I love being a student. It invigorates and deepens my practice. This fall I studied adaptive yoga with Matthew Sanford at the Mind Body Solutions studio in Minneapolis. Matthew has sought healing in his own life and others after suffering a life-changing injury at the age of 13. A car accident stole the lives of his father and sister, spared his mother and brother, and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
As he shares in his memoir, Waking, and discussed during our weeklong teacher training, the trauma continued as well-intentioned medical professionals told him again and again what he could NOT do or feel in his body ever again. With an emphasis on developing strength and size in his upper body, the message he kept hearing was that his lower body was essentially dead, to be forgotten. Only with the guidance of a skilled Iyengar yoga teacher did Matthew cultivate inner awareness of sensation throughout his body and find purpose teaching others to do the same.
What did I learn as a teacher to bring to students with disabling conditions?
Offer an opportunity for them to be yoga students, not patients.
Sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix anything.
Invite the experience of the pose, not the appearance.
Help students reclaim rhythm in their movement, frequently lost with injury.
Teach grounding, using voice and props, as students have often lost their connection to the floor.
Guide the experience of expansion with lifted chest and spreading awareness into the limbs.
Practice balance not as a fixed achievement but a changing mind-body sensation.
And most importantly, teach from my own experience of practicing yoga. Bring that shared sense of wonder and connection that all human beings can explore in their own bodies.
Big ideas I am still mulling over? For Matthew prana, the life-giving force within the body and without, follows consciousness, which is the other side of the coin, as he likes to call it, from the idea that prana follows the breath. Fostering inner awareness is less a mental practice, i.e., observing the mind, than a body practice. The body teaches the mind, not the other way around. This pedagogical framework uses gravity, sense of direction, movement from core to periphery, and precise alignment as mind-centering.
In sum, he invites all to understand the limits of knowledge and venture into the unknown, in his words, “cultivating a happening” in the body. Experiencing the subtle body, i.e., the inner awareness, that resists explanation and scientific certainty, can be fleeting but profound. The subtle body is no less real although it may require time, practice and patience to access.