One of the beautiful things about yoga is that people of all abilities and health conditions are able to benefit from a regular, conscientious practice. Yoga instructor Matthew Sanford exemplifies this both in his practice and teaching. He leads his classes from a wheelchair, and several of his students come to class this way. Although his students come to yoga with different abilities than many yogis and yoginis, they leave class just as grateful and relaxed as anyone else.
Sanford was paralyzed from the waist down at age thirteen. He had been an athletic kid and tried to compensate for the loss of his legs by focusing on developing as much upper body strength as possible. Then he met a yoga teacher who helped him explore his mind-body connection. During class he realized: “I belong here. I can’t do the poses like everyone else but I can feel the wholeness that is at the core of the poses. That’s the true heart of yoga…the principles of yoga don’t discriminate, but the poses do.”
As a yoga teacher, he is now helping people of all abilities connect with this sense of wholeness in themselves. Trained in Iyengar yoga, he has developed creative uses of props, which allow him to focus on helping all of his students achieve precise alignment.
Some of his students are initially surprised to find their instructor is in a wheel chair, but quickly forget as the class progresses. Those without the use of their legs report feeling amazed at the sense of stability and balance they feel during class. Some also find they feel more sensation and connection to their legs. Although yoga doesn’t fix their paralysis, it does help them feel connected to their body in a new way.
Sanford and his students are both an inspiration and a reminder that yoga does not discriminate. Flexibility and ability are not prerequisites. If you are willing to try, you can benefit from practicing. It’s not about achieving peace in Adho Mukha Shvanasana, but about finding that place of peace within your self.