Wheelchi: Wheelchair Taiji

When a car accident left Jean-Baptiste Berné’s wife wheelchair-bound for a full year, he says the experience opened his eyes to just how hard it can be for those with limited mobility to stay active. Excluding the lucky few who can afford expensive adapted equipment or live close to an adaptive fitness center, “Not many activities are available when you’re in a wheelchair,” he says.

On the hunt for a solution, his interest was piqued when he stumbled across the work of Dr. Zibin Guo, a medical anthropologist and master of Taiji who had set to work over the past decade adapting the traditional Chinese Martial Art form to accommodate those in wheelchairs.

Already a longtime practitioner of Chinese internal martial arts, Berné saw some potential here. Taiji’s graceful, flowing motions have widely reported health benefits, but even beyond that, Berné says that after seeing Dr. Guo’s work in action he came to believe that the form also has the potential to change the way people think about the wheelchair itself. “They perceive the wheelchair not just as a device to assist movement, but rather a tool of empowerment and artistic expression,” he says.

With all these possibilities in mind, this chance discovery set him on the path to founding his own training program, Wheelchi. When he did so in 2012, the Germany-based program became the first to carry Dr. Guo’s work into Europe.

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The move marked a slow expansion of practitioners and instructors that began more than a decade ago when Dr. Guo first began developing the program in 2005. The work took several years and involved spending weeks in a wheelchair himself to experiment with the motions, along with collaboration with doctors, therapists, and patients.

What he arrived at was a system of 13 postures. Each was based on one of the most well-known postures of either the Chen or Yang style of Taiji. In Guo’s system, the motion of the upper body remains largely unchanged from the traditional form, but the lower body movement is replaced by the motion of the wheelchair with forward or turning motions achieved by manipulations of the wheels that are integrated into more familiar Taiji arm movements.

He first promoted wheelchair Taiji throughout China, working with the China Disabled Persons’ Federation among other groups and showcasing the system at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics opening ceremony. He then moved on to set up shop in the U.S. at the Siskin Health and Fitness Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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Wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Summer Paralympics
By 王伟00715 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/12353.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wheelchi – Wheelchair Taiji

In 2012, Berné gained a certification from Dr. Guo’s team and became the first French instructor of the form. He flew back to Europe, and Wheelchi was born.

Today, Berné provides private one-on-one lessons and occasional seminars, wherein he instructs students in the 13-pose series developed by Guo. He also throws in a smattering of qigong, meditation, and breathing exercises. And for those inclined toward the more martial end of the martial arts spectrum, he also instructs students in Tuishou (or the “pushing hands” or “push hands” form of Taiji), the explosive Fa jin techniques, and the use of weapons such as small sticks and swords.

Berné is quick to point out that rather than inhibiting motion, the wheelchair actually opens up possibilities for Taiji practitioners. While conventional Taiji of course requires some leg movement, the “wheels become the legs” in Wheelchi; as it turns out, he says, the stability of the large base actually allows for a wider range of upper body motion.

“By adding the thrust of the wheelchair behind the traditional arm movement, the wheelchair Taiji routine promotes a sense of power and accomplishment that impacts participants and spectators alike,” he says.

“This is really the beauty of wheelchair Taiji. It becomes a symphony between the circular, gracious moves of Taiji and qigong and the movements of the wheelchair.” He adds, “In the moment, the wheelchair has a completely different meaning, not only in the mind of the practitioners but also in the eyes of the audience.”

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At the core of Berné’s philosophy is the importance of adapting the form to fit the needs and abilities of any student. He recalls one student who came to his instruction studio with pain so severe that any movement of the wheelchair at all would have been impossible. “I started to teach her the stationary method and asked her to almost completely avoid rotating her trunk and hips while doing the moves,” he says.

Although she only focused on motions that used only the shoulder, arms, and neck when she began, Berné’ says that her range of motion improved substantially after six months of practice. With those improvements, he has managed to begin introducing increasingly dynamic forms.

“It’s probably what I love the most about Wheelchi,” he says. “Students come with the motivation to feel better or to learn something cool, and then through the practice, step by step, transformations occur.”

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