Moderation and Honesty is the key to good Tai Chi

Introducing the Seventy Percent Rule

When I started learning Tai Chi with Brian Cooper, and later also with Bruce Frantzis, one of the first lessons was to try and understand and implement the Seventy Percent Rule. Many years on when I am trying too hard ( and isn't it so easy to try too hard...) Brian will always take me back to the early days and remind me about this first principle. The problem is, we all want to succeed at anything we are attempting to learn, and this is not at all unreasonable; but can we really reap the benefits of our study if we have also picked up a parasitic tension in the process? That tension can actually end up making us totally dissatisfied with what we have learnt, and laying the blame at some randomly selected doorway, leave us feeling cheated, perhaps enough to abandon our study and seek something 'more to our liking'. It may be hard to perceive that this is what has happened, but I know from personal experience it's exactly what happens, whether you acknowledge it or not.

The 70% Rule is an essential component of learning Tai Chi and Qigong for health and longevity. It is at the heart of all Taoist practices. Put simply, when you exercise you should only operate within a range of around 70% (see below for exceptions) of your current maximum capacity. This will allow you to:

  • absorb what you learn more easily.
  • reduce your internal resistance & maintain the effort for longer.
  • be able to relax enough to be honest about what your limits are.
  • increase your capacity as you develop your practise, without stress.

Living in moderation

Living and learning in moderation is a very alien concept to many of us who are part of the go-for-the-burn, no-pain-no-gain philosophy of the modern world. In Taoist terms this is seen as "practising towards death". Despite of what you might think is acceptable, in reality many modern activities put an unacceptable strain on your system - though you may not see it that way. Many people only register the 'pleasurable' buzz that is achieved from pushing yourself to the limits, and are usually unaware that this only exists as a direct result of the body's fight-or-flight response which gives us that superhuman feeling of stamina and power in order to save us from a life or death situation. In reality it is an abuse of the sympathetic nervous system.

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So strain can be seen as a result of breaking the 70% rule - it is a physiological condition caused by excessive exercise or too much adrenaline-fuelled stress and tension. This shouldn't be confused with effort, which may leave you feeling exercised, but not physically, emotionally or mentally incapacitated. The Chinese have a saying that "the brain eats the body"; this means it is far easier to believe what our brain (intellectual mind) is telling us than accept that what our gut feeling (intuitive mind) is telling us. The brain has no issue with stimulating us beyond the natural ability of the body - thanks so much Mr Ego.

Just how do we go about bringing the 70% Rule into play? We must be honest with ourselves. I'll say that again - we must be honest with ourselves. "You are fooling no one except yourself" the old saying goes, and never a truer word spoken or written. It almost seems to be a part of a humans makeup that we act on our subjective viewpoint before objectively considering the reality of what's before us. This seems to be even more enforced in today's big corporation-driven 'what's in it for me' philosophy that is sublimely fed to us as an acceptable way to behave; indeed, we are being conditioned to think the only way to get a positive result and a better way of life is to consume more and more rather than less, and that all our efforts should focus on earning more and more in order to do so. If we were being truly honest with ourselves, it would not take much to recognise that we don't need much, and we can get what we need with quite a lot less effort (at least 30% less, in fact).

Importantly, the '70' in 70% assumes you are in normal health. If you are experiencing stress or discomfort at a physical, emotional or mental level, you must adjust the rule to suit your condition. So for a light physical injury that is healing you may use a 50% rule for a while until you feel a release occur, then you may practise using the 60% rule for a suitable period, before gradually returning your body to normal practice. This is more difficult to master than you might at first think - we all want so much to succeed. I feel we sometimes forget that succeeding can also be measured by how little we intervene in a process as opposed to how much we interfere with a process.

Try this little exercise

- and be honest with yourself. Pick your best hand and make a fist, squeezing it as tightly as you can - no, tighter than that, as if you are the strongest person in the world (well, you are, aren't you?). Now hold that for 3 minutes - no cheating. Watch the time, and notice how it feels to hold this shape as time progresses - remember, be honest. Don't just feel the pain or discomfort the fist might be causing, but notice how you are thinking about things. If you make the 3 minutes, or whenever you cannot hold the posture any longer, keep the shape of the fist but allow everything that is tense or strained in your body to relax. It's as if the fist shape is being supported by a tiny balloon inflating in the palm of your hand. Feel the fist now, and notice the difference in your body and mind. You still have have a fist, right? You can still do fist-things with it. So you didn't really need all that extra effort and tension to make it, did you? Welcome to the world of Tai Chi.

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