Matthew Sanford: Digging Into the Darkness and the Light


Gifted in his ability to communicate the subtle aspects of pain and existence, Matthew Sanford, author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, has been investigating the mind-body relationship since becoming paralyzed at age 13.

A teacher of yoga specializing in adapting it for people living with disabilities, he is also the founder of the non-profit organization Mind Body Solutions, and a nationally recognized speaker and trainer on the subject.

He has presented at hospitals like the Mayo Clinic as well as large corporations. Sanford has also emerged as a leading voice in the integrated health movement, and was the winner of the 2010 Pioneer of Integrative Medicine Award from the California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing.

I sat down with him recently to learn about the book he is currently working on, how he sees the Western medical model shifting, and his thoughts on trauma-informed teaching.

Tell us about the book you're working on now.  The working title is Waking Again. I share my adult story of seeking.

I share what living with trauma, paralysis, and yoga reveals about the human metaphysic—about being alive, alone, and intimately connected to a much larger existence. The narrative follows deep personal experiences that have revealed insights about non-violence, compassion, and the tangible and the intangible nature of consciousness and its relationship to the realization of unity.

I share what living with trauma, paralysis, and yoga reveals about the human metaphysic—about being alive, alone, and intimately connected to a much larger existence.

Waking Again is also a story of healing—the recognition that yoga and healing do not only bring you into the light; they bring you to a wider spectrum of truth, both light and dark, and thus create an opportunity for self-realization.

How does “the dark” help one to heal? Over time, yoga makes you more aware of the good and the bad, of relief and of suffering.

In the new book I talk about where I struggled. The process of transformation is arduous, and healing is messy. When I was first doing yoga I would have profound realizations while working with my teacher, and I would also have incredible swings, self-destructive feelings, when I wasn’t around her (we lived in different cities).

I had to learn to direct my darkness into action.

Things don’t always get better; doubting and self-loathing are part of the energy of self-realization. When you have a breakthrough in healing it’s because there was darkness in it too. And as a yoga teacher, if you just teach the bliss part, you’re going to run afoul.

The trappings of just teaching that yoga makes you feel better is a problem. You’re not being truthful if that’s what you’re doing. Life is complicated. Anusara is one example of a yoga that wasn’t grounded in the fundamentals of suffering, and hence it went off track.

Since 2006, when your first book was published, has the Western medical model of healing changed? It’s changing; there has been progress.

There is general cultural awareness and more openness to integrated health modalities. There’s more recognition that the physical and molecular interventions that the medical model is so good at has limitations for certain medical conditions. Things like palliative care and chronic pain care are changing; conditions like back pain and eating disorders—places where the model is not getting great results because it isn’t supple enough to promote maximal healing—are changing.

The fact that I’m being asked to speak more and doing trainings in health care is a sign that the environment for this message is more receptive, but it’s still on the periphery and in its infancy.

The problem is medicalizing alternative modalities and holding them up to the same standard of research. A more holistic approach where there’s better patient-caregiver dynamics is going to lead to better outcomes. Our overall philosophical approach to care needs to shift.

With so many choices and the changing landscape of health insurance, it’s essential that we educate and advocate for ourselves in terms of our health care. How do you think about and approach your health care? I want a doctor who will collaborate with me and is really going to think with me and to listen to me. I know things from 35 years of being a paraplegic that they don’t know. I don’t need a doctor who thinks like me—he or she is the expert—but I want them to be a companion in my health care.

Tell us about the experience of being perceived as “other,” what it has meant in your life, and what it means to us now in American culture. Being perceived as “other” is not something one can strive to overcome. Our culture projects meaning and judgment—both positive and negative—upon people who are different.

I have learned that the more I am connected to my own body, my own boundary, the less I am negatively affected by the judgment of others.

I have found it essential to know “who” and “what” I am from inside to out and to be comfortable with that. The real suffering occurs when self-knowledge occurs from the outside in. Or in other words, when one tries to define oneself in relationship to the judgment of others. Know your own feet and start walking from there.

And once we know our own feet, we can ostensibly be more sensitive to others. What are your thoughts on when it’s appropriate to use trauma-informed language when teaching yoga? Of course, it depends on the context. It’s always appropriate if that is what you are comfortable with, but I think it is important to ask yourself what your motivations are in using such language. Creating a safe environment is not simply achieved through proper language. It is a much deeper sensation than that.

In my opinion, more than what you say, it matters how you say it. There is an irreducible willful component to doing a yoga pose; a pose needs to have clean, crisp edges for its inner dimension to truly “unify” with the space around it. Ask yourself, did your teacher “invite” you to do poses? If he or she had, would you have realized the same level of inner resilience? It is paramount that students feel safe in order to truly learn, but not at the cost of losing an important aspect of their teacher. A teacher must lead, not simply invite.

My advice is to explore all the different ways to create a safe environment; don’t just lead with language. Ultimately, a teacher has to reconcile that they won’t reach everyone. At the end of the day, teaching is being with people. Be kind, don’t humiliate people, and respect your students, but don’t be afraid. Be fearless when you need to be fearless. The question isn’t whether or not you’re going to make mistakes; you’re going to. So the question is how you’re going to handle it when you do. When I make a mistake, I show up and listen.

About the Teacher

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Kathleen Kraft
Kathleen Kraft is an editor, writer, and yoga teacher at Yoga International. Her chapbook, Fairview Road,... Read more