Taiji-like Exercises for People with Physical Handicaps

It is well known that Taiji exercises have many health benefits. This article discusses that many Taiji-like exercises, including the associated warm-up stretching and Qigong exercises, can also be practiced by people with limited physical handicaps, e.g., people who have to be seated in wheelchairs or people with limited mobility capabilities. It is well-known for hundreds of years that Taiji-like exercises are good for your health. Modern scientific/medical research investigations carried out in the last 25 years are supporting these long-held beliefs, although more research studies with larger sample sizes and by more teams over many more localities are still needed to confirm these preliminary findings. [1]

By Taiji-like exercises we are referring to exercises that include warm-up exercises that we usually do at the beginning of each class or self-practice , and breathing/stretching/meditation exercises like the Eight Silk Brocade Qigong [2] exercises.  We will discuss two types of people with limited mobility handicaps:

  • People who are seated in wheelchairs, but can still move their arms and legs
  • People who can standup and walk, although slowly and not always steadily

I. People Seated in Wheelchairs: These are people who are seated in wheetchairs, but can still move their arms and legs.  There are still quite a few exercises that these people can do.  We now discuss several of them.

  1. Raising arms with deep breathing:  Raise both hands to shoulder height just before your shoulders, then raise one hand upward slowly while breathing in deeply before lowering it to shoulder height while breathing out slowly.  Then repeat with the other hand.  Repeat this cycle 6-8 times.  (The number of repetitions is at your own disposal.  Choose more if you have more time, and less if you don’t have that much time.)  This strengthens your arms and shoulders while exercising your lungs.
  2. Turning heads:  Turn your head slowly to the left while looking far to the left and slightly backward while breathing in deeply, then turn your head back to the front while breathing out deeply.  Then do the same thing while turning your head to the right.  Repeat this cycle 6-8 times. This exercise strengthens your neck muscles while exercising your lungs. This is basically doing Exercise IV “Wise Owl Gazing Backward” in the Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercise described in Ref. 2.
  3. Drawing a bow and shooting an arrow:  Move both hands to chest height in front of your body.  Turn your head to the left and raise your left hand to chest height and extend it to the left with your left thumb and index finger in a V, simultaneously raise your right hand to chest height with right fist close and extend it to the right as though you are drawing the string with your right hand and shooting an arrow through the bow being held in your left hand. Do all this while you take a deep breath in. Then extend your right hand to the right and drop both hands to your side while breathing out. Then repeat the process to the right instead of to the left. Repeat this cycle 3-4 times. This exercise strengthens your arms, shoulders, and neck while exercising your lungs. This is basically doing Exercise II “Drawing Bow and Letting Arrow Fly” in the Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercise described in Ref. 2 except that you are not squatting down since your are sitting on a wheelchair.
  4. Stretching your spinal column: Bring both hands with palms facing up to chest height in front of your body while breathing in. Then flip left hand with left palm facing up and flip right hand with right palm facing down. With both hands in the middle of your body, push the left palm straight up and push the right palm straight down while breathing out. This stretches your spinal column and creates more space between the dishes and the spinal vertebrae. Then flip both hands and lower the left hand to your chest while raising the right hand to your chest while breathing in. Then flip only the right hand and push the right hand up and push the left hand down while breathing out. This is an extremely good exercise to strengthen your back muscles and reduce back pain. Repeat this cycle 3-4 times. This is doing Exercise III “Separating Heaven and Earth” in the Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercise described in Ref. 2.
  5. Waist rotation: For many people who are confined to wheel chairs, they could still move their waists. This is a simple exercise. While you are sitting on your wheel chair, you just rotate your waste while you turn your whole body to the left and right. Do this continuously for 1-2 minutes. Rotating your waist can strengthen your back muscles which can reduce the probability of your getting back problems or help to reduce the severity of your back problems.
  6. Raise legs: For many people who are confined to wheel chairs, although they cannot walk with their legs, many can still move their legs. While sitting in a wheelchair, extend your left leg and raise it so the leg is horizontal to the ground while breathing in, then lower the left leg to the ground while breathing out. Repeat this with the right leg, and Repeat the cycle for 1-2 minutes.

II. People with Limited Mobility Capability: This set of exercises is for those who can stand up and walk, although slowly and not always steadily. When walking, be sure to pay attention to the following two principles as discussed in Ref. 3:

  • Walk with both feet separated by about a shoulder width in the direction perpendicular to your direction of motion
  • Walk by stepping down on your heel first, followed by stepping down on your toes.

For these people, all the exercises discussed in Section I for people in wheelchairs can also be done by people who can stand up and walk. Besides the three Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercises discussed in Section I, they can also do the other five Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercises of Ref. 2. Furthermore, while doing these exercises, they can also squat down if it is prescribed by the exercise.

In addition, here are a couple more exercises they can do:

  1. Cat walk: Just slowly walk forward by lifting your left leg up and move it 1-1.5 feet in front while landing on your heel first before stepping down on your toes. The is sometimes known in Taiji circles as “cat step.” Your heel provides a firmer support than your toes. So walking this way provides a more stable way of walking. Also, make sure that there is a horizontal separation of about one shoulder width between your left foot and right foot. This ensures that as long as your center of gravity is between the left line of support and the right line of support, you will not fall, thus providing a larger base of foundation to support you. [4] Walk this way around the room for 2-3 minutes, mostly walking forward but could also be walking backward.
  2. Squat down mostly on one leg. Spread your feet by about two shoulders wide, but moving your left foot slightly back relative to the right foot. Then shift your weight to your right foot and sit downward on your right heel while keeping your left knee straight. Hold in this position for 20-30 seconds, and then switch feet, now moving the right foot back relative to the left foot, and sitting down on your left heel while keeping the right knee straight. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Then repeat this cycle 1-2 more times. This is a good exercise to strengthen your leg muscles and result in a stronger stand.

In summary, people with limited physical mobility can also do many Taiji-like warm-up, stretching, and Qigong exercises, and thus benefit from many health benefits of Taiji. These are relatively simple exercises and can be taught and learned easily. They do not require a lot of room. The exercises can be practiced for extended periods like 30-60 minutes, or as short as 10-15 minutes. Practicing them several times per week will do wonders to your health and increase your vitality and raise your spirit.


[1] See, e.g., Don M. Tow, “Health Benefits of Taiji,” Qi:  The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness, Volume 29, No. 3, Autumn 2019, pp. 20-28. A shorter version of this article can also be found in the article “Trying to Understand Why Taiji Has So Many Health Benefits” in the September 2019 article in this website.

[2] See, an earlier article in this website:  “A Set of Simple Time-Tested Health Exercises: The Eight Silk Brocade (八段錦).”

[3] See the earlier article “Walking Tips and Taiji” in this website. Click here for the link to this article.

[4] However, when walking backward, you don’t have to first step down on your heel before stepping down on your toes. because when moving backward, your support still relies more on the front foot.

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