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Adaptive yoga crosses barriers

Duluth native Matthew Sanford, paralyzed from the chest down since 13, talks about his life, the mind-body relationship, and adaptive yoga during a program at UMD’s Kirby Ballroom on Thursday. Some of the crowd are still standing after performing a yoga move. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
People attending Matthew Sanford’s program perform a yoga move. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Matthew Sanford was 25 minutes into his presentation when he invited those in his audience to take off their shoes.

"And if you have real courage, take off your socks," he said.

The 51-year-old Duluth native, a pioneer in adaptive yoga who has been paralyzed from the chest down since an automobile accident when he was 13, was speaking to well over a hundred people at lunchtime on Thursday in the University of Minnesota Duluth's Kirby Ballroom.

Sanford's talk, attended by students, senior citizens, people with disabilities, yoga instructors and others, carried a title that sounded like a commencement address: "Realizing Opportunity in the Face of Change."

But he quickly made it clear that he hadn't come from his home in Long Lake, Minn., to offer platitudes.

"I reserve the right to teach yoga at any moment, at any time," Sanford warned, to a room full of chuckles.

A couple of minutes later, he called them to their mostly bare feet and invited them to "get bigger" by spreading their feet well apart, extending their arms wide and then lifting them above their heads.

An author, international speaker and founder of the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, Sanford appeared in Duluth on behalf of the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-Northland and the True North Adaptive Yoga Partnership, among others.

The latter was started by two of Sanford's students, Teri Sanders and Robin Davidson.

"It's a wildly successful program," Sanford said during an interview before his talk.

They started the program in 2013, said Sanders, who was among those in attendance, and they've added classes every year.

"It's a growing program, and it's actually getting to be a scramble to find new teachers," she said in an interview before the talk.

The idea behind inviting Sanford to speak in Duluth was to give the community more exposure to the concepts of adaptive yoga, Sanders said.

Sanford spoke specifically on adaptive yoga, a practice designed for people who might have difficulty performing traditional yoga poses, later in the afternoon at St. Scholastica's Health Services Building.

The UMD appearance was in cooperation with the school's Access for All club. Tiffany Cowan, a junior from Champlin, Minn., who is a leader of the group, introduced Sanford's talk. Cowan, 20, has a learning disability and limited use of her right side because of a stroke she suffered before she was born, she said later. Sanford's talk was inspirational, she said, particularly an activity in which he had people form pairs and take turns supporting each other with a hand between the other person's shoulder blades.

"I could actually feel it," she said. "It helped me understand how to open my mind and body."

Katie Olson, 29, teaches yoga under the name The Traveling Yogini. She wants to bring what she learned at the session into her classrooms, Olson said.

"He is so in the moment, and you can just see how alive he is," Olson said after hearing Sanford's talk.

Sanford, who has a 17-year-old son, has longish, graying hair, dark-framed glasses and a mouth that easily breaks into a grin. That widened into a sudden, broad smile early in his talk.

"I just saw someone I know from a long time ago, and I'm glad she's here," Sanford explained.

That was Catharine Larsen, 81, who was his mom's best friend, he said, at the time of the accident on Thanksgiving weekend 1978 that left him paralyzed. It occurred during the drive home on an icy Iowa road between Kansas City, Mo., and Duluth. His mother and older brother were uninjured, but his sister and father were killed in the crash.

"I woke up in Des Moines, Iowa, and I don't know what's going on, and I'm barely alive," Sanford recalled during his talk. After he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Larsen was among those who visited him, he said.

Sanford dismissed the notion that a tragedy such as the one he went through somehow works out for the best.

"Disability sucks," he said. "It's an unrelenting mistress. I'd do anything for my father and sister to be alive. Anything."

Nonetheless, he eventually was able to adapt to the new reality that was handed to him when he was 13.

"It turns out that I'm a yoga teacher not because I overcame my disability," Sanford said. "I'm a yoga teacher because of the body I have."