Matthew Sanford’s world was forever changed when, at age 13, his family’s car skidded off an icy overpass. Matthew’s father and sister were killed instantly and he himself was left paralyzed from the chest down, confined to a wheelchair. Matthew, his mother, and his brother were left to somehow pick up the pieces of their decimated family. This pivotal event set the author off on a lifelong journey, from his horrifying intensive care experiences to becoming a yoga teacher and founder of a non-profit organization. Waking is a chronicle of that process.
During his first fragile and gruesome months in the hospital, and in various later periods throughout his life, Sanford experienced so much pain that leaving his body became a survival skill. Furthermore, he describes how for years after the accident, from the chest down, he experienced a “schism” or “a form of silence” between his mind and his body, and was encouraged to essentially cut off relationship with his full body. As author and yoga teacher Suza Francina describes: “These experiences alone catapulted Matthew into unknown territory when it comes to understanding the mind and body.” Along this journey, he is forced to explore what it means to survive devastating trauma: facing stereotypes of disability, navigating logistical and physical frustrations, exploring sexual intimacy in a paralyzed body… Above all, he emerges with a deep understanding of the importance of the energetic body, and of what it means to be a “whole” person.
From heart-breakingly personal, to intellectually philosophical, to beautifully honest, this trail-blazing memoir takes us inside the body, heart, and mind of a boy whose world has been shattered. Matthew allows us to join him on his journey as he rebuilds from the ground up, searching for “healing stories” wherever he can, to help him reconnect his mind and his body. While I do think that Sanford could be more clear about his definition of “healing stories,” it becomes relatively clear throughout the book that he is critiquing the cultural frameworks, myths, and social mores that surround our ideas of disability and healing. Some of these healing stories are helpful, and some are most definitely not. While traditional medicine helps him in important ways, he also encounters–tragically at times–gaping weaknesses and even injurious myths in his experience with a wide range of medical professionals–many of whom are considered the cream of their crop.
In 1991, exhausted and forced to open himself to new ideas, he began studying Iyengar yoga with Jo Zukovich, co-founder of the San Diego Yoga Studio. When they started, it was not at all clear how yoga would affect his paralyzed body, and there were no models to emulate. Waking is a beautiful book for both yoga teachers and students, describing how the two learned and adapted together by listening closely and honoring current experience. Over time, Sanford finds a great deal of meaning in the mysterious distance that all of us experience between mind and body. This book offers us unique views on how we might embody our lives more fully, and sends a powerful message about the endurance of the human spirit and the body that houses it.
Now a leader in adapting Iyengar yoga to meet the needs of the individual, Sanford teaches classes and workshops to yoga students, teachers, and medical professionals. His broader aim in writing this book, teaching yoga, and running his non-profit organization, is to infuse the importance of mind-body integration into the rehabilitation process. He uses his story to share how yoga is indeed a “waking” of the human body and human consciousness.