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Disabilities Beat: Matthew Sanford on adaptive yoga, grief and disability wisdom

Matthew Sanford, an author and adaptive yoga teacher, poses for a photo at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine on April 23, 2024. A large TV sits behind him, which allowed him to teach an adaptive yoga class online and in-person at the university.
Emyle Watkins
Matthew Sanford, an author and adaptive yoga teacher, poses for a photo at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine on April 23, 2024. A large TV sits behind him, which allowed him to teach an adaptive yoga class online and in-person at the university.

In April, the University at Buffalo hosted adaptive yoga teacher Matthew Sanford to not only train yoga teachers and medical professionals, but to educate the community on how to develop body to mind resilience. Sanford, who is also an author and founded the non-profit Mind Body Solutions, sat down with WBFO’s Emyle Watkins for an interview before one of his classes at UB. On today’s Disabilities Beat, we share part of that interview, but you can hear the full interview on What’s Next? and using the player below.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: Yoga is often used to help people connect their body and mind using stretches, physical exercise, breathing and meditation. Adaptive yoga is modified so that anyone, with or without a disability, can do the physical part of yoga. Adaptive yoga often is done in a chair.

Matthew Sanford has been practicing yoga for 33 years. He started a non-profit called Mind Body Solutions which provides free online adaptive yoga classes and other resources to people with disabilities, caregivers, healthcare professionals, and other people.

In April, the University at Buffalo invited Matthew to come to the university for a few days to train people on how he teaches yoga. Matthew also gave talks on what he's learned through practicing yoga about connecting our bodies to our minds and becoming more resilient.

While Matthew was in town, WBFO's Disabilities Beat Reporter Emyle Watkins sat down with him for an interview before one of his classes. They talked for an hour about grief, resilience, adaptive yoga, and the wisdom people with disabilities have.

At the top of the page, you can listen to eight minutes from the interview, or if you click below you can listen to the full hour long interview. There is also a transcript of the eight minute section of the interview below. This interview also aired on What's Next? WBFO's daily talk show.


WBFO's Emyle Watkins interviews adaptive yoga teacher Matthew Sanford


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I'm Emyle Watkins, and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat.

In April, the University at Buffalo hosted adaptive yoga teacher Matthew Sanford to not only train yoga teachers and medical professionals, but to educate the community on how to develop body-to-mind resilience. Sanford, who's also an author and founded the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, sat down with me for an interview before one of his classes at UB.

On today's Disabilities Beat, I want to share part of that interview that has continued to stick with me, but I hope you'll tune in to What's Next? at 10 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. to hear the full interview. We've also got the interview on our website at wbfo.org.

Here's part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Sanford: I am 58 now, so I've been doing this a long time. I feel like a grizzled veteran at this point, practicing for 33 years. But I was injured in a car accident when I was 13. My father and sister were killed. My mother and brother weren't physically hurt, and I went through a shudder. I broke my neck and my back, both my wrists, filled a lung with fluid and had an injury to my pancreas that left me unable to eat for 60 days. I was in a coma. I woke out of... We were just traveling on... We hit an icy patch on a day that was misty, and so the unthinkable happened to my family, right. I woke up from that and the medical model... They saved my life. I was so injured, right? I was in the hospital for six months. Can you imagine what that would be now? I can't even imagine. No one would pay for that, right?

But basically the rehabilitation vision that I encountered was to... basically I'm paralyzed from... The injury that sustained and hurt my spinal cord was at T-4, so above my chest, and basically I was guided to make my upper body really strong and learn to drag my paralyzed body through life, which is kind of a cultural meme of disability. You're supposed to overcome it, like it's an obstacle, but the truth is it's the only body you're ever going to have, right? And I was a very athletic young boy and I missed my body, and I did what I was supposed to do.

I did... I stopped listening to my lower body, learned to manage my life, but I missed my body, and I was in graduate school at the time and studying philosophy and the mind-body problem, duh. I didn't even know I was thinking about myself, and I just decided it was time for me to try to re-inhabit my body, and I thought what better way to do that than a time-tested practice that's about integrating mind and body and whatever people want to call spirit.

Emyle Watkins: If it's okay, I want to ask you about that experience of grief. I mean, you woke up and your whole life had changed. How do you come to terms with that, and what was that experience of grief like?

Matthew Sanford: Well, the one thing about the experience of disability is that it's ongoing. I sometimes joke and say it takes 10 years to realize you're disabled, and so it's a slower process. You wake up... And I'm also focused on losing my father and sister because they were also killed in the accident, so I've got a whole bunch of grief, and yet I'm a young kid and I've got my whole life in front of me, and it takes wisdom to know how to process grief.

So I was more, in the early days, thinking about trying to get back to my life, trying to prove to everybody I could do my life despite being disabled, right? And be involved in school and be involved in other things, right. So early on, I would say, I tried to plug back in, kind of like what you do.

The thing about grief is that it's an ongoing process, and even now I'm going through new levels of grief at 58. I'm aging with a spinal cord injury, and now I'm realizing some of the full implications and how hard it is now as my body also ages.

So, in terms of jumping back into my life, at first I wanted to prove that I was okay, and then part of coming to yoga was I started to really grieve at 25. I missed my body. Coming back alive after you've abandoned your body is full of grief, because there's nothing more painful... It's a great line from Toni Morrison's Beloved, right? "There's nothing more painful than coming alive from the dead." And in some ways I left my body behind, like I could never be on the inside of my paralyzed body, and that's just not true. But coming back to life, a process that's beautiful and whatever, it has to have grief.

One of the things that I think about grief is that it's a precondition of realization. It's a stunning human innovation, right? It's like the watering of dry soil, and I love that actually you drop tears from your eyes, right. You're watering again to land in what's true and what's been lost and figuring out how to come back and move forward.

So grieving, the one thing I would say from how much I've been through, and I've been through a lot, right, it's not just that injury, is that I'm not afraid of grieving. I now recognize that it's part of the process of becoming, and that doesn't mean I like it, but I'm not afraid of tears. I'm not afraid that I'm weepy. I'm really sensitive. It's okay, right, and I want the world to be a better place, all of those things, but I want to come at it from a sense of my own vulnerability, and grieving is vulnerable. We try to avoid grief and we shouldn't. It's how we become.

So yes, it was hard to plug back into my life, right? And I still... Like right now, as you come towards retirement, I'd love to travel all the time, but my body's worn out. I'd like to see more of the world, and then there's a whole bunch of experiences I'm not going to get, and that's always been true when you live with a disability, right? You're always, "I'm not going to go to the upstairs of your house, even if you invited me. If you have a really cool deck, I'm not going there." I accept certain things. They're still losses. I can't pretend they're not losses. This is not the body I wanted, right? But boy, I wouldn't trade it. I've had quite a life.

Emyle Watkins: Talk to me about that. You wouldn't trade it. I can understand, but I think a lot of people, when you talk to them and say, "I wouldn't trade my life as a disabled person," it shocks them because they think disability is the worst thing that can happen.

Matthew Sanford: Right, and that's from their perspective. Obviously I'd trade if my father and sister could be alive and have a full life so there's clearly... you know, I'd go back and trade.

Emyle Watkins: Absolutely.

Matthew Sanford: I remember the moment when I realized this. It was when, really deeply, there was a moment where... I've always talked about what it is to be disabled, and I was just first practicing yoga and I was a couple years into it, and I was teaching to a bunch of first graders, seven-year olds. There's nothing more beautifully innocent than young kids, because they just ask the most beautiful questions and they're very direct, right, and I'm saying all these things about yoga and all I can still do, and then this little kid comes up to me and says, "But... but... don't you miss walking?" And it was beautiful, and the answer is, "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like to go on a hike. I'd like to do all that," and I said to him, and I could say it, and that only came after yoga, "I wouldn't trade what I'm becoming. This is the only life I get to have," right?

I can't imagine... I never would've been a yoga teacher, I can tell you that for sure. I wouldn't become a philosopher of consciousness and writing a book on the limits of minds and the importance of body, right? I wouldn't do any of that, right, if I hadn't had the one life I get, right, so I don't want to try to overcome my life and prove anything to anybody, but that means I have to be okay with the losses too, and that's a process, and it's a change.

Emyle Watkins: You can listen to the Disabilities Beat on demand, view a transcript and plain language description for every episode on our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins. Thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.