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TODAY contributor
updated 3/19/2008 12:14:54 PM ET 2008-03-19T16:14:54

Matthew Sanford is one of those people who seem incapable of not smiling. Even when he’s talking about the accident that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he glows like one who’s discovered the secret of happiness.

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Appearances, in this case, are not deceiving. Since discovering yoga 13 years ago and becoming a yoga instructor, Sanford told TODAY’s Natalie Morales in New York on Wednesday, he’s reconnected with a body that for too many years had been just something he had to drag through life. Now, through his nonprofit organization Mind-Body Solutions of Minnetonka, Minn., he’s teaching others how to do the same.

“We’re focused on trying to help people transform trauma and loss into hope and potential,” he said. “Everybody’s got trauma and loss in their life. Everybody’s got a hard life. Being able to turn that into a living sensation and not just a loss, that’s at the heart of our mission — to help people realize you can’t overcome your body, you can’t overcome your life. You have to listen to your life and let it be a teacher and not just try to overpower it.”

Sanford was an athletic 13-year-old in 1978 when, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the family’s car hit a patch of ice and plunged down a ravine. When he awoke from a coma after the accident, it was to learn that his father and sister were dead, his mother and brother were basically unhurt, and he was paralyzed — for life — from the waist down.

Doctors and therapists told him to forget about the lower part of his body, to work on his upper-body strength, and to make the best of it.

He did that, going through high school and getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in college. But at the age of 25, he realized that something was missing.

“I was living in only a third of my body — my upper torso,” he said. “I got to the point where I needed to feel more alive, more whole again. I figured it had to be possible. There had to be a different path than what I’d been told.”

He was introduced to yoga, and he still gets emotional when talking about his first lesson, when he sat on a mat and his instructor told him to push his legs apart with his arms.

“I started having tears come,” he said. “It was because I’d had never had my legs wide in 12 years, since my injury, because why would a paralyzed guy take his legs wide?”

The experience taught him that just because he didn’t feel his lower body didn’t mean that he couldn’t live in it and make it be part of his life.

“It’s our birthright to live in our whole body,” he said. “When we let our presence diminish within our body, our life isn’t as fulfilling and powerful. That first experience of stretching my whole body was an awakening and I want to share that with people. It’s very simple.”

In time, Sanford became a yoga instructor and began Mind-Body Solutions. Married and with an 8-year-old son, he’s also written a book about what he’s learned entitled “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.”

His work to help others, including the able-bodied, earned him a Karma Yoga Award in 2003. And on Wednesday in New York, he will be honored by the Volvo for Life Awards with a $100,000 prize and a Quality of Life Award.

The money comes at a perfect time for Mind-Body Solutions.

“We’ve developed a mind-body approach to rehabilitation,” he said. “We’re training the caregivers. It’s not just about giving people yoga. It’s about creating a new model. We’re on the edge of helping countless other people. The recognition and the money come at a perfect time. It’s just the beginning of really helping other people.”

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