Duets: Matthew and Bruce

  • Updated: February 12, 2014 - 12:02 PM
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Yoga instructor Matthew Sanford (in wheelchair) conducted a class with students, who included Bruce Kramer (on table). ] (JIM GEHRZ/STAR TRIBUNE) / November 8, 2013, Minnetonka, MN – FOR DUETS COLUMN

Bruce Kramer took his first yoga class with Matthew Sanford in January of 2012, waiting reverentially for his teacher to arrive.

“Matt rolls in,” Bruce, 57, recalled. After a few minutes, Sanford admonished another student to focus on his breathing. “For God’s sake, will you breathe into your spine?’ ”

Bruce laughs. Matt, he says, “leaves all of us a lot of room to be human.”

Since that day, Bruce and Matt have together plumbed the depths of what it means to be human, and to be alive, with a fearless sense of urgency.

Thirty-five years ago, 13-year-old Matt woke up from a three-day coma to learn that his father and sister died in a car crash that paralyzed the teen from the chest down.

On Dec. 6, 2010, Bruce, then dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also called ALS. The diagnosis robbed him of 30 years of healthy old age that, “I honestly thought was my future,” he writes in his moving blog, Dis Ease Diary. ALS, he notes dryly in a chapter titled Endgames, “provides the perfect corrective to the best of plans.” Matt understands. “I know he’s feeling the thing I felt as a 13-year-old boy and have felt every day since,” says Matt, 48, founder of the Minnetonka-based nonprofit called Mind Body Solutions. The center teaches breathing, moving and balance to people with disabilities.

On a recent Friday, Bruce begins his practice at Matt’s sunny studio, surrounded by four assistants including Bruce’s son, Jon.

Matt, wearing a cheery yellow sweater over a green T-shirt, wheels toward Bruce, placing his hand on his diaphragm and guiding his breathing. “Getting tired, bud?” he asks. “Nope.” “Go at your own pace.”

For years after the crash, Matt tried to “overcome” his disability, to “forget” the body he once inhabited, as many professionals urged him to do. Finally, he stopped listening and began embracing his own truths.

He’s now an author and public speaker, and a father. Bruce’s wife, Ev, suggested that her husband take yoga as a way to stay connected with his body. He’s humbled and buoyed by the discipline’s capacity to ground and comfort him.

“With ALS, each physical loss is a grief experience. What I’ve learned from working with Matt is, yes, you’re losing your physical capacity, but you’re not losing your life energy. Life energy allows me to thank the body I have.” He’s become a teacher to the teacher.

“The amount of faith Bruce has to let four people lift him onto the ground,” Matt says. “I’m learning from him in ways that will sustain me.”

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