by Caren Rabbino
Matthew Sanford believes what he feels. Doctors, and the others involved in his rehabilitation from a car accident, didn’t. They insisted that a paraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down, couldn’t feel the sensations he was reporting. He was 13 and fighting for his life and the people entrusted with his care weren’t listening. They insisted he was in denial about his tragic loss so they stamped their reality on his body, his fate.
In a concession to their model—that his recovery would be hastened if he just applied mind over matter—Sanford studied philosophy. The epistemological model also located the origin of knowledge in his brain. But Sanford knew then, and imparts this hard-won knowledge to others now: there are some things that only the body can teach us.
When he began reading the work of BKS Iyengar, and then, found an Iyengar yoga teacher, Sanford’s profound loss, frustration and hope all forged a dynamic yoga practice. He has spent nearly two decades refining his practice and teaching others from his own lived experience.
This past weekend, Sanford was the centerpiece of a workshop hosted by the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. WAKING MIND AND BODY: What Our Bodies Can Teach Us About Accepting Change began with a talk entitled “The Invisible Aspects of Self: A Mind-Body Approach to Realization” in which Sanford described his injury and the gruesome aspects of treatment that caused his mind to disassociate from the vulnerability of his body.
In an introductory class on Saturday morning, Sanford brought new and experienced students alike through asanas, focusing less on the muscular aspects (which he himself can’t access) and more on cultivating a conscious awareness of the inner body. He teaches what he calls the “hub of the pose” instead of the outer spokes or what the pose looks like on the limbs.
Sanford maintains that increased awareness of the subtle aspects of the inner body is not only the essence of yoga, it is what connects “the little ‘s’ to the big ‘S’ of Self.” This is how we achieve the fullness of our humanity, not through expert and precise muscular action. The experience of his disability has yielded an understanding that can be taught to students of every age and condition.
• • • • • • • • •
On Saturday afternoon, graduates of Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program (all practicing psychotherapists) facilitated a writing workshop to draw out the students’ experience. We read an excerpt from Matthew Sanford’s book “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence” in which he describes his nascent relationship with his yoga teacher Jo. She seemed to intuit what he was feeling and saw far beyond the limiting notions of healthcare professionals to his fullest capacity as a human. Participants were asked to write about a time they felt supported.
The writing workshops built on Sanford’s injunction to figure out your story. Being able to take control of the narrative of illness and loss is not only a way to process the feelings, but it helps to organize around more life-affirming themes than the diagnosis, infirmity or chronic pain might suggest. He illustrated the point by describing a study in which veterans with post-traumatic stress told the story of their war wounds in exactly the same way, using the same phrases for over forty years. Instead of re-inscribing the wound, Sanford suggests changing the narrative in order to heal.
In an evening conversation at the Rubin Museum of Art, Barbara Ganzel, a neuroscience researcher at Cornell University confirmed Sanford’s point. She explained that the notion of homeostasis has been largely debunked in the context of traumatic injury. Actually, the MRIs show that the brain is fundamentally altered and she could point to the specific location of embedded stress and trauma. The old idea of returning to a never-changing “set point” or baseline of experience makes no sense when you consider the inevitably of change. Ganzel described “allostasis” or the process of achieving stability through adaptation to a new or changed state.
In discussing the distinction between the “mind” and the “brain,” Sanford explained that the particular benefit of the Iyengar method was the close instruction to knit together the experience of the inner body with the environment outside and around the body. Finding the mind-body connection transforms a stretch into yoga, physical stability into equanimity.
The conversation resonated with the themes depicted in the museum’s current exhibition, “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine.” It was as if the ancients were admonishing us to catch up with the verities of the body.
• • • • • • • • •
On Sunday, back at the Institute, Sanford brought advanced Iyengar yoga students through a back-bending sequence. We slowly gained a deeper consciousness of the origin of the poses in our spines and then, could trace the energy going down to inner heels and up, “six inches above [our] heads.”
The next day, Sanford worked with certified Iyengar teachers to deepen an understanding of how to manage individuals with very different physical requirements toward the foundational concepts of yoga such as moving in multiple directions at once. He identified common pitfalls of caregivers and teachers including the impulse to fix and impart their “knowledge.” He asked teachers to acknowledge their own vulnerability, and accept that they would never know the complexities or specifics of every single condition that requires modification and adaptation. Instead of imposing order, teachers would have to “get comfortable with a little bit of chaos.”
Though it seems deceptively simple, what Sanford was asking of the teachers was to remember that the best yoga instills a sense of freedom and the comfort of community. Providing people with a sense of belonging is critical to overcoming the self-alienation that can come with injury and disability. In order to do so, teachers would have to bring their own experience into the pose. He demonstrated how an adjustment could break the kinetic chain or build it, once the teacher aligned her spine to the student’s spine. Instead of relying so much on verbal instruction, allow “your spine to teach their spine.” With adaptive yoga, it’s incumbent on the teacher to seek the commonality “between my practice and your practice.”
With an injured or disabled student, the teacher has to eliminate the presumption of sameness and be able to explore the difference with openness, compassion, and humor. If typical instructions would be insufficient with a paralyzed or otherwise confined student, Sanford encouraged the teachers to “teach what you know, beyond muscular action.” He reflected on the four tenets that are at the foundation of his own teaching: what it means to ground, to balance, to expand and to have rhythm. Since this may be harder to access, especially for newer students, Sanford simply asks students what they are feeling–not just what they observe, but what sensations emerge as a result of focusing on the inner body. The challenge of adaptive yoga (and, shouldn’t it be true for all yoga?) is to bring the senses of perception into balance.
His first rule is that “conditions of safety have to be met.” Sanford reminded the teaching faculty that for people to feel free enough to risk vulnerability, they must feel safe. He suggested that teachers give an “inner image” to awaken the inner sensation of the student. Teachers have to find and use their own feeling of the subtle world to communicate it. And, Sanford said, “if you can get that going, a student can expand from there to a feeling of wholeness and fullness. You have to show them that their experience fully matters.” Of course, this is a lot to ask so teachers need to get comfortable in “the zone of not knowing.”
At the end, Sanford asked teachers to forget a little about what the pose is “supposed” to look like and their conception of alignment. He said, “Don’t worry about forcing me in to a round hole. I’m a square peg! It’s more important that I feel like I belong.” To empower a student’s conception of his/her body, what matters most is a teacher’s empathy and dynamic with students, not their knowledge. That may be a hard lesson for those with years of study and extraordinary physical prowess at their disposal. Teachers have to enter the feeling of the inner body because that’s going to be their commonality with people with disabilities—not the outer body. If teachers and students can communicate at that level, perhaps both “have found company in a place where they thought they had none.”
Learn more about Matthew Sanford at www.matthewsanford.com.
Caren Rabbino is an Iyengar yoga student and participated in the Matthew Sanford workshop.