The Lightest Touch, the Heaviest Load

kung fu qualities

Kung Fu hides many of its secrets in terms of opposite qualities such as fast/slow, open/close, light and heavy. But don’t let the words obscure the story. The names are significant, but it’s their entwined relationship that holds the real stash.

Take heavy and light. In the martial arts community, especially the Chinese branch, there is persistent intrigue about the heaviness of a trained artist’s arm, or the lightness of an expert’s sensitive touch. For instance, Grandmaster Yang Chen Fu (of Yang Style Tai Chi) was said to bring men to their knees simply by resting his arm on their shoulders.

Now don’t be misled—despite similarities, light and heavy are not the same as rooting. Rooting sinks and stabilizes your body. Lightness and heaviness are power delivery methods—angle and intensity. And, as with most traditional training, the body never travels without the mind, or intent.

Scrutinize these two poles. Heaviness implies authority. A heavy kick is one that can launch an opponent across the room while folding him like a road map. Lightness, a little harder to master, can penetrate a fighter’s defense so thoroughly that he starts swatting at himself.

We all know how to be heavy. It’s something we learn in childhood—that deadweight that we use on our brothers or sisters to resist when they try to move us. But lightness is a different matter. Training lightness can make us feel off-balance, un-rooted, and unable to issue power.

In effect a light touch can confuse, evade and even nullify. The same light touch can open a safe or caress a tiger. Like acquiring the gift of prophecy, lightness can let you know what the opponent is ABOUT to do before he shows what he holds behind his back. Lightness inspires changeability.

Sometimes a quality is best described by what it is not; lightness is not aerial kicks, nor the feeling that follows the Tai Chi Beng ‘trick’ where, after standing in a doorway and pressing hard against the frame, you walk through and your arms lift like feathers. Your 9-year-old niece has the ability and limberness to drop into a very low Pu Tui—good Kung Fu, but no marks for heaviness. Dropping her center of gravity is not the same as her mind ordering her body to suddenly relax under its own weight. Neither is she suddenly weightless when she stands back up, though it may look that way. These are exercises in physics and fine understandings of using your muscles. It is essential to differentiate changes of weight from changes of intent.

An example of what lightness is, is that feeling of floating in a pool of water. Your intent is everywhere on the back side of your body, which ‘listens’ to the subtle whispers of the water supporting it, adjusting dynamically to each ripple of pressure change. My Tai Chi students train lightness by imagining a balloon attached to the tops of their heads, pulling up. The balloon is doing all the work, the head is in the ‘up-space’ created by the balloon.

The “double fish” symbol of Yin and Yang points another aspect of this duality—the balancing of these two powers to produce the desired effect. If the dark fish represents heaviness, and the white lightness, there is a continuous conversation between the twin intents. You enter with a light touch, but the slightest increase in pressure amps up your power to turn the tables.

Here’s a great method I give my students to start off light/heavy training. Get into a standard horse stance, toes out and calves relaxed. Squat a bit, especially trying to relax your hip muscles. Imagine your pelvis as a hammock strung between two trees. Let the ropes—ligaments and tendons—loosen, bearing your weight while remaining as relaxed as possible. Place your hands on your mid-thighs and release your shoulders. Impressive, isn’t it?

Key points: The heaviness here should be real. First rule—even if you want to go down, you don’t push; you let things hang. If you encounter resistance, try to melt the ice, not crack the ice.

Alternately, this lightness exercise comes up regularly in push hands. Push downward on your partner, just a bit, and he of course will resist by rising. Ever-helpful, you join with this action by getting up under him, lifting to make him rise even more than he had planned, toppling him. It’s not so much “Ooops!” as “Timberrrr!”

Light/Heavy control is a skill worth developing, but many martial artists have almost abandoned light training in favor of incomplete and incompetent redirection of power. A student is more likely to show off how well she can issue “jing” than how well she can use lightness to adapt and change in an instant. The increasing emphasis on heaviness will only keep students from understanding and employing the brilliant insights of previous generations.

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4 Responses to “The Lightest Touch, the Heaviest Load”

  1. Jeff Crook says:

    The smallest rock casts a huge shadow. I love the accompanying photographs. They work so well with the text. I am reminded of what I once heard about ballet training – that to achieve the leaps and lifts, the dancer “thinks” himself or herself up. In other words, she directs her intention higher and the body follows.

  2. Debbie Shayne says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for your compliment on my photos. Also, the ballet comment is a perfect example of lightness and that crucial aspect of traditional practice—body follows intent.

  3. Yaphett says:

    “The lightest touch, the heaviest load” was the best article I could read at this point concerning my own understanding of internal gongfu training. I am indeed practicing with emphasis on the ‘heavy when the ‘light’s (wonderfully explained in the article) is what I need for mastery. Along this line I’d watched a seminar on YouTube by a Chen Taijiquan master who talked about how older practitioners can still fight because they have the body sensitivity to find weak spots in an opponent’s structure right away, so they end fights quickly by attacking the weakest point.

  4. Gary Shapiro says:

    The Lightest Touch, The heaviest Load
    “lightness can let you know what the opponent is ABOUT –” A few years ago I was gave an introductory talk/demo to a group of residents in my apartment complex as a prelude to starting a Tai Chi class. I had a gentleman stand in a bow stance. My intention was for both of us to alternate stances while keeping light hand contact. The moment that I made the very lightest contact with him I gasped” You’re made of stone”. ” Yeah, people say I’m tight”. “Tight ” wasn’t the word, he was a statue. Needless to say, he didn’t sign up for the class.