A Flick of the Wrist

A million times, it seems, I have corrected peoples’ wrist positions. Of all the corrections I make that one seems the most confusing to the students.

I have reached the conclusion that a demon of some kind—a gremlin perhaps—hides in each person’s wrists, chuckling to itself and waiting to leap into action at a nod.

art_wrist2aThis is especially evident and troublesome in that art so universally considered the martial paragon of relaxation and grace: Tai Chi. In this case the relaxed and formal nature of the movement tips people over into the area of gesture for the sake of gesture. That’s why I will use Tai Chi as an example here but, really, it’s all the same for any martial art.

Many people walk into a studio with what I term the “Myth of Eye-Hand-Coordination” embedded in their heads. Of course, Eye-Hand Coordination does exist physiologically, but this is not the problem, and this is not the myth. In a world only recently sprung from the Industrial Revolution, then transformed immediately into the electronic revolution, Eye-Hand coordination has become king.

We love eye-hand coordination in this culture because it links us to a more physical world, a more physical self, without (we mythologize) sacrificing our electronic selves. We “access” the physical through our eyes more often than through our bodies. TV, film, computers…we don’t need to put on the goggles to experience the virtual world. Paradoxically, that’s why we love sports heroes. They perform with their bodies on basketball courts or football fields while we sit watching with one finger poised above the remote control, essentially reduced to a huge eye-hand monitor, however vicarious.

What does this all have to do with the wrist? Well, the wrist is a real, physiological joint, but too often, in Tai Chi and in many advanced martial arts, its real function is replaced by its visual concept. The wrist hangs out there in the sight line. We can’t easily see our heels, or our backs, or our hips as we practice. Wrists fixate our attention and seem to have a life of their own. But the wrist should be the tip of the bullwhip and, even though all the SNAP sound comes from the tip it is, ultimately, passive. Attempts to make Tai Chi pretty through wrist movement are incorrect: plain and simple. We have a saying about this …“Affectation comes from the wrist.”

Embellishment, affect, elaboration, pizzazz: call it what you want but any amount —however small—of such action as an end in itself is a breach of core principles. This is a difficult discipline to enforce with oneself because, to put it simply, our personalities are expressed by our wrists and we want to keep personality out of the deal. The Emily Post tea finger held out in a dainty gesture; the rug salesman’s wave of the hand; the fingers held with mock shock against the heart; next to our eyes and our tongues we most rely on our hands—especially if you have some Italian blood—to tell our stories and demonstrate our feelings. But in martial arts this doesn’t work.

For the martial practitioner the wrist shouldn’t express emotion, just motion.

The problem is the complexity of the requirement. The wrist is arguably the most complicated bone structure in the human body. Fifteen bones meet at the end of the forearm, eight of these in the wrist itself. Articulate cartilage, joint capsules, collateral ligaments and tendons help with the smooth interaction of the more solid structures. Three major nerves: radial, ulna and medial all converge here also.

And yet, with all that, it is much easier to flick one’s wrist than to relax the muscles adjacent to the scapula and perform the action as a whole body function; that is, unless you are lifting a suitcase or wrestling a tree stump, in which case your body is smart enough to know not to let the wrist work all alone. And yet as martial artists—in theory, trying to move human beings almost as stubborn as tree stumps—we must not let the wrist overpower the movement. In our martial search for “youth” we actually have to become like little children.

The analogy I use is a toddler: a two-year old watching mommy leave the house. When he waves goodbye, he does so with his arms flapping, toes curled, mouth moving; his entire body engaging in the whole shaky project. Adults, on the other hand, have had this kind of full-bodied engagement torn from them. Now, when we see our best friend of twenty years off at the airport in a scene as emotional as the end of Casablanca, we barely move our arms to wave. We twitter our fingers. We are stoic and grown up.

Martial arts requires that we go backwards. That’s not my idea, that’s the truth of the art. One of my teachers used to make the horrible pun that if we wanted to “be somebody” in the martial arts we would have to invest in “using some body”. But he was right on the mark.

Nowadays, when I judge Tai Chi I no longer even look at the arms, wrists or hands. The torso and feet tell me everything. Gesture, I have finally realized, should come from deep inside or it is, well, just a gesture.

Or at least we make the gesture.


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