The blind veteran didn’t even want to get out of bed anymore.
“He was just in such a depressed state because of his vision loss; he had lost the desire to do many things,” said Rebecca Gardom, a blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist in the Minnesota office of the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Using the practice of tai chi chuan, a martial art known for its physical and mental benefits, she helped the vet reconnect with life.
“Once he started coming to my tai chi group, he had a desire to come and join other veterans,” said Gardom, who has worked with blind and visually impaired veterans for 16 years.
“I have received so many testimonies of how tai chi has really helped individuals with vision loss, not just for the health factor benefits that they received but the camaraderie of coming together.”
Gardom was one of the participants in the three-day National Inclusive Tai Chi Chuan Instructor Certification Training program, held June 6-8 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The workshop was organized and led by Dr. Zibin Guo, UC Foundation professor of medical anthropology in the Department of Social, Cultural and Justice Studies and a nationally known expert on the benefits of tai chi for veterans.
While Guo has spent the past seven years working nationwide with hundreds of veterans and therapists, the seminar at UTC marked the first time he’s held a workshop strictly for healthcare providers. At the end of the three days, the 14 participants will be certified tai chi chuan trainers through the Veterans Administration.
Just as important as their training, Guo said, is that they all practice tai chi themselves.
“Sometimes you go to a doctor who just gives you a prescription and says, ‘Take this.’ This is different. When people are looking at you actually doing this, it’s like having a doctor who has an active lifestyle,” Guo said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic officially over, the therapists could meet in person in Lupton Hall. Gardom said she added tai chi to her repertoire in 2020, then the pandemic hit, forcing her to teach primarily through Zoom and telehealth sessions. Teaching face-to-face is a huge advantage, she said.
Workshop participants came from as far away as California, Wyoming, New York, Ohio and Kansas. Many had attended other workshops led by Guo. Several attendees were veterans.
Daniel Clegg spent 20 years as a medic in the U.S. Air Force and now works for the Veterans Administration in Gardener, Kansas. He started learning martial arts while stationed in South Korea and now practices tai chi daily.
“I really love tai chi. I think it does a lot for you, and I like working with veterans,” he said. “I don’t think we can do enough for the veterans.”
Beyond the physical benefits of tai chi, Clegg said its mental benefits are equally valuable. “It’s really good for the unity of mind and body,” he said.
“We, as Americans, have so many thoughts. We’re taught to think all the time, but it’s kind of nice to unplug. I have ADHD, and it focuses the mind, too.”
In cases of PTSD, Guo said, the flowing movements of tai chi can help veterans get out of “the human-constructed box” in their minds and deal with their emotional distress.
Terry Mahone, a certified tai chi chuan Instructor in the Tennessee office of the Veterans Administration and a speaker at the UTC workshop, is sold on the martial art through his own experience.
During his first tai chi session, “I felt a burn and a pop on the left side of my neck and left arm. I froze, thinking I had done some serious damage,” he recalled.
Fifteen seconds later, he began the tai chi movements again and was amazed.
“The pain I had been suffering for 29 years had suddenly disappeared. I was hooked on tai chi and have never looked back.”