The Art of the Light Touch
I first began studying tai chi in my late 20s. That probably seems strangely early, given the image of elderly people waving their hands around in slow motion. What can I say? I’m an old soul.
I liked the mechanics. I liked the subtlety and the counter-intuitive nature of the art. And I loved the idea of just enough force to get the job done. That kind of deft touch is the kind of thing that I saw in the martial arts movies I grew up on. It’s less obvious in real life, though. Yet, it exists. Imagine the tennis player who gently places the ball just far enough to the side to pull their opponent off-balance and slow their next reaction. Or the Muay Thai expert who feints just enough to bring their opponent’s weight onto the front leg to create the perfect timing for a knockout.
I suppose that I should point out that tai chi isn’t just about being soft. Rather, it’s about the ideal of balancing hard and soft. You know that classic image of yin and yang? It’s actually called the “tai chi picture” (太極圖). So, too much isn’t the way—but neither is too little. The goal isn’t to rely on physical attributes like power or brute force but it’s also to have them in your back pocket. Tai chi is ultimately a pedagogy built around balancing the two extremes—it is a philosophy encoded into physical movement. But it certainly doesn’t own the exclusive rights here. High-level practitioners of just about anything will often showcase that interplay of soft and hard—subtle and extreme.
After recently opening up the crates and beginning to practice tai chi a bit for the first time in many years, I’ve been thinking a lot about just enough, which I sometimes call, “The Art of the Light Touch.” What other places in your life could this fit?
When we bring up posture, the first thing people do is straighten up and pinch their shoulders back. Posture itself, though, is dynamic. There is no magical position. Posture is about a default position that balances the forces of gravity—along with the pulls of your own tensions—and fits it to a specific scenario. The problem of being too rigid is that it’s simply more work than you need to be doing. The second-order effect of that is that your extra tension makes it harder to notice the little details. That’s usually where the magic is hidden, by the way. In one of the classics on tai chi, an author writes (I’m paraphrasing) that your arm should be so light when it’s held up that if a fly were to land on it, it would set it in motion. Think of what that would feel like—exactly enough strength or intention to hold a position or complete a task but not one iota more. Again, it’s worth stating that this is not about being completely relaxed or soft. All yin and no yang is dead—literally. Instead, this is about calibrating your force as perfectly as possible.
In strength training, one of the most common errors I’ll see is people who use too much tension to get the job done. One of the telltale signs of many people with low-back pain, for example, is that they automatically use a 10/10 strategy for everything—even when it’s a 3/10 demand. It’s worth asking where in your own life you use too much force—too much or too little. I see examples of this almost every day. The driver who leans on her horn, rather than tapping it—or simply taking the moment to think about literally anything else. The guy who yells at a Starbucks barista for messing up his drink order. The clenched teeth and tight jaws that follow us around—even during sleep. Overreactions and anger and holding onto tension in general. Likewise, we can under-do it. By not speaking up when we see something wrong. Or not being willing to throw our whole body into something when we actually need to. Again, there's a balance to be had. Sometimes, just enough is actually quit a bit. I think about this in conversations too. As someone who is striving to listen more and talk less, I wonder where our own attempts to add to the conversation actually derail it or pull it off-course from something more rewarding. Or where being afraid to share how we really feel holds us back. The Art of the Light Touch is not weak. It may have a seemingly gentle touch but it often requires courage and depth of skill. Where would your life benefit from the Art of the Light Touch? How could you further develop these skills? And how will you do so?