After joining the U.S. Army in 2000 as an Airborne Ranger, Howie Sanborn served two tours in Iraq and became a member of the army's parachute team, the Golden Knights. Sanborn has performed 2,500 free fall parachute jumps at events across the country. About five years ago, he started participating in triathlons, which involve a combination of swimming, cycling and running. He joined a yoga class on the base in Fort Bragg, N.C. to make himself stretch more in preparation for the events. He wound up going several times a week and began training to become a certified yoga instructor. In September 2012, when Sanborn was about 140 hours into his 200-hour yoga training, he and a friend went on a bike ride. A distracted driver hit the two men, and Sanborn became paralyzed from the waist down.
"I credit a lot of how quickly, both mentally and physically, I bounced back from my accident to yoga," Sanborn says. "It really allowed me to live in the moment."
Sanborn tells U.S. News how he continued living in the moment, practicing yoga and competing in athletics after his injury. His responses have been edited.
Can you tell me a little bit about your injury—what can you feel and not feel?
Every injury is very different. For me, I can kind of feel touch through most of my left leg—not so much in my right leg. But I can feel pain in both of them. My doctors think that most of my pain is referred pain from my back injury. So, I do stretches for my hamstrings and pigeon pose, which helps open up my hip flexers. These poses help with the pain in my legs.
If I sit in my chair all day, I will be a wreck when it's time to go to sleep. I need to be out of my chair; I have to get on the floor; I have to stretch. I know that, from the many other wheelchair users I've met who haven't done this over the years, your muscles start to atrophy, and a lot of them become what they call "chair-shaped" in an "L." At that point, some of them can't even lay on their stomach because their hip flexers are so tight. That's something that I don't want to ever happen to me, given the knowledge that I have of what could be. For me, I was already in great shape when I got hurt, which carried over after the injury. Then there's the spiritual side, too, as far as learning to control your breathing and stress management. I think that really played a huge part in being able to cope with the loss of the use of my legs.
Could you elaborate on how yoga has helped you mentally?
Yoga practice can be an important time to be very selfish and forget about everything else. When you come into the yoga studio, you leave everything at the door. During that hour, you focus on you, your body and breathing. You learn how to stop thinking, which can be very difficult to do at the pace of life we're living. It seems like we always have a million things bouncing around in our heads. So you take just that session and focus on yoga and breathing, and then we can use that later on. So when I was doing my therapy and felt really overwhelmed with my circumstance, I was able to turn it inward and focus on my breathing, and let that calm of meditation settle over me. It made it a lot easier to get through some of the harder periods that I was going through.
How did you know how to modify poses?
Because I was an instructor, I learned the fundamentals and a lot about each pose, which made it easy for me to look at each one and say, "OK, this pose I can do the same way as before, and this other pose—because I have a titanium rod in my back—I can't do the same way. So I'm going to modify it." Also, there are sometimes two poses that give the same benefit, and sometimes there will be one you can do and another you can't. So I do the one I can do correctly. Obviously, I can't use my legs, so I can't do any balancing poses on my legs. But, because of my paralysis, I still have to work on balancing with just my core. So I can still hold a warrior II pose, and it can still be different for me, but difficult in a different way. I still use my core muscles, hold the poses if I'm seated and get a lot of benefit out of it.
What's been your biggest challenge with yoga?
Well, I had no gauge of how many months or years it takes after a spinal cord injury to recover and do a paratriathlon. But I've done two paratriathlons in the last month. When I tell the other athletes that I got hurt seven months ago, I can see their eyes widen. They're like, "Are you kidding me?" I can't lay down and do nothing—it's just not in me. I'm an airborne ranger in the army, I've done two tours in Iraq and I look at everything as a challenge. You put it in front of me, and I just tackle the obstacle. I was still in the intensive care unit, and I was already looking into the paratriathlon and knew that I still wanted to compete. It's all been a challenge, but if you don't meet it head on, it'll tackle you before you can tackle it.
What's your favorite pose?
As a triathlete before, and now as a paratriathlete, I still love pigeon pose. It helps with a lot of the muscles that I used before and a lot of the muscles that are really tight and sore now.
Any advice for yoga beginners?
Regardless of your injury or situation, yoga practice is for everybody. There are different types of yoga, and you might have to look around to find exactly what suits you. But there's definitely a practice out there for you, and once you find it, it will change your life.