Matthew Sanford: Heals on Wheels

I wrote this profile of yoga teacher, author, advocate and all-around amazing human being Matthew Sanford in 2009 for what is now Caregiving in America magazine. Matthew’s profoundly inspiring story is a must-read for anyone who has faced or is facing significant obstacles in life. In other words, it’s for everyone.


Matthew Sanford

Matthew Sanford

Matthew Sanford is an unstoppable force of nature, teaching, preaching, and reaching out to caregivers everywhere, urging them to wake up to the transformative power of the mind-body connection. “I’m working for a healthcare system, a rehabilitation process, where patients leave more connected with their body rather than less,” says Matthew, who lives in Orono with his wife and eight-year-old son.

Matthew is the author of Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, which recounts his recovery from a devastating car crash and his path back to wholeness through the practice of yoga. He now teaches weekly yoga classes at Mind Body Solutions Yoga, the Minnetonka studio operated by Mind Body Solutions, the 501(c)(3) charitable organization he founded in 2001. “Our mission,” he says, “is to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential by awakening the connection between mind and body.”

Matthew’s passion for helping others was fueled by his own awakening. Paralyzed from the chest down at thirteen, he lived life as a “floating upper torso” for twelve years, disconnected from the lower two-thirds of his body. “My caregivers’ well-intentioned message was that I could make my upper body really strong,” Matthew says, “and learn to drag my paralyzed body through life.”

That sense of disconnection ultimately drove Matthew to yoga at twenty-five. “I had been an athletic little kid and I really missed my body,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to be more present in my body.”

Going in with low expectations, he was not prepared for the emotional wallop he received. “In my first yoga lesson, I got on the floor, which was already a big deal,” he says. “But then I took my legs wide, in the shape of a V, and it was really emotional; my eyes welled up and I realized that I hadn’t had my legs wide in 12 years, because why would a paralyzed guy ever take his legs wide?”

That breakdown was a breakthrough. “Right away, I could feel a level of subtle sensation, the same sensations that doctors had told me years ago were phantom feelings,” he says. “And what was crazy is that when I put my legs and feet straight out in front of me, I could feel that level of sensation even more.”

Matthew was hooked. After eight years of intensive yoga training, it was time to share what he’d learned. “I just decided that I should start trying to give back,” he says. “So much within me was transforming and changing, and it was such a powerful thing. Yoga helped me accomplish some of the things I had been told I needed to do by doctors, nurses and other caregivers. But they hadn’t given me a way to do those things that actually engaged me at a deep enough level and was sustainable.”

He started out teaching adaptive yoga to other people with disabilities at Courage Center, a leading transitional rehabilitation facility in Minnesota. “I figured I should start showing what I’ve received from yoga in relationship to disability because it was obviously my bread and butter,” he says. “Someone who lives with some sort of chronic disability often forgets that they can still express themselves through their entire body. That’s what happened when I took my legs wide—I went into a space I hadn’t been in in 12 years. I may have to give up walking but I shouldn’t ever give up just taking my legs wide.”

As Matthew’s relationship with yoga continued to evolve, he discovered his calling. “I realized that what I thought was giving back was actually the beginning of my real study, which is trying to figure out how my experience with yoga translates and applies to all different types of disability, trauma and loss,” he says. “Ultimately, what I’ve learned doesn’t just apply to disability, it applies to any shift in the mind-body relationship.”

That goes for caregivers as well as patients. “One of the things I found through teaching and speaking nationally is that healthcare workers are burning out at a remarkable rate,” he says. “In my talks, I tell caregivers, ‘Our fate is tied. If you don’t take care of yourself, I suffer too. The reason you came into your profession was to help people. But in order for you to help people in a way that doesn’t make you sacrifice and lose yourself means that we’ve got to be in a more healthy dynamic with each other.’”

Matthew won’t be satisfied until he has changed the consciousness of a nation. “Changing the quality of interaction between the caregiver and patient is what’s going to change healthcare,” he says. “That’s the cornerstone of what we’re trying to do.”


I wrote this companion article about Matthew’s accident, his recovery and his unwavering trust that life can be beautiful even in the darkest of times.


car-driving-snowOn the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1978, Matthew Sanford’s family was returning to Duluth from his aunt’s house in Kansas City. It was 31 degrees and misting when their car, driven by Matthew’s dad, Loren, hit a patch of ice on an overpass just across the Missouri border and plunged down a ravine.

Thirteen-year-old Matthew was asleep in the back seat and has no memory of the crash that killed his father and his 20-year-old sister, Laura. His mother, Paula, and 17-year-old brother, Jim, sustained only minor injuries. Matthew was not so lucky.

Three days later, Matthew awoke from a coma in a world of hurt. He had broken his neck, back and both wrists, his lungs were filled with fluid, and an injury to his pancreas had shut down his digestive system. Lying there on a respirator in intensive care in Des Moines, Iowa, drifting in and out of consciousness, he briefly wondered what sort of hellish dream world he had landed in.

Then he saw the huge bruise on his mother’s face and knew that something horrible had happened. Unable to speak, he scrawled his questions down on a piece of paper. The deaths of his father and sister hit him hard, yet he felt a strength welling up inside. “it was seeing my remaining family and knowing that they needed me to live,” he says. “It wasn’t heroic, it was just reaching out to my loving family.”

That resolve served Matthew well, as did his youth. Indeed, after five days in Des Moines, he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where a doctor told his mother, “It’s a lucky thing that Matt doesn’t know how injured he is.”

Matthew just assumed that the pain, which was at times unbearable, would pass. “When the nurses had to turn me, it hurt so bad I would often pass out,” he recalls. “But as a thirteen-year-old boy, I never really contemplated that I would die. So my early strength came from survival, from assuming, Of course I’ll eat again. I didn’t know that for the two months I wasn’t eating, my mom was thinking, If his digestive system doesn’t wake up, he’s not going to live. Because back then, the stuff they fed you through your neck wasn’t good enough to sustain you for too long. So my innocence was part of my strength early on.”

After dropping from 119 pounds down to 79 pounds, Matthew’s digestive system began to heal. Nearly three months after the accident, he was pronounced well enough to transfer to Miller/Dwan Medical Center, a hospital/rehab center (now called SMDC Medical Center) in Duluth. He stayed at Miller/Dwan a little over three months, then continued outpatient physical therapy until the beginning of November.

A week before the first anniversary of the accident, having literally just finished outpatient therapy, Matthew fell out of his wheelchair and broke his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, it was only a temporary setback; his strength and dexterity gradually returned over the next eight weeks.

Thanks to his mother’s influence, Matthew never gave up hope throughout his ordeal. “She always would say to me, ‘I don’t understand why things happen but this probably has some sort of purpose; you are meant to learn or experience something from this.’ So she planted that seed. My mother is an artist and a painter and someone who is full of wonder; she has always believed that human consciousness is just beginning to be tapped, that we have more potential then we realize. In that way, she helped me believe that there could be more—not that I was going to walk again, but that something wonderful could unfold.”

Click here to view all my posts featuring people who have triumphed over physical challenges.


Phil is the author of Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, a comprehensive guide to living a spiritual life. Who will benefit from reading it?

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SiSe_fullcover_final.inddPhil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent people he interviewed, including Joan Borysenko, Deepak Chopra, geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford, Dr. Larry Dossey, Wayne Dyer, Dan Millman, Caroline Myss, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Bernie Siegel, James Van Praagh, singer Billy Vera, Doreen Virtue, Neale Donald Walsch, and bassist Victor Wooten.

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4 Responses to “Matthew Sanford: Heals on Wheels”

  1. Judy Says:

    Loved this story, Phil.

    Also want to share with you that I saw Bhava Ram the other day at a local event. His story with recovering through yoga is absolutely amazing. He just launched his book “warrior pose”. Thanks for your continued high quality postings.

    Jai Guru!


    Judy Szamos, Realtor HomeSmart Realty West 760.815.0489 Direct 760.683.6666 eFax

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Wow, Judy. I hadn’t heard of Bhava Ram. I never ceased to be amazed at how dramatic and tumultuous some people’s life journeys are. It’s always wonderful to read about someone like this who is able to transcend the darkness and ultimately fine redemption, renewal and reinvention!

  3. Merrilee Town Says:

    Not only is he an accomplished yoga teacher, but he can get into the “mind” of the pose and describe the somatic energy in the pose in a way that I, as a student, could totally understand and embody. Not only that, he is an amazing human. He took a horrific experience and turned it into a way of life, as well as being probably the best yoga teacher I have ever studied under. He has also been able to speak with me about things I do that might disturb other students in a respectful, kind and humanitarian way. He is a real Human Being.

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with Matthew, Merrilee. They are entirely consistent with my sense of who Matthew is as a human being.

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