People with disabilities learn to 'live in their whole bodies' through adaptive yoga

Image 1 of 2

For the last 16 years, Joe Dailey has had to think about his body in ways most of us will never have to.

"Basically, I feel all day that gravity is just working on me pulling me down and making me fold over," said Dailey.

A car crash in 2002 left this one-time marathoner with a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Years later when Dailey was ready to be active again, he signed up for a yoga class.

"First class he started telling me to get into different positions, he was like do this and move your feet and push out through your feet and I'm thinking I'm paralyzed I can't do that," said Dailey. 

The class was adaptive yoga and the instructor, Matthew Sanford, knew exactly what he was asking his students to do.

“It's your birthright to live in your whole body and people with disabilities aren't getting that message,” said Sanford.

Sanford knows he doesn't fit the typical yoga instructor mold. But he is a pioneer in the field. He started practicing adaptive yoga in the early '90s when few people had heard of it. He was 25 years old, learning how to live in a body he wasn't born into.

“I was in a car accident when I was 13," said Sanford. "My father and my sister were killed. My mother and brother weren't injured at all. And I went through a shredder."

After years of being told by physical therapists to only work on what he could feel, Sanford started to miss the lower half of his body.

"They didn't realize that I can live in my whole body even though I can't feel it the way you can feel it," he said. "That there are levels of sensation that are more subtle."

So for more than 20 years, Sanford has shared what he's learned. That those subtle mind-body connections can help people who feel broken, feel whole again.

"People are out there every day and they're living against their body," he said. "They're trying to have their mind go over their body and get to what they want and succeed."

And in his studio, success isn't measured the way you might think. It's not about achieving a certain yoga pose. Many times it's much smaller, much simpler. You can hear it in his instructions to his students.

"In this moment or two be grateful," he said. "Thank your body it's doing the best it can. It always will. Your body is still your ally."

But for some, there is physical progress. Since taking these classes, Joe Dailey can now transfer himself out of his chair and has seen movement in new places.

“He said, 'I want everybody to push down through their feet and lift their toes up' and he said 'even though Joe can't do that,'" said Dailey. "My big toe went up on my right foot. So I said, 'Did you see that?' And he said, 'I did.' It just went up. So that's not going be any great thing like oh my god all my toes are going to move now. But it's pretty cool.”

Sanford realizes it's ironic someone living with disabilities is teaching people how to live in their whole bodies. But he's fueled by society's often negative perspective on our bodies.

"The body gets a raw deal," said Sanford. "We blame our bodies a lot for things that are happening. It's like oh my gosh it's your best resource."

And that continues to be Sanford's mission. One that has now spread around the world. Teaching people to see themselves in a way they never thought possible and breathe new life into bodies of all abilities.

"The answers are simpler, they're not complex," said Sanford. "We need to come home to our bodies."

If you’d like more information about Matthew Sanford and his adaptive yoga classes, you can visit his website: