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As a “maturing” baby boomer sitting too much at the computer, I find my body has become creaky. Rather than just chalking up my inflexibility to aging’s inevitable entropy, I recently started yoga. Although once fairly athletic, I have found the experience humbling and need a variety of assistive devices to assume basic poses that many in the class - especially the women - can readily do.

Reflecting on my difficulties relative to the much greater physical limitations associated with spinal cord injury (SCI) and wheelchair living, I initially thought that yoga would not be a good topic to cover. My research indicated otherwise, however. People with physical disabilities can accrue much benefit through yoga.

As a part of this research, I read a book written by Matthew Sanford, a 40-year-old yoga instructor who sustained a thoracic (T4-6) injury from a 1978 roll-over auto accident. At Minnesota’s Courage Center, Sanford teaches yoga to others with disability, including SCI (all levels), MS, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, head injury, and stroke.  

His book, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence (2006) is one of the best books on disability I have read. In it, he describes how learning yoga helped him to transcend his injury through better mind-body-spirit integration, and to energetically reconnect to paralysis-affected body parts.

After reading his book, discussing yoga with him, and observing his class, I now believe when adapted to the needs of individuals with physical disabilities and with appropriate assistance, yoga is a valuable healing tool with much to offer. According to Sanford, yoga principles do not discriminate due to disability. Basically, the needed adaptations for disability are just a greater expression of what I require due to middle-age inflexibility. Unfortunately, although yoga instructors have a good idea of the adaptations I need, relatively few appreciate the adjustments required for significant physical disability. Therefore, one of Sanford’s priority goals is to create and disseminate educational programs that will better integrate yoga and disability.

Sanford emphasizes you must have realistic expectations when starting yoga. He is, indeed, still paralyzed after years of practice. However, he has gained a much greater sense of a mind-body alignment, which he calls presence. Sanford believes we define sensation too narrowly, in part, because we defer too much to the limiting opinions of healthcare experts rather than cultivating and listening to the voice from within. By so doing, we shut off the subtle lines of communication that remain after injury. Yoga helps us hear and reestablish the link to the inner voice again.

In his book, Sanford specifically describes this re-linking: “yoga instruction rekindled a feeling of energetic sensation within my mind-body relationship…I grew in dimension and my entire body began whispering to me once again, albeit in a more eloquent voice.”

Sanford believes many possibilities other than walking exist for healing within the mind-body relationship. Due to yoga, Sanford has become more present in his body, senses more clarity in his spine (focal point of yogic awareness) as he moves, is more grounded and balanced. His overall strength and movements have an improved “bang for the buck.” Together these results can produce many life-enhancing benefits for those with SCI, including, for example, more efficient transfers, improved bowel-and-bladder sensation, sexual function, etc. Finally, although downplaying the possibility, by getting more life-force energy once again moving through areas of paralysis-associated energy stagnation, yoga may, indeed, cultivate an environment more conducive to physiological regeneration.

From personal experience, Sanford cautions yoga students with SCI to be patient and not force progress. He states: “Every student – whether disabled or not – must practice non-violence with his or her yoga practice.” Unfortunately, Sanford learned the hard way; early in his practice, he broke his leg due to his eagerness to assume an advanced lotus position. It was a mistake he does not want to pass on.


Yoga is a mind-body-spirit discipline whose more familiar physical poses represent the lower rungs of a ladder leading to enhanced awareness of our greater spiritual nature. Yoga’s Sanskrit root implies a yoking or union of the individual to universal self. In this regard, in spite of yoga’s physical demands, people with SCI may actually have some advantage in climbing up the ladder.

In a crude analogy, this ability is like hearing a whisper in a raucous bar. Because there is so much distraction -  loud conversations, ringing cell phones, rock-and-roll music, cigarette smoke, good-looking women – it’s hard to hear the whisper. Under yoga metaphysics, this subtle whisper represents a higher version of who we are, and, because it is all-pervasive, extending beyond the bar to the entire neighborhood, a connection to our greater universe: the true source of all individual strength.

According to Sanford, people living with SCI do not have the same gross-body distractions, allowing them to delve deeper into the core of yoga. By muting the sensory overload, his injury facilitated a greater connection to the life-sustaining whisper that flows through his body, a connection which most able-bodied students strive to achieve. In his case, Sanford states “Meditative attention amplifies it to the point of exaggeration; and engaging social interaction pushes it into the distant background; a rock concert makes it disappear completely.”

Comparing his paralysis-affected physicality to an artichoke’s outer layer, he notes: “I received something in exchange for absorbing so much trauma at age thirteen. I experienced a more direct contact presence of consciousness – the heart of the artichoke. Although my life has taken much away, it has also revealed a powerful insight.”

How Yoga Helps Me

I came to Iyengar yoga twelve years after my original injury because I missed my body.  I had reached a point where living as if I was only a floating upper torso was no longer tolerable.  I had grown weary of willfully dragging my paralyzed body through my life. I wanted to reconnect, to feel my entire body again in whatever way was still possible.  I figured what better way to start than a four-thousand year old discipline that is expressly dedicated to the integration of mind, body, and spirit.

Now, sixteen years later, I have a vibrant sense of my whole self that I never believed was possible.  The disciplined practice of yoga has shown me the subtle, energetic connections that exist between mind and body. These connections are never going to make me walk again, but they offer a sense of wholeness and vitality that inform every aspect of my life.  I can be "present" within both the paralyzed and unparalyzed parts of my body.  This realization has given me a profound sense of inward freedom.  I wish the same for everyone.

-Matthew Sanford, January 2007


By learning to sense the subtle whisper through ongoing yoga practice, Sanford connects to his paralyzed limbs without going though a hard-wired, neuronal connection. Basically, the whisper is mediated through his body’s electromagnetic nature. So to speak, Sanford receives information from paralyzed limbs through radio waves rather than a telephone wire (i.e., neuronal connections). The transmitted information may be more subtle, but, as receiving ability is developed, it becomes increasingly rich in informational content – like the difference between crude Morse code and a TV signal.

Scientists increasingly believe that we are fundamentally electromagnetic beings. Every molecule, cell, and organ emits electromagnetic vibrations, often assessed through medicine’s many electronic devices (e.g., MRIs, EEGs, etc). From a stress-related heartbeat to anxiety-generated brainwaves, the nature of our life is a cumulative manifestation of our electromagnetic eddies and flows and how we allow them to be influenced by our environment.

In yoga, our electromagnetic nature is further defined through the downloading of life-force energy prana through vortexes called chakras. In turn, this super-refined energy is circulated throughout the body through thousands of energy channels, called nadis, that parallel anatomical structures and are somewhat comparable to acupuncture meridians.

Especially relevant to SCI, the body’s foremost channels are the Shushmana, located in the spine’s central column (an energetic counterpart of our spinal cord) and the Ida and Pingala channels (the energetic equivalent of nerve plexuses that radiate out from the cord) that crisscross through the Shushmana. The caduceus, medicine’s foremost symbol in which two snakes intertwine around a staff, is a representation of these life-force channels.  Although beyond the article’s scope, learning to correctly move energy through these spinal-cord-related channels through advanced yogic practices (called Kundalini) can mitigate SCI’s impact.

Basically, like turning up a spigot’s water pressure or taking the crimp out of the hose that blocks the flow to the garden, yoga enhances vital-force flow throughout the body and, in turn, the physiological functions that support health, such as blood circulation and nervous-system conduction. 


Because yoga is a rich discipline, key practices can only be briefly highlighted, and, as such, interested readers should consult the listed resources.

Asanas: Yogic poses, called asanas, are key tools to obtaining benefits, ranging from the physical to spiritual. Evolving over the millennia, standing, sitting, bending, twisting, and reclining poses have been developed to enhance function in every body part. Various poses, especially in combination, are prescribed for diverse ailments, including those involving heart and circulation, respiratory, digestive, urinary, hormonal, immune, and brain and nervous systems.  

Due to his paralysis, Sanford initially emphasized traditional sitting poses. While practicing the Maha Mudra pose, he had an energetic breakthrough: “As I move into this pose, something clicks or snaps into place or becomes manifest …I suddenly feel a tangible sense of my whole body – inside and out, paralyzed and unparalyzed. I am stunned.”

Unlike able-bodied people who attempt to physically align themselves with the pose and then perhaps feel the energy, Sanford teaches “backwards yoga” to students with disability. Basically, if he feels the right energetic resonance, he attempts to trace this energetic core back into the physical and outward through his paralyzed body.

Pranayama combines two words: prana, life-force energy, and ayama, the storage or distribution of that energy. Pranayama focuses on conscious breathing and its link to mind and body; it cultivates life-enhancing flow of prana through the body.  Because poses remove flow-impeding barriers, pranayama’s benefits are best achieved after the poses have been mastered. Control of inhalation, exhalation, or breath retention influences the nervous system in different ways.  Due to its power, pranayama should be practiced under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher.

Meditation: Often done in conjunction with poses or breathing exercises, meditative practices help turn off life’s sensory cacophony and the ensuing monkey-mind in which thoughts constantly bounce around our consciousness. As a result, we tune into and become more aware of our nurturing inner whisper.

Once an individual with SCI learns the various practices by working with a good teacher, his program should incorporate solo sessions. This allows one to tune into the inner whisper; and, as a result, connecting to, bringing to the surface, and better understanding deeply ingrained, subconscious beliefs, assumptions, or issues about the injury that may inhibit healing.

For example, Sanford’s yoga practice triggered “body memories” that helped him further understand forgotten circumstances surrounding his car accident. This ultimately led him to a deeper sense of freedom within his mind-body relationship.


Sanford teaches Iyengar yoga developed by yoga master B.K.S Iyengar. A derivation of traditional yoga, Iyengar yoga emphasizes alignment and precision in poses adapted to individual needs. This is facilitated through the use of props as needed, such as wooden blocks, folded blankets, straps, etc.  Individuals with SCI who are considering yoga should attempt to find an instructor well versed in this tradition.


Yoga has much to offer in this modern, multitasking, sensory-overload age, especially for individuals with SCI. By cultivating a better presence in the entire body, yoga will cumulatively produce benefits that will greatly enhance quality of life.  

Adapted from an article appearing in the April 2007 Paraplegia News (For subscriptions, call 602-224-0500 or go to


Khalsa SK. KISS Guide to Yoga. DK Publishing, 2001.

Gach MR. Acu-Yoga. Japan Publications, 1981.

Iyengar BKS. Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. DK Publishing, 2001.

Raman K. A Matter of Health: Integration of Yoga and Western Medicine for Prevention and Cure. EastWest Books 1998.

Sanford M. Waking: A Memoir of Trauma & Transcendence. Rodale, 2006.

Sivananda VS. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. Three Rivers Press, 1995. – Emphasizes adapted yoga for disability.