Taking My Arms High

Matthew SanfordYou know the story — or maybe you don’t.

As a 13-year-old kid, Matthew Sanford was in a car accident that killed his mother and sister and injured him at T4. Later in life, a yoga instructor taught him to “take his legs wide” and he realized it had been 12 years since he’d done that [See “Taking My Legs Wide,” May 2009]. The emotions and sensations that he felt surprised him. In 2001 he started Mind Body Solutions to teach people with disabilities the principles of yoga.

Sanford, now 45, teaches his adapted yoga to instructors from all over the country so they can in turn teach their clients with disabilities.

With the release of his new DVD, Beyond Disability: A Yoga Practice with Matthew Sanford, anybody with a disability or mobility impairment — including high-level quadriplegia — can now learn yoga without leaving their chair.  As someone with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, I was excited to check out this DVD. Earlier, in 2009, I visited the rehab center in Minneapolis where Sanford teaches his class and got a taste of his practice. I’ve wanted to do yoga for a long time, but my condition prevents me from being able to get down on the floor or perform many exercises. I hoped this video would allow me to practice in my power chair in the comfort of my home, which is perfect for me.

I received Sanford’s new DVD and quickly put off viewing it. I didn’t want to be disappointed to learn that it was yet another inapplicable promise of a healthy alternative to help me keep my body flexible. After reading and re-reading the press release that came with the DVD, I finally popped it in my player and began breathing and relaxing with Matthew and three students, all with varying types and degrees of disability.

I could relate to each student in some way: Like Tiffiny (Carlson, who writes SCI Life for this magazine) and Kevin, I cannot lift my legs. But I can feel them, like Jeff, who has a traumatic brain injury and is able to walk. Yet, like Jeff, I am unable to lift my arms above my head and need assistance, as does Tiffiny. I could watch all three students and follow what they were doing, depending on the movement.

Seeing how a yoga assistant moved Tiffiny’s arms and legs is a huge bonus for me. This allows my husband or PCA to watch the assistant and learn how to properly guide my arms or legs. My assistants also can benefit from the practice — as it teaches yoga that anybody can use.

Sanford says his goal is to help us learn to live more fully in our body. He does this by showing four basic core sensations we should get out of yoga practice. Sanford made this first DVD to reach the widest range audience as possible.

“I would love to have done a video with me on the mat, but there’s a lot of people who can’t get down and back up from a mat, so that’s a segmented market,” he says. “This video is going to show you how to live more vibrantly in your body and show you what you can get out of yoga practice that can help you every day.”

The end of the video shows the students doing more poses, and it left me wanting more. Sanford says his reason for showing this was exactly that, to show you there is more, but he urges that he doesn’t want people getting hurt. For one thing, someone who has quadriplegia may not be able to do poses the same as someone who has polio.

“You need to get that inner awareness developed before you can start doing more complicated stuff,” he says.

The video was made possible with funding from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, and the Elizabeth Sarquis Family Foundation. Toy Box Entertainment, which creates movie trailers for major movie studios, donated their time to edit the high-quality video.

By using three cameras to shoot the footage, it feels as if you are in the yoga studio with the other students. You’re able to see each movement close-up to help you understand each pose. Sanford is hoping to get funding to create more videos that will show more specific and in-depth poses for specific abilities.

Four Cores of Mind Body
There are four cores of Sanford’s practice featured in this video, which will help you to fully participate in yoga.

Matthew Sanford and Kevin Bjorkland demonstrate how Bjorkland, a high para, can connect with his spine despite lack of balance.

Matthew Sanford and Kevin Bjorkland demonstrate how Bjorkland, a high para, can connect with his spine despite lack of balance.

“Those are balance, expansion, rhythm and grounding, and they don’t require complicated poses,” Sanford says. “As you get better at these, you can start increasing the complexity of the poses.”

Sanford explains that the video is not a cardiovascular workout, but rather a “mind/body” practice — and a way for us to better connect with our selves.” He wants us to learn these four sensations so we can use them in our everyday lives.  He assures that they will help with transferring, ease the wear and tear on our shoulders and allow us to live in our whole body.

At the beginning and end of the video we hear the students, their stories and how practicing Sanford’s mind/body yoga has helped them. Jeff, who became paralyzed in a tractor accident at 3 years old, says that when he began Sanford’s practice, he realized that he had ignored his body for 40 years. As Sanford explains, people with disabilities are trained to overcome their bodies. His goal is to help us learn to use our bodies in ways we never thought— or were told — we could.

The video has five sections, including the four cores of Sanford’s mind/body practice, between which Sanford helps us to understand the four cores and how and why they work. At first, I thought of his explanations as only information gathering, and it distracted me when I was between segments. I mentioned this to Sanford, and now I understand that it is as much a part of the process as is the centering, stretching or balance.

Introduction: Seated Centering
Here we learn seated centering to “feel the depth in your mind/body relationship.” It’s this mind/body relationship upon which Sanford bases his practice. This section is all about posture, grounding and bringing yourself into the room to prepare your mind to do yoga. It is the core sensation that guides your yoga practice.

Core One: Grounding and Expansion
Accomplishing expansion is crucial throughout our yoga practice, according to Sanford. He instructs how to move energy through our spine and demonstrates how to feel connectedness by placing one hand flat on a table and pushing down with the other to feel a connectedness while feeling floods through our fingertips.

This section is where we stretch our arms above our heads and at 90-degree angles. I am only able to raise my arms to about shoulder level, so I need help to accomplish this. Watching Tiffiny’s assistant helped me to do this.

“Just by moving your arms and holding them high,” Sanford says, “you’ll feel like you just worked out.”

And you do. I felt a bit of exertion like I had just climbed a flight of stairs. It was so good to feel this again! Granted, it was on a minute scale, but I feel confident that after a few months with this video, I will not only feel the results but also see them.

Core Two: Balance and Expansion
Sanford explains that without balance we cannot truly expand, and our condition of safety is violated. Balance is the equal distribution of presence throughout and around our body.

In this segment you need a chair or table in front of you to raise and place each leg on, one at a time. Sanford instructs us to always choose balance over exertion and gives us tips and teaches ways to get and maintain balance.

Watching how Sanford positioned SCI Life writer Tiffiny Carlson gave the author ideas on how her husband or PCA can work with her.

Watching how Sanford positioned SCI Life writer Tiffiny Carlson gave the author ideas on how her husband or PCA can work with her.

Being overzealous and wanting fast results, I pulled two muscles in my back on the first day doing one of the stretches in this segment. It was three more days before I could practice again.

While watching the students twist their torsos, rather than taking it gentle and slow, I totally got caught up in the movement. I stretched my leg on the chair this way and twisted my torso that way, stretching my back while holding my breath. I felt something right away and realized, as Sanford warned, that I’d chosen exertion over balance.

When I told Sanford I did this, he said that this was exactly why he designed the program and DVD the way he did.

“This is actually taxing, though you’re not lifting weights,” he says. “Make sure you don’t overdo it and as you work, your breathing will get more even. I guarantee you that when you pulled your muscle, you were holding your breath.”

And I can guarantee you he’s right. Breathing while exercising has always been a problem for me. Before FSHMD reared its head, I worked out by weightlifting and running stairs. One of the facility trainers where I worked out noticed how exerted I would become and taught me how to breathe. I have settled back into my old ways because during my first practice with my DVD, I remember thinking, “Damn! I’m holding my breath and he’s saying, inhale!”

Core Three: Rhythm and Movement
Rhythm and movement, as Sanford explains it, “is a way to expand into the world to give ease and grace and fluidity to your movements. Rather than hard action, we should allow movement, breathing and expansion to happen in a fluid movement.”

You do notice the difference from the first two cores to this one; the moves are so much more graceful and gentle. Again, as did Tiffiny, I needed help to move, but it is less stretching and almost more emotional.

Core Four: Balanced Relaxation
As we begin yoga with eyes closed, deeply breathing and feeling ourselves in the room, so, too, does it end. With our arms in a neutral position — by our side or in our lap (if you can, get down on the ground) — Sanford gently talks us through the process of, as I call it, coming back to reality.

I admit, there have been a few times during the past few weeks of practicing this — and I’m sure there will be more — where I just wanted to end practice and move on to the work and tasks awaiting. I do the same when I workout in a pool. Some days, I hurry through my exercises so I can get into the whirlpool and relax … then I can’t wait to get out of the whirlpool and get dressed to hurry home. It’s this impatience that Sanford says his practice is in a way asking us to address.

“If I taught this to someone who is nondisabled, they would not be able to hang with it, it’s too hard for them and their patience would fail,” Sanford says. “A person with a disability has to learn yoga from the inside out. A person without a disability can learn over time from the outside in, but they may never get to the inside.”

Sanford says if we learn a little change at the core, it will change our being for the rest of our life.

“A little change at the hub of the wheel,” he says, “means a big change at the outer rim of the wheel.”

As wheelers, how can we deny this?

 

Beyond Disability: A Yoga Practice with Matthew SanfordBeyond Disability: A Yoga Practice with Matthew Sanford, includes optional subtitles for those with hearing impairment. The length is 56 minutes and the cost is $24.95 plus shipping.For more information or to purchase the DVD online, contact Mind Body Solutions, 952/473-3700; www.mindbodysolutions.org, or order through Amazon.com.

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