The ancient Chinese art of tai chi continues to grow as a strong part of a health and wellness program for people with SCI/D.
Although it wasn’t widely known in America until the 1990s, tai chi has long been used by the Chinese as a martial art, meditative exercise, physical therapy, medicinal treatment for conditions such as indigestion and even as the basis for a way of life.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says almost three million Americans practice this gentle form of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That number continues to grow, especially among people with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D).
Classes for seated or adaptive tai chi can now be found at many SCI/D centers and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities. The VA’s myhealthevets.com website features numerous articles citing the benefits of tai chi, including stress reduction.
However, while tai chi’s general physical and mental benefits are well documented, it’s advantage to those with SCI/D is gaining further study. There are also more specialized programs being developed such as the one at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC).
Inspired by Ballroom Dance
About a decade ago, UTC medical anthropologist Zibin Guo wondered if the tai chi that serves so many purposes could be adapted to help people with SCI/D maintain and even expand their ranges of movement.
“I developed wheelchair tai chi,” he says. “The reason for that is [I was] inspired by watching wheelchair ballroom dance.”
The first time Guo saw wheelchair ballroom dancing he was mesmerized by its graceful power.
Ernie Chun (left) and Wes Colvin demonstrate adaptive tai chi moves taught at SpoFit in Phoenix.
“When I was watching wheelchair ballroom dance, I forgot all about the wheelchair,” he says.
That spellbinding graceful power Guo saw in wheelchair ballroom dancing reminded him of the tai chi he’d practiced for decades.
Guo was eager to introduce his program to the world and in 2005 reached out to the China Federation for People with Disabilities and Beijing Paralympics Committee with a proposal — wheelchair tai chi for the 2008 Paralympic Games. The idea was a hit.
By 2006, he was in Beijing teaching tai chi instructors, called shifu, a program he’d developed for those with SCI/D. The 2008 Paralympics included a demonstration of Guo’s wheelchair tai chi.
“Tai chi” is a westernized way of saying “tai ji quan.” Tai meaning “greatest,” ji meaning “utmost,” and quan meaning “fist.” Certainly not the name one would expect for a combat art noted for its softness.
It’s believed tai chi is a synthesis of various martial arts techniques that applied the somewhat perplexing yin and yang theories (the idea of how apparently opposite forces are actually complementary) through circular movements to meet hard attacks with deceptively gentle parries.
As different schools of tai chi developed, its non-combative benefits became increasingly apparent and central to the practice. Today, the majority of tai chi practitioners use the Yang family style mostly for mental and physical health benefits.
Helping With MS
New York lawyer Richard Kestenbaum is among the many people touting the benefits of adaptive tai chi.
After he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) last year, Kestenbaum learned about a tai chi class taught by Gene Nelson at the Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, N.Y.
“The teacher called it a special population class,” Kestenbaum says. “It was adapted for people who need to be sitting.”
Sitting was something Kestenbaum needed. His MS was at the point that standing exercises were largely out of the question. He quickly learned that tai chi’s simple and graceful gestures and moments of concentrating stillness were much more than they first seemed.
He says learning tai chi gives him great mental and physical self-awareness and understanding. And maybe even a reprieve from the advancement of MS.
“I believe the tai chi is affecting the progression [of the MS] in a positive way,” he says. “I do believe that.”
Affecting One’s Entire Life
Kestenbaum’s shifu, Nelson, has taught tai chi for about 30 years.
Among other places, the National Guard veteran has voluntarily taught it at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in New York City. He started studying tai chi for self-defense after an injurious fight with a criminal.
“[Tai chi] comes from the Tao Te Ching and Taoism; you never meet force with force,” Nelson says.
Guo says that lesson of meeting adversity with softness filters into many areas of tai chi practitioners’ lives.
“In 2007, when I was in China, a guy 40-years-old came to me,” Guo remarks. “He was injured in an automobile accident. He was in terrible shape. He was depressed.”
And suicidal. Guo says that tai chi helped the man mentally and physically.
“Three months after [he started studying], he did not need any medication,” Guo says. “Now he’s become an advocate for wheelchair tai chi. Wheelchair tai chi gives practitioners a sense of physical and mental well-being.”
Kestenbaum, too, says adaptive tai chi has positively affected his entire life as he’s dealt with the emotional struggles that come with MS.
“I’m much less angry,” he says. “I’m much more empathic. I listen better. It is a broadening experience that goes way more than a physical exercise.”
Guo says he’s working on a training program for American instructors to offer wheelchair tai chi to those with SCI/D.
He explains that qualified tai chi instructors sometimes encounter perspective students that need individualized adaptations for various disabilities. Guo cautions that adapting tai chi is much more than a few tweaks here and there. He says qualified tai chi instructors must adapt programs for students with disabilities in consultation with medical professionals.
“You must have the knowledge,” Guo says. “This is like a medical intervention. It’s not as simple as you go to anybody who can teach tai chi and they can teach you.”
Guo is working on putting instructional material about wheelchair tai chi on his website at applied-tai-chi.com.
Nelson says that as wheelchair users seek qualified instruction, they can safely start practicing tai chi’s most essential aspect — stilling and moving in the mind.
“The most advance level of all the internal [martial] arts, the highest level is not moving,” he says. “It’s about intent. From intent comes movement. In our most advance classes, we stand or sit and visualize what we’re going to do and then we do it.”
For more information, visit nccam.nih.gov or applied-tai-chi.com.
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