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NIGMS Scientist Relaxes, Relates and Releases with T'ai Chi

By Jilliene Mitchell

For some, relaxation is listening to music, getting a massage or curling up with a good book. But for Dr. James Anderson, a program director in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at NIGMS, relaxation can be found in the ancient Chinese art of T'ai Chi.

T'ai Chi, which is also known as T'ai Chi Ch'uan, can be translated as "the supreme ultimate force" or "the supreme ultimate point that engenders everything in the world." Some sources say that T'ai Chi was developed in 1400 A.D., while others say it started in the early 1800's.

Dr. James Anderson of NIGMS took up T'ai Chi many years after first learning of the art.

Anderson discovered T'ai Chi in the late 1970's. After seeing the art performed by an elderly Chinese man, he was fascinated by the mixture of meditation and movement. "The form is beautiful, dance-like but meditative in tone; even spectators are affected, drawn into the relaxed and almost hypnotic atmosphere created by the performer," Anderson explained. While the performance piqued Anderson's interest, it was not until many years later that he decided to give T'ai Chi a try.

Anderson has been taking T'ai Chi lessons for 2 ½ years and is steadily improving his skills. Currently, he is learning the Yang style traditional form. Other styles include Wu, Chen and Sun, all of which evolved from the art's original form and feature different movements. Anderson says that T'ai Chi is classified as a "soft" or "interior" martial art as compared to a martial art such as Kung Fu, which is classified as "hard" or "exterior."

While some continue to use the art for learning self-defense, most use it for mental and physical health. "With practice, T'ai Chi promotes an alert, focused, yet very relaxed state of mind; like yoga it also develops physical strength, balance and flexibility," said Anderson. The martial art has also been known to reduce tension and stress, and — despite its non-aerobic nature — it assists in lowering blood pressure. T'ai Chi's adaptability to physical limitations makes it appropriate for people of all ages.

Practicing T'ai Chi with Anderson are Jean Chin (r), program director in the Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics, and Victoria Bishton, grants program assistant in the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry.

Anderson says what he enjoys most about T'ai Chi is the way it embraces the union of opposites (the yin and the yang) to promote one's natural harmony. This fusion is captured in the metaphorical aspects of the martial art. One of Anderson's favorite T'ai Chi metaphors is the mountain and the river. "In T'ai Chi we emulate the stability, strength and endurance of the lofty mountains, while embodying the relaxed flow and adaptability of the ever-changing river," he noted.

He is not the only one who has been bitten by the T'ai Chi bug. It has become increasingly popular in Western culture as more people are using it to help cope with the stress of their daily lives. With Anderson's help, T'ai Chi is now being practiced by other NIGMS staff. What started as a demonstration that he performed for a Chinese New Year celebration led to weekly classes that he teaches to several institute staff members. Anderson said, "The class meets three times a week at noon and is open to NIH folk. Provided there is enough space to accommodate people, new students are welcome." Interested people can contact him at andersoj@nigms.nih.gov for more information.


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