Matt Sanford in a wheelchair.

Nationally renowned yoga instructor and author Matthew Sanford gestures during a talk on body-to-mind resilience April 22 at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Exploring the Intersection Between the Body and Mind

By Dirk Hoffman

Published April 29, 2024

Giving a presentation on body-to-mind resilience on Earth Day, nationally renowned yoga instructor and author Matthew Sanford could not help but take a moment to reflect.


“I would like to pause for a second and acknowledge that we are the Earth’s offspring, plain and simple,” he told the audience in the Ronald I. Dozoretz, MD ’62 Auditorium at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“No matter what else you believe, this is our home. And it is the biggest and greatest body you and I will ever directly know.”

“One of the great things in connecting more through your own body is that you will connect to what is around you. One of the best important steps to realizing Earth is actually realizing the space that you occupy — which is in your own body,” Sanford said.

Sanford said when we deepen the quality of where and how our minds interact and intersect with our bodies, our consciousness shifts — getting more connected to our lives, to each other and to the planet.

Seeking to Define the Source of Resilience

Sanford was in a horrific automobile accident when he was 13, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. His father and sister were killed.

“I broke my neck at C1, my back at T4, 5 and 6. Both my wrists were broken, one of my lungs collapsed and my pancreas was damaged,” he said. “I went into a coma without a traumatic brain injury and my digestive system went offline for 60 days. I went from 119 pounds to 79.”

Sanford says an experience a few days later in the hospital came to define the rest of his life without him realizing it at the time.

Reading from his acclaimed 2006 book, “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence,” Sanford told of being fitted with a halo cast, which he called “the ultimate in neck stabilization.”

While he endured the pain of having four metal screws twisted directly into his skull, he suddenly had an out-of-body experience, and was looking down at the young boy lying on the table.

“The path to realization, big or small, almost always starts bumpy. In my case, I was thrown off a cliff,” he said. “In retrospect, I realized this halo experience altered the course of my life. It left me with an insight. In a moment of intense physical pain, the fragile state of my living — I was able to move away from my body. The potential for dislocation between mind and body was dramatically revealed.”

The insight, however, was not the ability to disassociate, he said. It was the silence that he experienced while it happened.

“Somehow I stayed connected to that boy below me. The silence within my consciousness both separated me and connected me simultaneously. This paradoxical insight still guides my life.”

Sanford told the audience members to think about it as their inner dimension.

“We have wrongly restricted it to being psychological. It’s deeper than that, it is more subtle than that and it is more profound than that. This type of perception in the body is wired into our nervous system.”

“We feel the silence when we daydream, when we appreciate the beauty of a sunset or when the love of our life truly walks away. It is the feeling of emptiness and fullness at the same time,” Sanford said. “We tend to think of that space as emotional, as vulnerable. I am here to tell you that is the source of your resilience.”

Matthew Sanford teaching a yoga class at Harriman Hall on UB’s South Campus.

Matthew Sanford teaches a yoga class at Harriman Hall on UB’s South Campus. His adaptive yoga classes teach the full spectrum of students — including those living with disabilities.

Practicing Yoga Aids in Reconnecting to Body

Another experience in the hospital that profoundly affected Sanford is that he would occasionally “feel a hum” in his legs, but that his doctors dismissed them as nothing more than phantom limb sensations that amputees often experience.

“They were well intentioned, but they did nothing to help me to go back into my legs, nothing to encourage my ability to listen to where my legs are in space even though I can’t feel them directly,” he said.

Sanford said things could have been handled differently.

“Help me be in the body. If I had a knee replacement, what is the first thing you would do? You would have me stand up and walk on it as soon as I can,” he noted. “A hip replacement? Because the gravity and the force would make my mind confront things I am afraid of.”

“What is the analogous thing when you are paralyzed? Nothing — compensate, accept. This was part of the mistake.”

“What happened to me was I started to become a floating upper torso — trained to stop listening to my body, to make my upper body really strong, and it made my spinal cord injury worse.”

Twelve years later, Sanford said he really started missing his body, so he took up practicing yoga.

“All of a sudden, during the first few times I was doing yoga, I started to feel that hum again,” he said.

Sanford said everything he does now flows from his daily yoga practice — the time he takes to feel and refine the sensation of his existence.

He said he has never seen anyone truly becoming more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate — and the reverse — when someone becomes more disconnected from their body, they become more self-destructive.

“Think of all the excuses you make to avoid going to the gym to exercise. The mind resists actually feeling better,” Sanford said. “It’s your body that stays faithful to living, even if it has gone through what mine has. The thing that wavers is your mind. The body is the only thing in your entire existence that is never going to leave you.”

Some Gentle Advice for Health Care Workers

Sanford said he interacts with health care workers a lot and one thing he notices is that they are not very good at receiving.

“They are helping so much, but their minds are not good at receiving compliments,” he said. “Let in the gratitude. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

He suggested health care workers need not be afraid of taking better care of themselves — and that they can do so by listening to their body more.

“When you are in the hospital for a long time, the air is bad. So, if you are working in a hospital setting, maybe take your breaks outside,” Sanford suggested. “Wiggle your toes more when you are washing your hands between patients.”

“Lean against something. Maybe something did not go well with one of your patients. You lean against a wall and let in the sensation of relief. Something else can hold you up for a while,” he added. “What I tell health care workers is the empty space that they are afraid of feeling because they think they are going to fall apart — is actually the source of their resilience.”

“Study the sensation of relief because you are going to have to learn to conjure it. You can’t wait for someone else to give you the sensation of relief.”

“Start to notice beautiful things more. Did you ever notice the sensation of beauty, when you let it in, is a three-dimensional experience? If you don’t, as caregivers, your patients are going to suffer.”

Medical Student Introduces Speaker

Medical student Catherine Lawton introduces Matthew Sanford.

Medical student Catherine Lawton introduces Matthew Sanford.

Sanford was introduced by Catherine Lawton, a third-year medical student, who is the founder and former president of the Buffalo chapter of Medical Students with Disability and Chronic Illness.

Anyango Kamina, PhD, interim unit diversity officer for the Jacobs School, offered opening remarks. She also thanked Maria L. Wilson, inclusive excellence workforce specialist in the Jacobs School’s Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement, and Sue Mann Dolce, PhD, and her team at UB’s Accessibility Resources Office, for coordinating and publicizing Sanford’s visit to UB.

In addition to the April 22 lecture, Sanford also presented another talk and conducted a yoga class April 23 at the Jacobs School. He also taught a yoga class and led a Q&A session April 20 on UB’s South Campus.