By: Ryan McGraw
Matthew Sanford's yoga journey started when he was 25 years old. Unlike most yoga students or teachers, Matthew has paraplegia, resulting from a spinal cord injury he received during a car accident at age 13. For the first 12 years after the accident, Matthew says that he lived "the vision of rehabilitation," believing that he should ignore his body below the point of his spinal cord injury. Yoga allowed him to connect to the lower part of his body that was injured in the accident and also allowed him to regain a mind/body connection that was previously thought to be impossible.
Seven years after starting yoga, Matthew began teaching it. He wanted to share with others what he had learned as a yoga student. Matthew has valuable information to share with students of all abilities. At the core of his beliefs is the idea that yoga does not discriminate; thus, anyone can do yoga and receive its beneficial effects. According to Sanford, yoga is not the ability to do fancy yoga poses; the heart of yoga is "being able to work with integrity within the body you have, without attachment to the way that you think the pose should look." He uses the example that a person who can touch the floor in a Forward Fold is not doing better yoga than someone who cannot. Yoga is a personal experience that can be expressed differently depending on one's body.
|A group of people with and without disabilities engage in a yoga training.|
In 2008, Sanford created a 3-day workshop on Adapting Yoga for Disability for yoga teachers. This unique training is something that Sanford has pioneered, using his personal perspective as a student of yoga who has a disability. In the training, students get a chance to experience yoga and disability in a way that other trainings do not offer. Much of what is learned throughout the weekend is based upon the actual experiences of the students within the training. They are asked to look at their own yoga practices and find commonalities between their practices and the practices of their students with disabilities. Sanford's training emphasizes that learning to adapt yoga is a personal journey and an exercise in increasing one's knowledge of yoga. Other topics covered throughout the weekend include: learning to adapt whole categories of yoga poses such as standing as well as individual poses; the art of giving and receiving hands-on adjustment; and discussion on how to facilitate both group classes and one-on-one sessions.
The training emphasizes that the yoga teacher's goal should not be to 'fix' his or her students with disabilities, or any student, for that matter. Sanford explains, "We teach them how to be present in the presence of a difficult life without trying to change it." He adds, "Trainees are learning to teach yoga in a way that they are learning as much as their students." Matthew feels that he has learned more from teaching then he ever could have imagined. He explains, "You are not doing a 'good service' for someone with a disability, you are exploring movement together. That's an equal relationship."
Yoga teachers are not going to know everything and that is why Sanford's training focuses on keeping the yoga practice simple when working with a beginning student. Do some alignment-based poses, basic breathing, and start to build a simple foundation for yoga. Teachers should appreciate the level of vulnerability of students with a disability who share themselves in a yoga class. Anxiety and fear should never be part of a yoga session or class; instead, teachers should approach their students with disabilities with understanding and humanity.
Matthew wants yoga teachers to understand that if they work on a wider ability/disability continuum, it will improve their yoga teaching on all levels, and it will also improve them as persons. He believes that teaching people with disabilities will strengthen teachers' hearts. "It is a privilege to teach people with disabilities - an incredible gift. I promise any teacher that does this work that they will get more out of it than what they give," he says.
Matthew feels that it would be ideal to partner with another non-profit organization in hopes of reaching more teachers. He is exploring the possibility of offering a certification for the training. Matthew hopes that this is just the beginning of the training and that it will grow. He believes that the more teachers learn, teach, and become comfortable teaching people with disabilities, the better.
To read more about Matthew, go to (http://10.116.39.85http://www.ncpad.org/485/2369/SCI~-~Reconnecting~the~Body~and~Mind~with~Yoga).
For other NCHPAD resources on yoga, go to:
- Yoga for Individuals with Disabilities:
- Adapted Yoga for Children and Youth with Cerebral Palsy:
- Yoga in the Classroom: A New Kind of Education:
- Program Spotlight: San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute's Accessible Teacher Training: