By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
Matthew Sanford is a yoga teacher and a paraplegic. In his memoir, Waking, Matt takes us on his journey of recovery from a car accident at the age of 13 to his discovery of the practice of yoga. Now in his 40s, he has been doing yoga for more than 20 years and has been certified by BKS Iyengar to teach yoga to people with and without injury. I have been to many Iyengar Yoga workshops, but my recent experience in a workshop with Matt Sanford was special.
For many people, the fact that Matt practices and teaches yoga might be shocking. The common impression of yoga is of a physically active practice for those who are able to “do” a lot of poses. The Iyengar Yoga tradition challenges this stereotype, teaching that yoga is for everybody. The real beauty of yoga lies not in the “doing,” but more in the “being.” In my years of practice and teaching, I have witnessed the possibilities of yoga for people with injury or ailment and have complete faith in the practice, but even having read Waking, I was still a bit skeptical. I had to experience Matt’s teaching for myself.
According to yoga, the body is composed of different layers (koshas), and at all of these layers we have energetic connection (prana). Prana is more subtle, but creates sensation whether we are paying attention or not. Most of us are just not aware enough to feel it. This awareness is what the practice of yoga can awaken within us. We do poses to work with and through the physical layer to get to the organic and emotional. The mind focuses inward and enables us to connect fully with our inner self on all levels. In many ways, because most of us have a working physical body, we are constantly distracted or stuck at the physical level, finding it difficult to go any deeper.
At an early stage of his rehabilitation, Matt felt a connection to his paralyzed legs. Because he was told they were “false” or “phantom,” and he was too young to trust his own experience, he ignored the sensations for many years. It was yoga that brought Matt the understanding of pranic energy and its sensation. His body, like all bodies, is merely a container for an individual energy that ultimately connects outward beyond physical limitations. In his practice of yoga, Matt is forced to connect on the deeper energetic level because his lower body is disconnected on the physical level.
But Matt’s story is not just his story. Reconnection at an energetic, sensation-based level has relevance to all of us. We are all disconnected from our self at some layer. Even though we are not paralyzed, we may not have full control or awareness of certain physical parts of our body. Even if we are physically fit, we may have no connection to our emotional, mental or energetic sensations. And if we have an injury, we may identify only with that injury, depriving ourselves of the benefit of connection to all the other layers of our being. The key to yoga is being aware of all our layers and working with them to their fullest, no matter what our individual situation may be. Yoga is about embodying our “whole” self, not just certain pieces.
I was inspired by Matt, not because of his ability to “overcome his injury” (he actually hates that idea), but by his depth and commitment to the practice of yoga. At his workshop, we did all the usual Iyengar Yoga work. But his perspective focused us toward more stability, more intensity and deeper awareness. I was amazed at his awareness of and connection to the parts of his body that Western medical science says are impossible to “feel.” He moves easily in and out of his chair to execute poses, finding balance not through muscle action, but energetic attention that surpasses his physical limitation.
But the best thing is that Matt is just a guy…not a guru, a saint or a “medical miracle”… just a guy who practices yoga. He has reaped the benefits of connecting to himself and the practice of yoga in a holistic way. His story is amazing, but we all have an amazing story. We just have to discover it, trust in it and embody it.
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit www.yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the Feb. 23-March 1, 2011, issue