Sport & Culture

‘Wheelchair Taijiquan’ & the Paralympics

Dr. Zibin Guo on a new form of Olympic martial arts that empowers people with disabilities.

On September 5, 2008, fifty wheelchair Taijiquan practitioners, dressed in white silk Tai Chi uniforms and moving in slow graceful harmony, performed the “13 Postures of Wheelchair Taijiquan” on the main stage of the Beijing 2008 Olympics/Paralympics Cultural Festival as one of the kickoff events for the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Paralympics on September 6.

 “They moved so beautifully and it was so inspirational as if they were dancing in the chair,” one of the reporters on the scene described.

This group wheelchair Taijiquan performance, organized by the Beijing 2008 Olympics Committee and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, introduced to the world the 13 Postures of Wheelchair Taijiquan I developed in 2005 as a mind/body healing art for people with ambulatory impairment.  A key feature of this innovative program is that by integrating wheelchair motion (the rolling and turning of the chair) with the dynamic, gentle and flowing movements of Taijiquan, it transforms the wheelchair from an assistive device into a tool of empowerment. 

According to worldwide health statistics, physical inactivity among people with a disability continues to be prevalent and a serious health concern throughout the world. Among people with a disability, physical inactivity is not only one of the leading causes of premature death, it also tends to increase the risk for functional limitations and secondary health conditions. Similar to many other societies, the majority of people with ambulatory impairment in China find that the economic hardship, poor health conditions, less predictable daily routines, prevalent social stigmas, and a lack of mobility and accessibility often discourage them from participating in community-based fitness programs. 

From medical, philosophical and martial arts’ origins centuries ago, Taijiquan is currently one of the most effective and widely practiced mind and body exercise models in the world.

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The movements of Taijiquan are slow, gentle, circular, and require a high degree of synchronization between mind and body; the mind is tranquil, but alert, with consciousness directing bodily movements, deeper abdominal breathing in rhythmic harmony with those movements, creating a unified flow of energy. 

The therapeutic effects of Taijiquan practice have been well documented.  Various studies have shown that frequent Taijiquan practice contributes significantly to the improvement of mental and physical well being for people of all age groups and physical conditions including individuals with physical impairments from depression, fibromyalgia symptoms, lower-limb disabilities, cardiopulmonary difficulties, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, among others. 

Despite its health benefits, the conventional method of practicing Tai Chi requires participants to have at least some ambulatory ability, which is not suitable for people with ambulatory difficulty.

It was within this context that the work of developing and promoting the 13 Postures of Wheelchair Taijiquan began to unfold.  

Since 2005, I began to work with the China Disabled People’s Federation and various other organizations in China to promote the 13 Postures of Wheelchair Taijiquan. In a span of a few years, wheelchair Taijiquan has become a popular fitness activity benefiting tens of thousands of people throughout China. 

The success in promoting the 13 Postures of Wheelchair Taijiquan suggests that wheelchair Taijiquan is an effective and practical program that makes accessible a traditional Chinese martial and healing art to people with ambulatory impairment by transforming the wheelchair from an assistive device into a tool of empowerment.   The practice of wheelchair Taijiquan does not require any special equipment or space, and it can be practiced when and wherever convenient for the practitioner.  In addition, since the body movements in wheelchair Taijiquan are gentle, slow, and circular, practitioners can adjust the speed and the range of motion according to their physical condition, thereby minimizing the practitioners’ fear of injury.

The fast growing popularity of wheelchair Taijiquan in China demonstrates the importance of considering the everyday reality of people with disabilities in the design of an intervention program.  The effort to promote Paralympic sports, develop adaptive fitness technology, and improve environmental accessibility is essential to promoting participation in physical activities for people with physical disability. However, the consideration toward developing the type of fitness programs that are culturally meaningful and socially practical (low-cost and less reliant on external factors) would have equal importance. 

Dr. Zibin Guo is a medical anthropologist specializing in Chinese medicine/healing traditions; culture and mental health; disability and health; and cross-cultural aging and health.