Yoga & Wheelchairs

Matthew Sanford

Sanford teaching a student

Today it’s not surprising to see people in wheelchairs playing basketball, softball and even soccer. For years people who use wheelchairs have been defying the stereotype that they can’t do what everyone else can and are proving it by playing a host of sports while using their wheelchairs. However, the practice of yoga, a form of exercise that involves stretching, bending and posing, seemed to be out of reach for wheelchair users. That is until yoga teacher Matthew Sanford founded the national nonprofit organization Mind-Body Solutions that helps people “transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body”.

Sanford was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of 13 in a car accident but he didn’t let that stop him from living life on his terms. Today Sanford teaches yoga to people of all abilities and exploring what’s universal to each yoga pose and recreating it for people who use wheelchairs. Obviously someone in a wheelchair is limited in the movements they can do but Sanford and other yoga instructors believe that the principles of yoga do not discriminate and rather than focus on specific poses, they choose to pay closer attention to the sensations related to yoga including the sensation of feeling grounded, feeling balanced and a sensation of rhythm.

Living vibrantly in your own body is the goal of yoga and Sanford doesn’t see any reason why someone using a wheelchair shouldn’t be able to experience the same sensations, even if they are limited in the poses they can achieve. “There’s such a spectrum of mobility for people sitting in wheelchairs,” Sanford told the US News & World Report recently, “There’s no one size fits all in how you teach it.” Sanford admits that starting out can be daunting and that someone in a wheelchair needs to do some research to find the right teacher who will work with them in finding the exercises that will break down specific poses so the student can explore what’s universal in each yoga pose.

“If you start thinking about what the yoga poses are teaching you and what’s universal,” Sanford went on to say, “we can make yoga happen in almost every posture”. In addition to teaching yoga, Sanford is also an author and public speaker who use his time to teach both able-bodied people and people with disabilities how to pay closer attention to what their bodies are telling them through the sensations it feels. Bringing the mind-body spiritual practice of yoga to people in wheelchairs helps Sanford to teach the importance of improving one’s quality of living.

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