After suffering a spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down, 13-year-old Matthew Sanford coped by distancing himself from his body.
During painful medical procedures he would imagine himself floating out of his body to escape. At one point, he wished his legs could be amputated because he considered them dead weight.
For years after the car accident, Sanford considered his body as something he lugged around. As a survival tool, he disconnected his mind from his body.
The Duluth native’s journey to restore his mind-body connection is told in his book, “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence,” which will be released Tuesday by Rodale Books. Sanford, 40, will be in Duluth to attend a book release celebration at Northland Country Club, where he caddied as a boy.
Sanford’s memoir shares his life from the time he awoke from a three-day coma after a car accident, through his adolescence in Duluth and into manhood, where he awoke to the need to mend the connection between his mind and body. To do so, he turned to yoga.
“I needed to heal and find my body,” Sanford said.
The accident that shaped Sanford’s life happened in 1978 on the way home from a Thanksgiving trip. His family’s car hit a patch of ice on an Iowa road and skidded off an overpass. Sanford’s father, Loren Sanford, and his older sister, Laura, were killed. His mother, Paula, and older brother, James, escaped without injury.
“People in Duluth knew of the accident and what happened to my family. But people didn’t know what I’d gone through,” he said. “It kept me separate.”
In the book, Sanford writes in intimate detail of his ordeal in hospitals and his growing sense as he became a young man that he needed a sort of healing he couldn’t find through traditional medicine.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a philosophy degree, he earned a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Santa Barbara in California.
In 1991, with the help of a yoga teacher named Jo Zukovich, Sanford began doing Iyengar yoga, which focuses on stretching and proper body alignment in yoga moves. He began to listen to the long-silent parts of his body that were paralyzed. He now can feel what he describes as a surge of energy through his paralyzed body.
Sanford shares his passion for yoga by teaching it to disabled and able-bodied people. He started a nonprofit business called Mind Body Solutions that has a yoga studio in Minnetonka, Minn., and serves as a base for his mission to teach others about the importance of mind-body connection. He teaches workshops around the country.
His wife, Jennifer Sanford, is an important part of his life and his work. They knew each other at Ordean Junior High School and both graduated from East High School in 1984. After their first year of college, they lost contact until their 10th high school reunion, when a romance blossomed. Two years later they were married. The couple lives in a house set amid woods in Orono, Minn., on the western edge of the Twin Cities.
Sanford began writing his memoir six years ago, shortly after their son, Paul, was born. Paul’s twin, William, had fluid on his brain — a condition called hydrocephalus — and died in utero.
Seeing life and death together like that was a clarifying event in his life and Sanford said he knew it was time for him to get serious about sharing what he had learned about the importance of the mind-body connection.
At the Duluth Writers’ Workshop at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Sanford found encouragement for his writing. One of his teachers, Minnesota author Patricia Weaver Francisco, helped him fall in love with writing.
“I had to change from philosophical, academic writing to becoming a storyteller,” he said.
Jennifer, who has a background in marketing and public relations, made sure that what he wrote had clarity. “We’re a good team,” he said.
Mark and Ina Myles of Island Lake are longtime friends of the Sanfords.
Mark Myles, a former Duluth school district superintendent, met Sanford when he was a student at Congdon Elementary School and Myles was principal.
“Matt is a bright, sensitive human being and he always really was that,” Myles said. “He would have stood out in any crowd of students.”
Myles stayed in touch with the Sanford family. He advocated with school officials so Sanford, who was in a wheelchair, could join his friends at East High School. At the time, all students in wheelchairs attended Central, which was handicapped accessible.
Ina Myles and Jennifer Sanford are former coworkers who became good friends. She remembers how excited Jennifer was to reconnect with Matthew at their high school reunion.
“They have built such a wonderful life together,” Ina Myles said. “It’s amazing to me how compatible they are and how their strengths are so appropriate for the mission they are on.”
Matthew is devoted to sharing his mind-body connection philosophy, Ina Myles said. “He’s just a very sincere humanitarian soul who understands what human beings need to be fulfilled,” she said.
Jennifer offers Matthew support — from emotional support to organizational skills and research, Ina Myles said.
Rob Barnes of Duluth met Matthew when they were on opposing Little League teams in Duluth. They got to know each better at East High School and became college roommates.
“What draws people to him is a combination of things. He’s very intelligent and he’s got a great sense of humor,” Barnes said about Sanford. “People kind of naturally take a liking to him. He’s very engaging and easy to like.”
Sanford also is a positive person, he said. When they were roommates, Barnes said he would forget for weeks at a time that Sanford had a physical handicap because Sanford did everything and went everywhere everyone else did.
“The handicap was not the focus of what he was about. It was a very small part of Matt,” he said.
Everyone faces trauma at some point in their lives. For most, it’s not as dramatic as what happened to Sanford. He said he shares his life story in “Waking” as a way to talk about the importance of the mind-body connection and to let people know that the hard things that happen in life can be transformed.
“Amazing things happen a little bit at a time,” Sanford said. “For me, it all came out of my listening to my own experience. It came out of starting to practice yoga and listening.”
Sanford believes integrating the mind and body — feeling alive in your body — is one of the secrets to living well. He wants to help others realize that minds and bodies work best together. When they are separated, problems such as stress and obesity can result, he said.
But even more than being a personal health strategy, mind-body integration is a movement of consciousness that can transform the world, Sanford said.
When people are more aware, he believes, they treat each other better and make the world a better, more compassionate place.
BY LINDA HANSON
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
LINDA HANSON can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335