, now, take your hands out straight, straight over you like you're getting long, like you're Superman flying through the air. And then, even if you can't do what I'm about to say, it's OK because I can't do it either, right? I want you to lift both your hands and your legs off the mat and extend. Shalabasana. Even if you can't do it, Tim, come on, do it anyway. And breathe, and then release. Take a break. That's a hard pose, by the way.