I love the random ways that people can enter our lives.
Matthew Sanford’s name first reached my ears as I cooked dinner in a pop-up kitchen in Kathmandu. I’d found an American podcast channel on the enthusiastic recommendation of a Kiwi friend. The first episode I listened to was an interview with Matthew.
I couldn’t really hear properly because of the bubbling and hissing of pans so I went to sit on a cushion on the floor, resting my tired head on the low table as I listened to a perspective that eventually had me sitting up, eyes wide and a silent yes of recognition resounding through me.
Matthew related his story of extreme loss and trauma. He was just 13 when a car accident left him paralysed from the chest down. His father and sister were killed in the crash. His childhood was over in an instant.
He struggled with the medical world’s conception of disability and the general world view of how we relate to our bodies. Because of my own experiences with CFS/ME, his words really resonated.
“Dominance over body is what human beings have done for thousands of years. Whether it be nature, whether it be each other. That’s one thing we want in the tool belt. To use will when you need to have it. But we are just at the beginning of realising that there are many other ways to integrate with body. I believe our human survival over time is going to depend on us getting much more subtly aware of our bodies.”
Matthew Sanford, On Being interview
I bought his book, ‘Waking: a memoir of trauma and transcendence’, the next day and highlighted like a lunatic, until almost the entire book was highlighted.
What really struck me about the book was that he wasn’t simply trying to survive his situation, or even trying to overcome it, he was oriented to fully inhabiting it and therefore transcending it.
Matthew is an Iyengar yoga teacher and I’d recently started to practice Iyengar yoga, finding a lot of intelligence and insight in the practice.
Pieces of the puzzle were clicking into place so I stayed in Kathmandu a while, practising with a terse but insightful Iyengar yoga teacher and re-reading Matthew’s book. It was the perfect reintegration after vipassana (vipassana blog post coming soon).
Joining a yoga workshop
Fast-forward four years and I discovered that Matthew would be in London, teaching a workshop at triyoga in Soho. I looked at the website many times before booking. I felt like it might be too pretentious, too challenging, too expensive, or worst of all, that it might be just a bit disappointing.
I arrived in London on a Friday, emerging from the tube to be engulfed by the heaving wave of humanity on Oxford Street. The perpetual pace of the pedestrians carried me along like an insistent current in an ocean of oversized shopping bags.
I enjoyed the buzz of this alien world but rather than be swept into the shops I was glad to take a side street to the yoga school – the road less travelled and all that.
What’s your story?
That first evening I attended a talk and Q&A session. The description read:
What’s your story? Stories are integral to our everyday lives. They are also fundamental to our humanity and powerful agents of transformation. Whether compromised by the heart, a limb, a person, or a promise, our stories help us fit into an ever-changing world. Join renowned author and storyteller Matthew Sanford and explore the power of story to heal our lives.
Matthew started by mocking us for being there. “So what’s wrong with you guys? Why would you be at a yoga talk on Friday night and not at the bar? You’re the weird ones, huh, well I gotta confess I kinda like the weird ones.”
He wheeled about the room with a playful confidence, exuding warmth and a cheeky sense of humour that made him right at home in the UK.
He talked about his own story briefly, commenting that he’d once felt a real resistance to doing so. He didn’t feel the personal need to tell his story. But at the same time he felt it was important – necessary even, afterall, “It’s not knowledge that shifts consciousness but stories”.
That’s certainly true in my experience. Stories create an emotional reaction. They move us – literally, as emotions swell up creating patterns of reaction in the body’s complex chemical and electrical networks. And the body and mind pay far more attention to information that carries an emotional charge. It’s how we’ve managed to survive this long.
Matthew shared something he had observed in his years of teaching people with PTSD: “People who suffer from the worst PTSD have stories that don’t change. The key is to let the story change and grow and be part of what sets you free”.
This ability to change is something most of us struggle with. We need our stories and the boundaries they contain to make sense of the world. They are the framework of our existence – the scaffolding that allows us to be and to climb. But if it becomes too rigid, it can restrict us to the point that we can’t move or grow.
Turns out that this interplay between boundaries and expansion is something the body knows all about. We were to spend the next two days practising asana – an intensive twelve hours of tapping our bodies for insights.
Matthew opened the morning class by telling us he’s interested in what asana reveals about being alive. He manages to make grandiose statements like this and completely get away with it. This is because he is down-to-earth and he genuinely means it.
We started by sitting in sukasana also known as ‘easy pose’ – the perfect proof that English translations of Sanskrit words are not to be trusted.
“Don’t steal energy from your legs” Matthew advised and I noticed that I was indeed stealing energy from my legs.
It’s easily done when you are creating an uplift through the chest and front body (that’s an oversimplification, don’t shout at me Iyengar teachers), trying too hard from the wrong places, sabotaging the grounding in the lower body and throwing off the energetic balance.
Energy doesn’t know whether it’s meant to be rising or falling and easy pose can easily become effort-strain-let-this-be-over pose or alternatively giving in to the grounding and slumping it out until the teacher looks.
Of course I’ve felt, thought and heard this before. It’s packaged succinctly in the instruction to ‘ground to rise’ but the unique phrasing hits my ears afresh and the idea of ‘stealing’ energy makes me smile. It’s the perfect description of the problem.
There are plenty of moments like this in a yoga class with Matthew. He is a storyteller after all. He wraps language around experience that gets you to come at it from another perspective – that perspective is invariably an interior and subtle one that manages to bypass the brain’s ‘yes I already know this, thank you’ barrier to experience.
Precision, alignment and adjustment
Throughout the workshop there was a strong focus on precision, alignment and adjustment. But this wasn’t precision and alignment for the sake of making the ‘right’ pose. It was to make sure that the outer body was working to support and allow the experience of the inner body so that the actual yoga could happen.
Of course any good yoga class has this focus, but it’s easy for it to slip and for the external to steal the show. Not so in Matthew’s classes – they are a natural extension of his day-to-day experience, which is one of deeply inhabiting his body.
The adjustments also honoured the inner body by being subtle, minimal and done without leverage. Matthew adapted adjustments out of necessity but found that there was more intelligence in the body than we give it credit for. He noticed how well the spine responded to touch; how energy could be moved by attention – touch being the easiest way to generate attention.
He gave us a glimpse of this in urdva hastasana. We stood with our arms above our heads for a minute or so, then our partner very lightly held our wrist bones – just touching them, not taking any weight. The difference was noticeable, my arms were lighter and there was more ease in the whole pose.
He got us to repeat the pose ourselves, this time putting our attention up and out of our hands. The benefit was still there. Instead of excessive muscular action, there was a quiet but steady inner lift that supported the pose.
It was a clear demonstration of the effects of learning where and how to focus our attention. Of course, ideally, this is something that any student of yoga does. The focus becomes more refined as the student develops experience and the practice moves deeper. Sometimes though we get distracted and we focus on ‘further’ and ‘more’ instead of ‘deeper’.
He pointed out the madness of the mind and its focus on the external and obvious to comic effect “oh wow yeah, so you’re about to really embarrass yourselves with your tight hamstrings, what a bunch of losers”. He chucked this out there playfully, preempting the inevitable and bizarre way the mind manages to entirely miss the point and reduce yoga to an elaborate hamstring flexibility competition.
Reaching beyond the asana
Another focus for the workshop was the effects of reaching beyond the asana. We played with expansion of body and mind, but there was also a focus on developing strong boundaries. Matthew drew our attention to the paradox that strong boundaries are needed in order to expand beyond them. This bit of wisdom lit up my brain, not least for its application beyond the yoga mat.
“The body teaches the mind” remarked Matthew. In another class, said by another person, in another context, I probably would have skipped right past this comment, (yes, that’s true, very good, anyway where was I…) but the truth of this statement and the implications really got through to me.
I felt my orientation shift from its default position of wanting to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ my body in one way or another, to being open to learning from my body – releasing its inbuilt wisdom and inherent capacities through my practice. The difference can seem subtle but the energy behind those two approaches couldn’t be more different. The former can be a subtle self-violence that results in further severing the body-mind connection, the latter is integration of body-mind.
After dedicated work on the mat over the course of the workshop, I really felt the cumulative effects of this shifted perspective and inner focus. As ever, once I shifted my focus deeper, the external and the superficial took care of themselves.
In warrior 3 I experienced an ease and a lightness that made me feel both solidly on the ground and like I was floating in the air, supported by the space in and around me. It was a powerful experience of energy and form and for days and weeks after the workshop, insights percolated up into my mind. (More on that space exploration here.)
For me this is one of the reasons for doing intensive workshops like this – to experience something that is ordinarily beyond your reach and out of your awareness. Once you’ve peeked it (peaked it), the body and mind have gained a new understanding, a new experience. Once you know it’s there, it’s easier to be there again.
It’s like being guided up the mountain by a more experienced climber – one that can not only help you physically get there but can help you appreciate the climb, the topography, the scenery, orientating you to a wider understanding and deeper appreciation.
And this is what being taught by Matthew feels like. He is a guide that illuminates rather than dictates; allowing you to integrate, to elevate, to transcend your everyday awareness and experience, rather than simply trying to ‘fix’ what is. And yes, that might sound rather grandiose, but I mean it.
With gratitude to Matthew and the wonderful randomness with which great wisdom can cross our path,
Mind Body Solutions – Matthew’s not-for-profit: “At Mind Body Solutions, we do trainings to help yoga teachers figure out what’s universal to asana that you can teach any body. We also teach adaptive yoga classes to people living with all kinds of trauma, loss, and disability. Finally, we train health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, hospice workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists—just about everyone—on how to integrate mind/body principles into the delivery of health care. In addition, we want to show caregivers how to sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix it, and how to give and receive simultaneously. We want them to realize that these are not simply psychological insights. These also are mind-body skills that they need to master or they will suffer burnout.
Waking: A memoir of trauma and transcendence – Matthew’s book on Amazon.co.uk
On Being: The body’s grace – Krista Tippett interviews Matthew Sanford (podcast on Soundcloud)