The Body's Grace
Matthew Sanford is the founder and president of Mind Body Solutions. He teaches yoga for all kinds of bodies, including adaptive yoga classes weekly, and holds regular virtual gatherings with people around the world. A video library of his teaching methods for yoga teachers is freely available. His book is Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.
Transcription by Alletta Cooper
Krista Tippett: What a joy it is to offer up a wondrous, buried treasure from the 20-year On Being archive. Be prepared as you listen to what follows to take in subtleties and gracefulness you’ve never before pondered — or tried to feel in yourself — in the interplay between your mind and your body.
Matthew Sanford has an immensely energetic physical presence and is one of the most physically whole human beings I know. And he has been paralyzed from the chest down since a car accident in 1978. But he likes to say that his experience is only more extreme, not so different, from that of everyone else. He’s written: “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.” Matthew’s intricate knowledge of that “inward silence,” which he was forced to befriend after the noisy connections which most of us take for granted were severed — it’s revelatory. The places we don’t feel in ourselves are graceful, he says, not lost. They’re not absence, they’re presence. “They’re part of your strength, your fiber.”
And ever since this conversation, I have lived in an ongoing wonder at something else Matthew brought me to see in myself and in others: that it’s not possible to live more deeply in your body — in all its grace and all its flaws — without becoming more compassionate towards all of life.
Yoga was his path to that compassion and the wholeness he exudes, and he is today an acclaimed teacher of yoga for people in all kinds of bodies. This conversation in fact got me into yoga, which has so nourished my life. And if you do yoga, you will never think about what it is affecting inside you in the same way again.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
I sat with Matthew Sanford in 2006, just after he’d published his beautiful book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.
Tippett: A lot of people have a good story, or a lot of people I’m talking with — even about a theme — their story is the backdrop, and I don’t always think the way to do the interview is to have them tell the story. But I actually think, with you, the story is the framework. And I want to jump in and ask you questions about what certain things mean, and conclusions you’ve drawn about big subjects, but I really think I just want to start with having you talk about what happened to you in your life that changed you so much — your accident.
Matthew Sanford: You mean, the actual details?
Tippett: Well, just —
Sanford: I struggle with this question, because everyone does, and I end up giving a litany of “here’s what happened, blah blah blah.” But…
Tippett: Well, just start the story, and we’ll see where it takes us. But how old were you when you were in the car accident?
Sanford: I was 13 years old. I was sleeping in the car when it happened, so that one of the reasons it’s called Waking is, it literally was “waking” to another life. 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, and it seemed like a harmless day. And we were coming up on a bridge and hit a patch of ice, “preferential icing” — and 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, went, slid, 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 — broke a lot of things: broke my back and my neck, both my wrists. So about as banged-up as you can be on an accident.
Tippett: And it was pretty clear, early on, that you would be paralyzed, partially paralyzed, right?
Sanford: Well, yeah. I was in a coma, so I was out of it for three-and-a-half days. When I woke up, I was told, pretty quickly, what happened. But what was so interesting about that is that I was 13. I could hardly process, really, what happened …
Tippett: You’d lost your father and your sister, as well.
Sanford: … it’s like getting the weather reported to you: “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 trauma happens not just to an individual; it happens to a whole community, to a family. And a lot of those initial, early times were 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.
Tippett: You talk about healing stories in your memoir. And you talk about healing stories all the way through life. The way you use that term, I think it would also apply to people in the midst of many experiences which wouldn’t include, necessarily, physical illness or physical challenges. And you did write that your first healing story was just — and it’s often a line, right? — that your mother and your brother needed you to live.
Sanford: It was a way for me to not feel how injured I was. In fact, going back at it, hearing my mom telling me that the doctors told her that, “it’s good he doesn’t know how injured he is”; that we took advantage of my innocent, 13-year-old energy still going towards life, that I didn’t think so much about how injured I was. I never, honestly, ever really considered not surviving.
But the healing story — one of the things I really try to get across with all that I do is that we all have traumas, and we all have our own stories. This 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 — even loss of childhood innocence; anything — a death of our loved one — where suddenly, the world changes its shape, and you have to confront: how are you going to connect back to the world? And you hear people that are generally positive or people that always are kind of thinking that the world’s doing them wrong — I would call those “healing stories”; that they’ve got a very good healing story.
Tippett: But can healing stories also be negative?
Sanford: Oh absolutely, and some of them can be good at the time. For example, for the first few years after I was injured I was told, I would often be asked, “Well, how did 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 —
Tippett: You just closed the door.
Sanford: Yup. 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. But that’s — I needed to recover that. So often, I think, healing stories themselves require healing, over time.
Tippett: So you had to grieve, and it’s almost like you had to grow into the stage where you could grieve at different levels. And then you also talk about, your body grieved at different stages in different ways. Tell some of that, because you have this — I don’t want to use — “insight” into your own body; that’s too mild. And you’re “in touch” with your body — all these phrases are kind of clichéd. But you know things about your body, you’ve had to live with them more intimately, through — by way of the fact that it was damaged.
Sanford: For sure; and part of that was that I had to — 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 —
Tippett: Which is that I think a thought, and I don’t know that I’m thinking; my hand is gesturing because I’m animated in this conversation.
Sanford: Right, but same with your toes. You might be pressing, wiggling your toes at the same time.
Tippett: I’m shaking my foot, which I do when I’m —
Sanford: Exactly. That’s just part of — the connection between your mind’s intent and your body is so intimate, they seem as one. Well, that connection got changed, in my case.
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. So I call that — I try to describe as “energetic presence.” Like if you were to squeeze my ankle, I feel like you’re squeezing a tube of toothpaste; I can feel the surge up my body, through my spine. Those are all — there’s a subtle body that we have here.
Tippett: But you feel it as energy, rather than as nerve endings.
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 I don’t know if I were a more visual person — but I inwardly listen and hear. I pay attention, and I can feel these changes.
But 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. It takes some attention. And if you focus too much on it, you can amplify it to the point of exaggeration. So it’s not as efficient; it’s not — there’s a reason why people like me weren’t surviving, two million years ago. This probably isn’t great for survival when you’re getting chased by tigers.
Tippett: I want to talk about yoga and go there, and the mind-body connection. But I do want to dwell, just for a little while longer, with the flipside of this, what you’re describing that you’ve learned over these years — how many years?
Sanford: Fifteen years since I started yoga.
Tippett: Fifteen years — is that you had a real — 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. Tell me about that.
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 was not — I was watching what was happening below.
And what was revealed to me in that instant — and I realize, more in retrospect, as I’ve gotten older — is that I got shown something there about the fluctuation and movement that can happen between mind and body and that that insight — that there isn’t the crisp boundaries that we think there are, or that it’s all the same — that 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 — people don’t get that hospitals are a violent place. It’s all good, and I wouldn’t be here without it. Corrective violence — we had to counteract what happened to me. But —
Tippett: You had to have your wrists broken again because they healed incorrectly.
Sanford: Rebroken and the spine straightened, and all the things that literally — but 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 — intuitively, this wasn’t like a conscious thing so much. There was a little bit of consciousness, near the end — I learned how to disassociate from my body. 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, when we’re just not paying attention and off somewhere else — that we have that capability within our mind-body relationship, within our consciousness. I got shown that, really early, in really dramatic fashion.
And the question then became, for me, was, when I encountered, then — after I start to feel better and am aware enough, I’m still in the hospital, but I’m aware enough to go, “Well, 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 kept — to the doctors I’d say, “Well, yeah, but I feel stuff. I feel tingling and, kind of, burning and itching 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, somehow, my spine’s regenerating. The only healing they were focused on was: if my spine couldn’t regenerate, then the rest is just going to be lost.
And those sensations, listening to my own experience, ends up being — those sensations I was told weren’t real then, at 13, and I believed. You’re only 13, you believe the adults around you. The innocence…
Tippett: And you believe doctors. All of us believe doctors when we’re sick.
Sanford: …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.
But I think, getting back to your question, that I got shown something in those early experiences. And what I only figured out over time was that it isn’t just the ability to disassociate. We kind of all know that; 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, that our mind-body relationship is changing over time.
[music: “A Certain Lightness” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I want you to talk about the term “silence.” You use it a lot in your book; there are many wonderful lines, evocative lines. Here’s one: “The silence is the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy. It is the source of the feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.” In another place you’re talking about your dealing with physicians, and you say, “This silence demands grace, not rupture.”
But really talk to me about what that silence is, because you’re using the word in a completely particular way to your experience.
Sanford: Not an easy question…
Sanford: …because I’ve tried to define it many times.
Tippett: It’s a big word, the way you use it.
Sanford: But part of what I try to do is, make it seem more ordinary. When I do compare it to our experiences, I — like when you’re washing your dishes for another day, after another meal, and you have that kind of quiet feeling I think that we all know what I’m talking about. We can kind of feel it; when you feel beauty —
Tippett: It’s the silence within us.
Sanford: And that literally, you could say it all sorts of ways and they’re all different, and I would call them “healing stories” about how to get this out about our experience. The thing about one that doesn’t light me up — but we’re 90 percent empty space. Literally, what we think is full and embodied has a lot of empty space in it already. But I think that there’s a dimension — like, for example, when you learn to soften your organs of perception. Let’s say if I were to 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 slightly 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 — and this is the paradoxical insight that guides all my work — is that that silence we’re talking about both connects us to other people and separates. It goes either way.
Tippett: And the way I understand, it also goes towards life or towards death.
Sanford: Or, it is both. It’s not like that 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, but trying to be aware enough to have all your spaces. 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 your intercostal muscles right now, you wouldn’t exactly know how to do that. You have silence too, in your mind-body relationship. If I were to ask you lift the arches of your feet, directly, you wouldn’t be able to do that either. 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. I say, in one place in the book, the moon might reveal itself. Life reveals 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. 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. It also makes it scary in the dark; it goes either way.
Does that help? I’m still working on the silence; I’ll keep going back at it.
Tippett: No, it’s great. Tell me — embody it by telling me a couple of stories of when you — how you became aware of the silence.
Sanford: Or when I started to see it in my body. See, that was one of the big breakthroughs that came to me through yoga, is that, in a way, I was aware of the silence. I still am. I’ve had a set of experiences in my life, and it’s not just the car accident — there’s a lot of trauma going through my story in the last 27 years. And it makes me feel separated. I feel a little bit like I’ve got a set of experiences that make me different than other people. I feel that separation, that gulf between — 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; that 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 individual. There’s a whole movement of Existentialism that talks about that radical separation of the individual from everything else. But I think they’re describing some of the same stuff, that they’re trying to put into context and into story an experience that we all have, that we all move.
Tippett: But I think that what’s happened to you is that with yoga, in particular, you’re staring that straight-on and not accepting it as a wall or as a separation.
Sanford: And to get to the practical answer to your question is that when I started to do yoga, there was a time where all the — and I knew I could feel stuff. I could feel. The first time I met my yoga teacher — I was so lucky.
Tippett: Tell me that story about how you came to meet her or be doing this. Did you know you wanted to do yoga?
Sanford: No. I was having lots of pain in my body, because my body has a lot of pain in it. But I was at a bodyworker, and she said, “Why don’t you try yoga?” And it turned out that my — it had been the case that when I was little, my dad had been in a car accident and got whiplash and tried to do some out of a book. So, as a five-year-old, I used to watch him — before I was in kindergarten, I used to watch him do this stuff all by himself. So I knew of it a little bit. But then, when she said, “Why don’t you try yoga?” I thought, “Oh, you know…” I knew I wanted to be more in my body. I knew that I had lived a healing vision where I tried to overcome my paralyzed body and to overcome my disability; get my arms strong and drag my body through life, and that had had a consequence of making me feel way disconnected. And I know I needed to try something. And so, I tried yoga because I thought, “Wow, a 4,000-year-old discipline that’s about integrating mind, body, and spirit? Seemed like a good place to start.”
But then, I got extraordinarily lucky in 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 it if I also hadn’t had an extraordinary personal relationship with my yoga teacher and her family — they just took me in. Because it was hard. Because I had a lot of things — when I first was 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 posttraumatic flashbacks, a lot of — where I was encountering it, and my body had memory…
Tippett: And that body had stored it, right?
Sanford: …had stored it and, in fact, that I had left my body to avoid the pain. But what I had done is, I had 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 — I was in graduate school, studying the mind-body problem and consciousness, and I thought I knew what I was doing. And suddenly, my experience throws at me that my body is conscious in a way that it’s got memory. I still —
Tippett: Your body was alert to that car accident.
Sanford: 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 change —
Tippett: It’s like a physical narrative, rather than an oral narrative.
Sanford: Exactly, and it completely changed my life, where I went. I always had sensed that, 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 use 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 my legs — after muscle, and eventually, you get to the heart of the artichoke. That’s what I think I experience in my paralysis. I experience what existence would be like before toil, before action. 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.
Tippett: You use this phrase about how, in yoga — first of all, you practice Iyengar yoga, which — it sounds to me, from the way I read the story, you happened upon this teacher who happened to teach Iyengar yoga; there are many forms of yoga, but this one is about alignment and precision, which seems…
Sanford: Is what I need, and…
Tippett: …is perfectly suited to you, with your spine.
Sanford: …and also, it focuses on each individual pose, instead of sequences that have to go together. So — Mr. Iyengar, he’s alive and well in Pune, India, still [Editor’s note: B.K.S. Iyengar died in 2014] — 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 start 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 it flow 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 flow.
Tippett: Right, because the doctors will tell you that you don’t have sensation in your legs, but you say, “My mind can feel into my legs.” What’s that like?
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 “ahh” relief, and you feel like you’re falling, even though you’re just laying there, you keep falling, because you’re so tired? That level of dropping into your body and feeling — if you were to take that experience and start listening, then, to your body from that level, that’s what I think it is — that there’s a — it’s a landing. It’s a grounding. It’s a feeling of embodiment.
There’s a reason why, when my son — he’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. He gets a hug, and he drops into his body. And when you drop into your body, paradoxically, typically, pain is less. Pain gets more intense and more…
Tippett: When you’re afraid and try to keep it at bay?
Sanford: …and then pull out of it — it really denies freedom. And it’s a great short-term strategy. That’s what I did as a 13-year-old: 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 embodying again and surrounding what’s going on, so I can be part of the world.
[music: “Sweet” by Sanctus]
Tippett: I want to talk about the way you’ve lived with what happened to you, with limited use of all your limbs. Obviously, you had different stages of what your healing stories were, what you were aspiring to — and you’ve mentioned this as well; you’ve touched on this as you’ve been speaking — 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 that was an example of someone for whom healing was only going to be reversing…
Sanford: Overcoming —
Tippett: …reversing what had happened to him.
Sanford: And that would be a perfect example of a healing story. And I think that’s a very pervasive one in our culture when it comes to healing — when it comes to a whole bunch of things. When it comes to aging, we admire that 80-year-old guy that runs a marathon. We want to see that proof that mind can overcome matter, the body’s going to be what ends up shutting down. But what —
Tippett: We don’t think of it that way, though. Or, we think that we have the will, and then, we can — technology will back us up.
Sanford: And that’s part of the healing story. What my life has been has been, has been an exploration of — and believe me, I didn’t get this right away. I broke my leg doing yoga.
Tippett: Because you were trying to be heroic.
Sanford: Oh, all of a sudden I wanted to do the poses and show how much I could do. And [snaps] —
Tippett: Stretch it to the limit.
Sanford: And I unfortunately had to — I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed; I had to break a bone again to learn nonviolence.
Tippett: You mean, nonviolence to your body.
Sanford: To my body. But you need all kinds of strength; that overcoming — sometimes, you’ve got to do that. You got a deadline in your life, and you work for 20 straight hours, that’s what you do. And that’s one story. But that’s not what’s going to sustain; that you need 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; that you need to have the strength that comes from the silence. Because that is actually what saved my life, as a 13-year-old, that silence I let in and allowed me not to feel my body. And it made me stronger and more resilient, in a way, but not because I was flexing muscles. The silence itself is sinewy. It’s got a strength to it and a fiber to it. There’s that kind of strength. 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; letting it — as if you’re getting hugged, like I am my son. It has that “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. It makes you feel vulnerable too. The kind of strength 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.
Tippett: And 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 declare the rest of it “gone.”
Sanford: That’s how I was guided to believe, in my opinion.
Tippett: And did you, in fact, feel more invulnerable when you had made that kind of declaration? What you just described about —
Sanford: I think I was less aware. Did I feel invincible? No, only because I broke my neck again a year after the accident and was a quadriplegic for a while. So I always felt really vulnerable and that my physical body could break at any time.
But that idea of being willful and being able to attack any problem with a lot of will — that makes you feel a type of control over the world that can make you feel less vulnerable.
But I also know the unthinkable is possible. That no matter what you do, you know? So that kind of story — and that’s part of why I ended up, probably, doing yoga; is that on some level, that healing story, of overcoming my disability, of dragging my body through life, I had already had an example that had made me see or opened me to the fact that the unthinkable is happening. 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.
Tippett: You know what’s so interesting? The phrase — I think all the language around something like the mind-body connection is a little bit loaded, just like a lot of the language around religion and spirituality can sound new-agey. You had the experience with physicians that you did yoga, and they thought of you as new-agey. And I think part of that is just a language problem. But what you’re pointing out is that a lot of the culture’s glorification of will and triumphing by determination — that’s also a form of mind-body connection…
Sanford: It’s a form of integration.
Tippett: …that we’re asserting the mind-body connection without calling it that.
Sanford: It’s a form of integration. Dominance over bodies is what human beings have done for thousands of years, whether it be nature; whether it be each other. It’s a form of mind-body integration. If I have a religion that I want you to believe, our history shows us that you can try to conquer the people and see if they’ll have to accept the belief. That’s mind-body integration. There’s that level. And 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 — not just our own: the earth; each other. We need to start studying, and we need stories that help us see that there’s depth and potential in what we’re already experiencing. And that’s part of why I started telling my story, is to try to get that across.
Tippett: And even in bodies that don’t function with the perfection to which we aspire, which is a fallacy — aging is an example of that, as well.
Sanford: And also, I also specialize in adapting yoga to people with disabilities. And 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 literally — it’s a phenomenon that occurs at your mind’s intent and your body’s limits, and it — poof, it happens. And it travels through any body.
One of my favorite things is to have a yoga teacher come to my adaptive class, because what it does is — you have this faith in yoga, and you know, on some level, that it’s not just about being able to do these incredible poses. But then you see it, in three-dimensional form, what’s going on; that literally, I believe, working with neurological deficit, one of the big things for me was recognizing — I thought, when I first started teaching adaptive yoga — that’s why I started teaching first. I thought, well —
Tippett: And “adaptive yoga” means?
Sanford: Just adapting yoga poses and whatever you can to allow, or have someone that lives with not-as-able-body…
Tippett: For what is physically possible.
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. And it’s not just physical. It can be cognitive, too. Some people have that disability, too, obviously. But you see — in class you see the principles.
Let me back up for a second. What I wanted to say is, I recognized — I thought I was giving back. I had this knowledge of yoga; that I needed to help. I needed to give somewhere. And so, I thought, to help people with disability, no one would question that, because I’d had some remarkable things happen in what I could do, but also, how I was feeling within my disability.
But I thought I was teaching them, and what I realized is that they — neurological deficit is the frontier of mind-body integration. And I don’t need to go in with yoga and try to “fix” somebody or reverse their condition. But in fact — it struck me — there’s an analogy, I think, with the development of 20th-century psychology, that if you think about Freud and Jung as they’re developing theories of a psyche. They work on neurosis and psychosis. They study those aberrant psychological states, and then they start to theorize — that the analogous group, for mind-body integration, is neurological deficit, whether it be cognitive or physical.
But literally, here you have mind struggling through body, because think about someone who’s disabled. Pretty much, on some level, the core injury is that their mind can’t quite make it through their body…
Tippett: Right, that connection is severed.
Sanford: …with the same kind of clarity. And what’s important about teaching someone with a disability, or helping someone with a disability, is that 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’s 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, see — and it makes you just go, “Oh, my goodness. There’s so much ingenuity in the human mind-body relationship.” And then you try to help them do it with not so much will; that there’s another connection between minds and bodies. So, it’s actually applied — everything I’ve been saying so far, it’s really applied, in a pressure cooker, to mind-body relationships, when you teach yoga to people with disabilities.
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? Why is that?
Sanford: Well, it’s just true. It’s an observation. [laughs]
Tippett: But why, do you think, it’s true?
Sanford: I think it’s true for a lot — I think, exactly because of what we were talking about, in terms of the silence that separates you, or connects you. I think that, in my opinion, when mind separates from body, we get more self-destructive. We get more destructive, in general.
Tippett: If we’re more separate from our own selves, are we more separate from others, as well?
Sanford: I think so. I think that one does not go without the other. So, as we’re not as present in our body — for example, I would say that on some level, our attachment to capitalism and to money generation is actually a form of leaving our bodies. We think not about the river and how clean it is; we think about how much money we can make by dumping into it. We’re thinking about other considerations. But as we move away from our bodies, that we get more self-destructive.
Well, as you move back through your body, especially when you’ve seen the disconnection that’s possible — so I got pulled apart. I got stretched really thin through my traumatic experiences. And then, as I come back and back through my body, that same silence that made me feel disconnected from people is what made me feel so connected to people — that it’s the same thing. And as you’re more in your body, you do feel more connected to people. You think about the importance of other life. You are here. It’s beautiful. It’s subtle. It’s all one big thing. And so I think that the simple answer to your question is that as you move back into your body or more deeply into your body, it makes you in contact with the world more. And when you’re part of the world, it’s much harder to not feel compassion about the world.
Tippett: Well, you’re part of the physical world, though, but there is some connection, somehow.
Sanford: And there’s another level of realizing that you’re connected to the physical. I mean, obviously, we’re all moving our bodies through space; we’re in the physical world. But then there’s a realization that comes when you’ve been disconnected and start to bring your, what I call silence, or your mental energy back through your body, where you see how beautiful the connections are. And it makes you more compassionate, less willing to do violence, I think. And so it’s amazing, the observation too is, just, watch students that start with one type of “go, go” game — when you’re overcoming and trying to climb the mountain to get to the top, that willful overcoming story. You’re much more willing to see things as a means.
Tippett: Even other people.
Sanford: Even other people; and when you start going, “Wait…” I mean, if we were to really — it would be really hard to have warfare actually happen if you actually thought about the human being you were killing. If you were actually connected, as a human being, to the person you’re in combat with, that would be really hard. And when you realize that their mothers and daughters — whenever I hear of any trauma, I know of, because of my experience, the impact that someone dying has on everybody. That’s a father; that’s a son; that’s a whole bunch of human webs of interaction. When you start to feel that through your body — and not just intellectually — it deepens your connection and, I think, makes you, over time, become more compassionate. At least, that’s my hope.
[music: “Deconstruction ACT I” by Sanctus]
Tippett: 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’re in a wheelchair, but you’re animated; you have incredible energy. And I don’t know, do you use that word, “disability,” for yourself? Do you think of yourself as disabled? And if you do, what does that mean?
Sanford: I have a whole bunch of thoughts about that. I get tired of having the language have to be correct. And I think, language is the first step of moving consciousness, and so I tolerate it, 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 them and go, “Wait — it’s my experience.”
Tippett: And probably don’t want you to use the word, because it’s uncomfortable for somebody else.
Sanford: For them. Well, that’s my point. It’s like, I realize, it’s an attempt to bring more awareness to the issue that surround 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. 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. [laughs] I’ll look, and it’s in a wheelchair, and it’s like, “Wow. That’s what I look like when I’m wheeling through the world.” I don’t, but, at the same time, I definitely am disabled.
It’s definitely — but my life force, isn’t completely determined by your ability to flex muscles; that there’s something here — and I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it’s neuro-physiologically explained — but there’s a presence here that flows through us that isn’t solely determined by the fact if I can stand up or not. And I’ve always felt that search.
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. I just can’t quite stand up.
Tippett: 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. Do you feel that you are healed?
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. I have so much more presence. 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…
Tippett: Yeah, I feel like you’re talking with your whole body.
Sanford: The whole thing; it’s moving through the whole thing. And that presence was not realized, in me, before I started yoga.
Tippett: And you’re saying that that presence is about your mind being connected to your physical —
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 be here. And so, I practice yoga, not just to become really great at yoga poses. I practice yoga to feel this level of connection; that it is so much more connected than we think.
Tippett: Is there a more defined, or another spiritual aspect, for you, to the practice of yoga? Let me ask the question this way: This silence that we’ve talked about before — this inner silence that you feel, you live with now, you engage — is that also another way to talk about the human spirit? Or, how do you think about the human spirit?
Sanford: Anything that you don’t know how to explain and want to call “spirit” to me is a great — it’s been a conceptual placeholder, through time, of whatever we don’t quite understand. And so, that is, for sure, part of it.
I do think, or feel — to talk it on another level for a second — I think the silence within us is what religion and politics and science have been competing for. Literally, there’s been a competition in institutions for a very profound and powerful aspect of a human being. And whichever one should win out, I don’t even know, but that space, that dimension of us — I’ll call it spirit. That sounds great. I just know it’s here. And if I just think that whether or not I can lift my leg is going to be the sole determinant of whether that space is here, I’m living in too small of a world; that it’s not quite like that. It’s not so determined.
There’s something about us that’s kind of amorphous too, in our presence; I think that’s why some people are charismatic. Who knows? In our language, it shows that we already recognize this phenomenon. There’s something here, and cash it out however you want, but I’m just glad it’s here.
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; people start to say this after they’re 40. It’s your eyes or your knees. [laughs] But you say that that’s absolutely wrong.
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 that it was my body that kept me living, that — your body, for as long as it possibly can, will be faithful to living. That’s what it does.
Tippett: Even despite the fact that there’s decay.
Sanford: It’s coming apart. My body didn’t ask to get hammered and break and have its spine shredded and many bones broken. And it went, “Okay, let’s regroup. Let’s go.” And only a little part of my body didn’t heal. Only an inch or two of my spinal cord was not able to regenerate. It went to work. 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.
Tippett: And what does that — how does that make you think about how we might approach, honor, or — 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?
Sanford: Again, 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 honor, if that’s the healing story you want to tell, about honoring your body — but don’t make that a moral insight, like “Oh, no, I better only eat this or not that,” caught up in…
Tippett: Right, and that is the way we do it, too.
Sanford: …and that’s the way we do it: we work until we think that’s a moral insight. So “grace,” I like grace. “Honoring” has more weight in it, in some ways, or “responsibility” to my body, boy, that doesn’t inspire me at all.
Tippett: You say, “be graceful” with your body? Is that what you mean?
Sanford: Or, know that the places you don’t feel in you are graceful. They’re not loss. 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 not only gets lighter and easier when you include more of yourself here — you house more space than your mind will ever know.
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? Those are minor problems compared to the pain that you —
Sanford: No, but — I’d like to say that in every particular instance, “I’m great at it.” — no. This is hard. This takes patience. It takes showing up every day. I’d like to tell you there’s one magic insight, and suddenly it’s all easy. No, it’s work, like everything else.
I know, I think — 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 — I have places, skin on my body, 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.” There’s that type of feeling that I have now.
And I didn’t use to have that. But looking at rather than how your mind-body relationship, or your being, is moving away from life, instead looking at how it’s staying connected to life.
Again, I think healing stories are so important. Right there, you got a basic one right there: 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. It may not just be the skin on my ankle, which I wish would heal a little bit better.
Tippett: You have a six-year-old son. There’s nothing in the world more embodied than a six-year-old boy. [laughs] Pure energy, pure physicality. How does your son think about your body?
Sanford: My body? 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. And he hasn’t quite grasped that I’m almost six feet tall…
Tippett: [laughs] Because you’re in a wheelchair.
Sanford: …he doesn’t quite get that. So he likes that; he’s always measuring himself against me.
Paul is amazing. There have been a couple of times when — like on “Daddy and Me” days — there was one story that there was a relay race at his nursery school or preschool. And I couldn’t do it. And so it was like this running down this mat and coming back. And so 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.
[music: “Eventide” by Gautam Srikishan]
Tippett: Matthew Sanford is the founder and president of Mind Body Solutions, which is based in Minnesota. His book is Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Matthew continues to teach live adaptive yoga classes weekly and holds regular virtual gatherings with people around the world. In addition, he has created a video library of his teaching methods for yoga teachers everywhere to use freely and without cost.
[music: “Eventide” by Gautam Srikishan]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Gautam Srikishan, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Amy Chatelaine, Cameron Mussar, Kayla Edwards, Tiffany Champion, Juliette Dallas-Feeney, Annisa Hale, and Andrea Prevost.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. We are located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. Our closing music was composed by Gautam Srikishan. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
Our funding partners include:
The Hearthland Foundation. Helping to build a more just, equitable and connected America — one creative act at a time.
The Fetzer Institute, supporting a movement of organizations applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to cultivating the connections between ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting initiatives and organizations that uphold sacred relationships with the living Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.