I’ve been going to a Tai Chi class for a few weeks now. One of the ideas my teacher reminds us of every lesson, is the principle of giving about sixty percent. Don’t go for the maximum you can do. Don’t push your body. Don’t over-extend or try too hard. Just relax, and do about two thirds of what you reckon your upper limit might be.
This is a very long way from conventional western thought around developing strength and fitness. We’re normally told to push, to feel the burn, go through the pain barrier. No pain no gain. My experience of life with a body is that if I hurt myself, I lose scope for movement and end up less active in the short term. Hurt yourself enough and you’ll be obliged to quit. Perhaps this is the inevitable price if you want to participate in sports at higher levels, but is it necessary for all of us? What if it isn’t?
I’m enjoying the process of giving it about two thirds of what I’ve got. I’m careful with my joints and muscles, and as someone with various pain issues, I’m enjoying feeling relaxed about doing what I can and not pushing into discomfort. A few weeks in and there are several things I can now do better than when I started, so even though I’m not pushing, I am clearly developing. My balance in some of the moves has improved. The flexibility in a shoulder I’ve had problems with, is improving too.
I’m also finding the sixty percent idea relevant for the rest of life. I tend to feel like I should be going at everything with everything I’ve got all of the time. I know it doesn’t work. A sixty percent approach would be kinder and more sustainable. As I learn to work kindly with my body, I may manage to work a little more kindly with my head, as well.
The no pain no gain mentality can make physical activity seem unavailable to those of us who really can’t afford any more pain. It can discourage people from action on the grounds of disability, age, physical delicacy, ease of being hurt. It can take us down a path towards injury that then limits what we can do. It is definitely possible to strengthen and develop your body without pushing it to, and beyond its limits. However, the idea that pain and gain go together, that growth is good and growth hurts are part of a bigger story our culture tells itself about how we have to push for success and how we should expect to struggle and suffer along the way.
Giving it sixty percent allows me to step back from all of that, rethink my natural limits, rethink other natural limits, and make radical changes.