In this episode, Dr. Zibin Guo, a Tai Chi Master tells us about the benefits of Tai Chi for Physicians. Learn why Tai Chi is a way for physicians to lower stress starting today!
“Knowing your vulnerabilities makes you able to yield before breaking down, so that is the whole idea of Tai Chi.” – Dr. Zibin Guo
For episode 166, Master Certified Coach, Jill Farmer welcomes Dr. Zibin Guo to the podcast! Dr. Zibin Guo is a professor in medical anthropology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and a Tai Chi Chuan Master. He specializes in Applied Medical Anthropology with a focus on applying traditional healing knowledge to develop intervention programs to promote physical and psychological well-being among vulnerable populations. In this episode, he shares about the benefits of Tai Chi for our busy physician audience. As he mentions in the podcast, you can experience the benefits of Tai Chi without dedicating a bunch of time or learning any difficult exercise regimens. He suggests learning two Tai Chi movements and integrating their practice into your life. Tune in to this episode to learn the amazing benefits of Tai Chi and how it can help you.
Dr. Zibin Guo is a professor in medical anthropology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and a Tai Chi Chuan Master. He specializes in Applied Medical Anthropology with a focus on applying traditional healing knowledge to develop intervention programs to promote physical and psychological well-being among vulnerable populations.
In 2005, Dr. Guo developed a form of wheelchair Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) program making a traditional healing/martial art accessible to people with ambulatory limitations. A key feature of this innovative program is that it integrates wheelchair motions with the flowing movements of TCC to transform the wheelchair from an assistive device to a tool of empowerment and artistic expression. Dr. Guo’s program was debuted at the 2008 Paralympics.
Since 2016, funded by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Guo has been implementing the Adaptive Tai Chi for Veterans program across the country. As of September 2021, Dr. Guo and his team have provided the training to over 600 VA healthcare providers at more than 80 VA Medical Centers/facilities across the United States and territory
Prior to joining the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, Dr. Guo served as a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine of Harvard Medical School and the Director of Clinical Studies at New England School of Acupuncture.
Watch Dr. Guo’s wheelchair Tai Chi here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jR0DbXlS4GI
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Please enjoy the full transcript below
Dr. Zibin: Knowing your vulnerabilities makes you able to yield before breaking down, so that is the whole idea of tai chi.
Jill: Hello and welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Jill Farmer, lead coach at DocWorking and one of the cohosts of the podcast. We’re brought to you by DocWorking THRIVE. Find out more at docworking.com. And today, I’m really excited to be joined by Dr. Zibin Guo, He’s is going to share some new insights, something that we haven’t talked about yet on the podcast, and it’s tai chi, and how it can impact your ability to be healthy and whole as a physician, which is one of the things we love to talk about here.
Dr. Zibin Guo is a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and a tai chi master. He specializes in Applied Medical Anthropology with a focus on applying traditional healing knowledge to develop intervention programs to promote physical and psychological well-being among vulnerable populations. And along that line, he developed a form of wheelchair tai chi, a program that’s used with healing martial arts that is accessible to people with ambulatory limitations. It integrates wheelchair motions with the flowing movements of tai chi to transform a wheelchair from an assistive device to a tool of empowerment.
And from there, since 2016, funded by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Guo has been implementing the Adaptive Tai Chi for Veterans program across the country. They have provided training to over 600 VA healthcare providers at more than 80 VA centers across the country. So, thanks for being with us, Dr. Guo.
Dr. Zibin: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jill: So, let’s talk a little bit about your own history and how, as a medical anthropologist, you came to do the work that you’re doing, what led you on this journey to where you are today?
Dr. Zibin: Thank you. I started martial arts training when I was a young. I began to be really fascinated with the whole idea of internal martial arts, which means that you’re able to use your opponent’s power against your opponent and how you become part of the forces of your opponents, so that you’re able to redirect them, which is the principle of tai chi called internal martial arts. I did not really begin to appreciate that kind of cultural wisdom, until I began to study anthropology. Cultural anthropology or medical anthropology to be specific.
Now, how those traditional, cultural wisdoms, the ideas, developed through our adaptation to our environment. And that wisdom helps us to overcome and overcome more than challenges. Martial arts is supposed to be used in the battlefield, and defending yourself, or fighting your enemies. Of course, in today’s society, we no longer practice martial law just for that reason. Oftentimes, it is really hard to overcome our own enemy within. That is when I became fascinated with the idea, the power of perceptions and the power of cultural wisdoms that will help us to deal with the modern challenges. So, that is when I began to really try to apply those ancient wisdom, tai chi ideas, and make them become more relevant to today’s life.
Jill: And so, specifically, a lot of the work as folks heard in the bio, which I think is fascinating and inspirational, that you’ve done recently is with Veterans and using adaptive tai chi. Talk a little bit about why tai chi is such a good match for that population in our country.
Dr. Zibin: Well, tai chi is a very, very interesting form of body movement. It is gentle, it is circular, it is graceful. Most importantly, all of those body movements have some kind of implication in terms of dealing, in terms of engaging, and engaging with external powers, and as I mentioned earlier, it is a form of internal martial arts. To make your body become so powerful, you have to use your mind. You can’t have a powerful body without a powerful mind. That is what tai chi is about. In order to make your body move like water, able to yield, or redirect, or make your body like bamboo, you have to be able to yield or redirect. You have to have the mind first. You make your mind become your body, body becomes your mind. So, that gentle movement not only provides a powerful way to engage with your mind, but also makes it suitable for people with all physical conditions.
We know a lot of vulnerable populations, because of various health conditions, body abilities, and reluctance, are unable to participate in the conventional fitness programs, because of injury or because of kinesiophobia (the fear of the body getting hurt by doing something). Tai chi movement is so gentle and so graceful that it provides a sense of comfort. Also, tai chi, if we make it adaptive, which means that we change the form of tai chi practice a little bit by using sitting at home, by using standing at home, or even in a wheelchair, you’re able to provide the participants with a sense of normalization. Normalization really means that regardless of my body conditions, I can move so beautifully and empowering. Not just my mind but also my body as well. So, that was the whole lesson learned through working with people with disabilities, people in wheelchairs, and people who have bodily injuries that prevent them from engaging in other forms of physical fitness programs.
Jill: I love that. Let’s talk about physicians, right? I love what you said earlier about how tai chi, because of the mind-body connection that is implicit to the practice, helps us to work with our own enemy within. For physicians, particularly in the last two years, but really, generally, unfortunately, from medical education through their practice as professionals, there is so much external pressure for performance, perfection, that then gets translated into internal pressure. And there’s just a lot of pressure, and stress, and stress responses that physicians are under more than ever now. I’m hearing from more and more physicians in my practice as a coach who are saying, “I’m crying, uncle. I’m very resilient.”
We know physicians as a whole are more resilient than the general population. But at this point, they need new tools to better process their stress responses in a way that allows them to be resilient and to continue the practice of medicine. A big part of what we do at DocWorking and our DocWorking Thrive program, and specifically, a course within that program that is the stress course by StressPal, is we focus on that idea of mindfulness and being able to process stress. I know tai chi research has shown it has the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. So, why do you think tai chi is something that could be particularly helpful for physicians as they’re in this state of being in 2022, because of the conditions in the last few years of practicing medicine?
Dr. Zibin: Wow, you laid it out so perfectly, gracefully. This is contemporary pictures, and glories, and the challenges that face healthcare providers, especially physicians. Being a physician is one of the most admirable, but also challenging occupations, and they’re carried over by ordinary people. We’re not superman. And we all know how challenging it is for physicians these days, and the burnout rate is extremely high, and there’s emotional and mental distress caused by those burnouts. It’s incredible, I think I read a study that says it’s twice as common as the ordinary population, other professions.
I really admire physicians. It is a group of unique people. And I know a lot of my students, when they apply for medical school, I ask them, “What do you want to do?” They say, “To try to help people.” Then we know they’re trying to help people, but they forget about themselves. As the data shows, as you know, depression and burnout are really still high among the physician population. That is a really, really challenging reality. I think we all should come up with a way to help, because without physicians, we cannot have a good, well and healthy society. In order to have a healthy society, we need to take care of our physicians first.
Now, tai chi would be a benefit to physicians, just like tai chi would benefit anybody. What I see is that the occupation of physicians is really unique, because every day they try to really deal with the problems that are so intrinsically embedded into human life. It is constantly a figuration battle,to try to find a way to improve our life and overcoming it is the key. What I see is that veterans, and why I promote this program in the veteran population, was from all the studies done by other people, is that, humans, we have the kind of a warrior spirit just like veterans or like physicians. Physicians are warriors. Every day they go there and they try to defeat the disease, they try to save lives, they try to overcome, not just help other people overcome, in a way themselves, they become exhausted. Not just physically exhausted, but mentally exhausted.
The popularity of the complementary medicine modality, yoga, tai chi, all things, is that it is able to provide us with a sense of recuperation, relaxation, sense of basically and actively engaging in some kind of mental shifting. If our mind is constantly confronted with a particular social reality, which is intensified and challenged everywhere, difficulties, our mind is not meant for that. Our mind, our mental qualities and our bodies were made to live in the natural environment as hunters and gatherers. Now, suddenly, we have to deal with those compartmentalized, socialized, and medicalized realities. Not just our mind, but our body could not take it either. The great thing about tai chi is that this kind of movement is not only able to promote a sense of warrior spirit, but most importantly, it really puts our mind into a different environment, the natural environment.
For example, the flow. The water flow is like a movement that often reminds us about water. The metaphors and similes we use in the tai chi program are, stand like a tree, sit like a mountain, flow like a water, yield like a bamboo, and bring our mind into that kind of environment to make us feel enriched, empowered. Just like when we get exhausted, we want to go on vacation. Oftentimes, the vacation takes place in the mountains, the beaches, the natural environment, because those natural environments give us a kind of natural relaxation, but also empowerment.
For physicians, they’re working so hard, so many hours in the clinical settings and hospitals dealing with patients and this can be very, very exhausting. Therefore, I think the tai chi program or tai chi life program is especially important for healthcare providers and physicians. Because it not only provides them with a sense of physical fitness, but most importantly, it is another constructive way to engage in mental engagement. So, that engagement, we not only feel a sense of space but also, we’re constantly connected with the natural environment in which we have evolved all those years.
Jill: I love that idea because we know the data is there that being in nature is calming to the nervous system and is one of very effective ways for us to process our stress response, to regulate, to complete that stress cycle instead of staying in that activated stress response. I also love how you pointed out that, even though there’s so much strength or that warrior spirit you described, almost superhuman at times for physicians, it doesn’t mean they’re meant to be in that mode all the time. I think in some ways, it’s the curse of the highly capable. When you’re used to being able to be in that level of strength for so long, you forget that we’re meant to regulate into ebb and flow in the amount of intensity, and force, and effort that we’re putting forth in the world.
For this to provide a modality to change the channel. We know that mindfulness and meditation are vital, long term for the ability to process the stress responses, and then I love the fact that tai chi has been called a moving meditation. Because a lot of my physician clients have a hard time just sitting still. Their brains, their bodies are used to being active. I like the idea of this being a way that they can get the benefits that are very important to change the channel in their brains from that intense pressurized go-go-go mode, and do it in a way that allows flow in motion, in nature, it seems it combines a lot of things into one. Do I have that right?
Dr. Zibin: Oh, yes, absolutely. You put it right there. I think the other side of the coin is that, oftentimes, we think exercise is a treatment. It’s an intervention, it is a problem solver. Once we go that way, of course, we solve the problem then we forget about it. We use some kind of a tool when we need it, we use it. When we don’t need it, we’ll put it down. I think that can be dangerous, especially for physicians, because like you said, working extended hours is not by desire, is not by our choice, not by our biological, psychological, choice. No. It is by social constructions and social demand requirements. So, therefore, how many physicians’ bodies are going to be exhausted just like everybody else?
Now, the way of tai chi, oftentimes, is not just exercise. You do it, you feel good. But also, it’s a way of life. The way of life really gives you the wellness about yield and knowing your weaknesses, knowing your vulnerabilities makes you able to yield before breaking down. So, that is the whole idea of tai chi. Oftentimes, people ask me, “Why do you like tai chi so much?” I say, “Tai chi is the only martial art I know you’re getting better at as you’re getting older.”
Jill: Right. There’s a sustainability to it. I love that you’re reminding us that this isn’t this quick fix that you just need to jump into when it’s convenient or when you’re feeling really overwhelmed, but creating a practice that becomes a necessary part of living a balanced and regulated lifestyle when there’s a lot of external pressures. So, finally, Dr. Guo, if somebody says, “Okay, well, this all sounds good, but I don’t know anything about tai chi. How am I supposed to be able to figure this out?” If they’re listening to this and saying, “How can I integrate this in my life? How can I learn about it? When I’m already feeling overwhelmed that it feels one more thing would be hard to take on?” What do you say to them about how they could start?
Dr. Zibin: This is a great question. There has been a myth, people say, “Oh, you need to find a good teacher, you need to invest a lot of time.” That scares people, because like I say, applied tai chi is really kind of understanding that modern lifestyle is completely different from Asian lifestyle. We don’t have six hours a day to practice meditation. Qi gong or yoga, right? Very few people have that luxury, most of us have to work. What I would recommend is that you really just pick one or two movements, and there are a lot of great tai chi teachers everywhere, and just go there and learn a couple of movements. If you have time, you learn more, if you don’t, just stick with the two movements and make it become part of your life pattern.
Every day, you find five minutes and just sit there or stand there and meditate, and go through those movements, and try to feel the idea behind the movement for five minutes, even 10 minutes and that would work much more effectively than if you were to spend two hours a week here and there. I think that is the way to do it. You don’t have to really try to learn 108 moves, 48 moves. That really scares people away. I think that’s one of the challenges to all kinds of programs in terms of sustainability. People just don’t have that much time.
Jill: Yeah, I love that because we do have to lower the obstacle to entrance, so that people can say, “Oh, this isn’t another thing that I have to go, work really hard, learn a ton about before I can even start doing it. Physicians, if you’re listening to this and this seems familiar, do not let perfect be the enemy of good here. Go to YouTube and learn a couple of the moves or find an online teacher you can learn through by watching videos on your own schedule, and begin, and then let the practice grow with you as you begin to understand the benefits for your whole health, and how it helps you to depressurize your life.
Dr. Zibin Guo, this has been really fun to think about and inspiring for us to challenge our brains and bodies with something that is so soothing, and helpful, and delivers so many benefits to our health and wellbeing, especially as it relates to lowering stress levels and having a practice that we get better at as we get older, which I think at this point in life, I’m always appreciating those opportunities for things that I can continue to do into the long haul. So, thanks so much for being with us today.
Dr. Zibin: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jill: And thanks to all our listeners. Make sure you tell your friends and colleagues about all the great conversations we have here and go right now to docworking.com to find out about DocWorking Thrive, the program that can help you lower your stress and live a better life both at work and at home. Until next time. I’m Jill Farmer.
Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe, and head over to docworking.com to see all we have to offer.
Coach Jill Farmer
Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.
She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.
She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.
Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.
Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.