Renowned yoga instructor Matthew Sanford spun his wheelchair deftly around to face the yogis enrolled in his eight-hour intensive Thursday at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center, a prelude to his keynote address at the center’s Accessible Yoga Conference this weekend. “It turns out one existential truth is that you are rising and falling, falling and rising every day,” he advised.
Sanford’s memoir Waking details his long path to healing after he was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident that killed his father and sister. The heartbreaking story culminates in Sanford’s discovery of yoga as a powerful tool for mental and physical healing, and his resolve to practice despite any physical barrier. Yoga offered newfound bodily connections that began to make his broken body feel whole. “Hearts are transcendent,” he writes of his emotional journey. “They do not break, minds do.”
About an hour into the class, Sanford had an assistant place a folding chair in the center of the room, where students quickly gathered to watch the demonstration. His eyes scanned the room in search of a puppet to perform the exercise. That’s me he’s pointing to, I realized. Suddenly I regretted my minutes-earlier admission to practicing yoga before — that’s what I get for trying to take my notes in tree pose, I guess.
I scrambled over in my sundress and flash-preventative bike shorts to sit in the chair. Sanford wheeled up behind me and asked that I simply keep my feet flat on the ground and extend my arms above my head. Once I had done so, he held my wrists gently and advised that I open my wrists and palms. He asked if my muscles felt relief from the support he offered; I said yes. “Draw extension from that relief,” he told me. I stretched from my spine to reach my arm and oblique muscles longer, keeping my feet and rear firmly rooted. The sensation of “rising and falling” that Sanford had described rushed warmly from my center to the tips of my fingers and toes.
More than bodily expansion, though, I felt exertion. The total mind-body consciousness Sanford teaches through his practice certainly requires effort, though not intact physical ability. One intensive student, Ryan, struggles with cerebral palsy. Sanford asked him to demonstrate the walk he had cultivated over the years to accommodate his disability. “Figure out the problems that are being solved by his movement,” he told the class, saying that to call Ryan’s steps “unbalanced” would be shortsighted. Rather, Sanford argued, the unconventional gait creates “conditions of safety” for his unique body alignment.
He then asked Ryan to stand with a rectangular block between his feet, the inside edge of each foot flattened along either side of the block. The seemingly simple exercise in fact strained Ryan’s actively extended muscles as it worked to adjust the alignment of his right leg, which rotates outward a bit more than his left. “The principles of yoga do not discriminate,” Sanford told the class. “Poses do.”
In 1978, Sanford became paralyzed at age 13 after his father’s car hit a patch of ice that sent it flying into an adjacent overpass. His mother and brother, the only other survivors, sustained only minor injuries, but Sanford’s rendered him unconscious for three and a half days, not to mention subsequent years of hospital care and physical rehabilitation. After 12 years of psychological disconnect from a new physique, his mind and body were reintroduced when a mentor taught his first basic yoga pose. According to Sanford’s memoir, he discovered that sensations he thought to be long dormant “had been waiting in the silence, waiting for me to let them back into my conscious experience.”
Above all, Sanford recommends simple poses in accessible classes, with careful observation by the instructor to determine where individual adjustments in alignment should be made. Though the poses may be straightforward, they should require effort if the student employs focused mind-body awareness to expand further in his or her muscles. Sanford jokingly admonished the students for “cheating” in their pose expression. “You get the outer success of the pose, and then you stop working,” he said. The real success, according to Sanford’s philosophy, comes from the focused energy exerted during a given pose, as well as focused awareness of the space around it.
Jivana Heyman, who co-owns the yoga center, has taught his own accessible practice for over 20 years but realized after his move to Santa Barbara two years ago that no support network currently exists for adaptive instructors like himself. Hence the first-ever conference was born, and has since sold out all 125 available tickets and generated a waiting list. Grant money also allowed Heyman and his team to issue full scholarships to 27 attendees.
Though the conference is sold out, Heyman encourages students of all abilities to try the accessible yoga classes offered weekly at his studio. Rather than devising standard modifications for all students, “the main thing that has to be changed is actually the perception of yoga,” he said. Like Sanford, he believes most practices can easily be modified to accommodate all needs. “I think generally people come to yoga because they have a problem,” he said, and whether that problem is physical, emotional, or spiritual, all should feel welcome. In Waking, Sanford frames a similar sentiment within the context of his own yogic realization, noting that after 12 years of paralysis “this simple action began to release me from the grip of a limiting healing vision.”
The Accessible Yoga Conference will take place from this Saturday, Sept. 12 at 9 a.m. until Sunday, Sept. 13 at 5 p.m. For more information, visit accessibleyoga.org.