Once wheelchair-bound, Reginald Pope has been through several surgeries to help him regain his balance when standing and now is recovering from reconstructive foot surgery.
Since January 2021, Melinda Russell has had shoulder, neck, back and knee surgery and a hysterectomy.
Rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary fibrosis had severely reduced the quality of life for Jerry Pala.
All veterans, and after enduring physical and emotional pain for years, they enrolled in the Wheelchair/Adaptive Tai Chi program created by Dr. Zibin Guo, UC Foundation professor of medical anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
They are ecstatic at the results.
“My surgeons and physical therapists are amazed at how fast I have progressed from having a total foot reconstructive surgery a few months ago,” Pope said. “I tell them all the time that tai chi has helped me to recover and regain my health.”
“As a form of moving meditation, Tai Chi provides the benefit of meditation and physical movement at the same time, helping in recovery and sleep, as well as mental health,” Russell said.
“I cannot tell you all the ways it has helped me physically, emotionally and socially. It has reduced stress and improved confidence that I can continue to enjoy life,” Pala said.
Guo began the Wheelchair/Adaptive Tai Chi program in 2016 to train health care workers to teach the smooth, fluid movements of the martial art to veterans with disabilities. The program showed the veterans that, although they might feel powerless and weak, that was never the case, whether they were wheelchair-bound or suffered from PTSD, anxiety or other conditions that veterans sometimes experience, Guo said.
“From an anthropological, cross-cultural perspective, disability and ability are a relative concept,” he said. “Everybody has a disability. It depends on what we compare it to. For example, I’m terrible at math. That’s a disability.”
Funded with almost $717,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Wheelchair/Adaptive Tai Chi program completed its seven-year run in fall 2023. Guo’s team of about 30 trainers nationwide—which included occupational and physical therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists—conducted 1,040 hours of classes.
The program partnered with 80 VA medical centers and conducted 107 instructional training courses for 1,480 health care providers in 46 states.
While both veterans and health care providers—some of whom are veterans—learned from the program, Guo said he did, too.
“I learned so much about human ingenuity, creativity and possibility. Sometimes as professors, we tend to get stuck in our books and theories and things, but we have very little empirical experiences about people,” he said.
“Everybody’s different, and certain things that we say and we do, the consequences can be completely surprising. It’s not what’s intentionally anticipated, but what it demonstrates is that we are human.”
The VA liked his tai chi program, Guo said, because “it is really transforming the sense of perception of disability into ability.” Those with disabilities often feel powerless, “and when you feel powerless, you become defeated.
“Power is something measurable, something muscular, some physical ability, but from an anthropological point of view, that perception is wrong because power is socially, culturally constructed.”
Tai chi isn’t about physical power, Guo said. It’s about taking the weakness in your body and turning it into something that makes you feel powerful.
“Tai chi is really about gentleness,” he said. “The gentle movements emphasize the body as a system rather than: How quick you can do a kick? How powerful can you throw a punch?”
The program was intended to train health care workers to help veterans, Guo said, but it also was meant to help health care workers. Some had their own disabilities, although they didn’t see themselves that way when they began the training, Guo said.
“Health care providers are actually one of the vulnerable populations,” he said. “A lot of health care providers, when we did the training and they participated, they said, ‘Oh, help me so I can help them.’”
Jennie Tate, a tai chi trainer in the VA North Texas Health Care System in Dallas and a veteran, said she benefited from Guo’s program.
“Even the healthy, active veterans, like myself, who love the physical intensity of yoga or other physical activities, can benefit from the smooth slow movements of tai chi, and the training of mind and memory to remember the sequence of form,” she said.
“Tai chi, with the mind directing the body and the circular, slow, graceful movements, is an effective physical exercise program that can optimize mental and physical fitness, self-efficiency and increase mobility.”
Watching the trainers perform tai chi movements is one of the driving factors that reach veterans, Guo said.
“If my physician says I have a weight problem, and my physician has a weight problem, too, I say, ‘What about you?’”
“But if a physician says, ‘I walk every day near your house. What if you join me? Let’s walk together.’ I’m more likely to say, ‘Oh wow, that’s incredible.’
“So the approach to empower or partner with health care providers we believe is the best model to promote public health.”