Kennedy: UTC professor teaches tai chi to military veterans

Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy / Zibin Guo, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is pictured Tuesday in his office. Guo is the founder of a successful national effort to teach American military veterans the ancient martial art of tai chi.

Zibin Guo, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga anthropology professor, remembers the moment he knew his work teaching tai chi to military veterans was on target.

Guo, 60, is a native of China who moved to the United States in his 20s. He was teaching the flowing tai chi movementsin. 2016 to vets at the Alvin C. York Veterans' Administration Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when he noticed something curious. One of the vets broke away from the group and stood in the corner with his face against a wall.

At first, Guo thought he had done something to upset the man. A psychological counselor who was standing by told him not to worry, that the vet was probably having a PTSD episode and had stepped away to compose himself.

PTSD is short for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Later, the man told Guo he had been so excited about coming to the class that day he had forgotten to take his anxiety meds. Two years later, the vet himself was certified as a tai chi instructor.

That's a good example of the excitement that has been built among vets since Guo started his experiment seven years ago.

"After getting my Ph.D. in medical anthropology, I became interested in application of ancient wisdom to modern life," Guo explained in an interview at his UTC office last week.

Today, the adaptive tai chi experiment -- which continues to earn funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs -- has been responsible for spreading tai chi classes to 75 veterans' centers in 44 states, Guo said. More than 800 VA health care providers have been trained to teach tai chi as a result, he said. Meanwhile, more than 4,000 vets have/or still are participating in virtual tai chi classes online.

So, what's the attraction?

Guo, who grew up practicing martial arts, said he always believed tai chi would be a good outlet for both disabled and able-bodied veterans. It's easy to adapt tai chi movements for people in wheelchairs, he said.

He said the martial art appeals to primal instincts and allows people to experience physical activity and psychological peace. Unlike some forms of martial arts, which are more athletic and rely on force, tai chi is all about bending energy back on an opponent. The concept is to "yield and redirect," he said.

"It emphasizes the power of the mind," he said. "It's very graceful, very gentle. It's the perfect way to engage people with a disability."

Guo said one of the vets, who uses a wheelchair, told him that while practicing tai chi he did not feel disabled for the first time in years.

Guo said he thinks the secret sauce is the way a tai chi practice blends elements of the natural world. He said metaphors and similes, along with calming instrumental music, are built into the classes.

Some examples of tai chi similes, which are repeated during classes, are:

-- Be still like a mountain.

-- Flow like a river.

-- Stand like a tree.

Guo said a 50-something Iraqi war veteran who was having PTSD episodes when in heavy highway traffic said he used similes to help contain his feelings.

"When he was stopped in traffic, he tended to have uneasiness and nervousness," Guo said. "Two years later ... he said, 'Now, if I'm stuck in traffic, I look for trees, I look for mountains, I look for water. Then, I begin to feel like I'm practicing tai chi with my brothers and sisters back in the (VA) hospital."

The "Life Stories" column publishes on Mondays. To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.