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Reflections on Matthew Sanford yoga workshop and some initial concussion thoughts

March 20, 2011

How do you work from the mind if the mind isn’t working?

What if the mind is hurting?

This Friday and Saturday I had the great fortune to attend Matthew Sanford‘s workshops (Self Realization and the Asana) at Majestic Yoga. If you are not familiar with Matthew’s work:

Visionary Health Care Pioneer, Award-winning Author of his memoir Waking nationally recognized yoga teacher, Matthew’s inspirational story began at age thirteen when he survived a car accident that killed his father and sister and left him permanently paralyzed from the chest down. Today, he is a leading expert on practical mind-body transformations. In all contexts, his core message remains the same: deepening the connection between mind and body is more than a personal health strategy–it is the secret to living well, achieving success and finding purpose.

Matthew teaches Iyengar yoga, which is well-known for its precise and detailed cueing in asana (posture) practice.  As a paralyzed yogi, he has worked to distill and feel the essence of poses. For example, he has worked to find grounding in his spine, his legs, and his feet and how he can create that sensation.

Matthew’s organization, Mind Body Solutions works with caregivers and rehab professionals (e.g. doctors, nurses), offers adaptive yoga, and trains yoga teachers. From their website:

Our mission is to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body. We are redefining ability and disability and are a leader in adapting yoga for people living with disabilities. We offer adaptive yoga instruction in the Twin Cities area and train yoga teachers from across the country.

One of the populations Mind Body Solutions serves is students with head injuries. I was eager to hear Matthew’s take on working with students with cognitive disabilities vs. physical or mobility disabilities.

Matthew: “Are you interested in working with that [traumatic brain injury] population?”

Me: “I am that population.”

I have not spoken very publicly about this in this space, but I suffered a concussion several years ago. Brain injury is often invisible at first glance. My younger brother told my mother at the time: “a brain injury is a disability, but you can’t see it.”

It is due to this concussion (mild Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI for short) that yoga became so important in my life. I have used my yoga practice to rebuild my brain and balance my body. I know the techniques and tools I use in my experience but I wanted to hear about other yoga approaches to healing TBI.

Matthew’s response to my question was not very satisfying. He basically said that the work was the same–mind-body connection.

There are a number of reasons I wasn’t satisfied with his response, most of them have to do more with our interaction and my relationship with others around with my brain injury. Safe to say that our conversation hit up on some not so nice patterns for me.

After cooling down a bit, I grew more empathetic.

This weekend Matthew emphasized Truths. He talked about universal Truths in asana, such as the chest lifting, or the groins softening, or rooting down to rise up. He has searched to find these truths so he can experience Yoga. In this way, Matthew is a gifted teacher because he has a such a rich experience on which to draw. He can get you to feel these Truths.

My discussion with Matthew and its subsequent turmoil led me to articulate a Truth for myself. So for that I am grateful.

And of course, it is about the mind-body connection.

But Matthew’s experience with the mind-body connection will be inherently different from mine. On Friday, Matthew worked with yoga teachers in a mini-training about opening yoga to everyone, regardless of level of ability. Our first inclination is to think of students that have mobility disabilities or are hurt in the body. To address this, we practiced by working INTO the body FROM the mind.

I think what I failed to articulate in my question and subsequent interaction was that for cognitively disabled or challenged students, you confront a major problem with this approach. How do you work from the mind if the mind isn’t working? The mind is hurting.

But I found a resolution to this conflict, so to Matthew, this is how I understand it:

The mind and body are connected.

We work through the interplay of body and mind and loop around, playing back and forth between them. They are intertwined, but perhaps we start in different places.

For you, I see:

Your mind is impeccably intact (the philosopher in you is definitely cognitively sharp).

You are healing the body, the physical, THROUGH the mental connection.

You are making the physical whole again, perhaps more whole than it ever was.

You start with the mind. Of course, the mind was never perfect to begin with. So in the process, you learn about the mind, and heal it as well. However, you keep your compass directed towards your body.

In essence, FROM the mind TO the body, you are making the physical whole again.

For me, I see:

My mind is not intact. It hurts.

For me, I am healing the mental, the cognitive, THROUGH the body connection.

I am making my mind, my brain, whole again. It is not the same mind that it once was, but maybe, with attention and diligence and love, I can build a mind that is more whole than it once was.

I start with the body. Of course, my body was never perfect to begin with. So in the process, I’ve had to train and wake up my body and it’s intelligence, but that is not my goal.

In essence, FROM the body TO the mind, I am making the mind whole again.


So our methods are at the core similar, but our direction of approach is different. As such, my experience in yoga will be different from Matthews. And that is okay. I cannot expect him to truly understand my experience just as I can never truly understand his experience. But our goals are the same as we try to balance in the middle, whole. And we both can share from our experience of moving towards that wholeness in mind and body.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 10:33 pm

    I was there that Friday, since his class have you found some resolution…

  2. June 14, 2011 3:42 am

    Hi WHG! I think I remember you with your stylish mat!

    The idea of resolution is interesting. I would that since his class I have begun working more consciously, deliberately on how my mind habitually interacts with my body. First it’s just the process of observation. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, more work to break out of habits, disentangle those mental ruts/habits. A summer with time to myself might lead to wonders.
    thanks for finding me here -b

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