The familiar fable of the hare and the tortoise is a good metaphor for the Eastern and Western approaches to physical exercise. (By Eastern we mean primarily Chinese. Traditional yoga is of the same cloth but many modern forms are more like aerobics.) The rabbit goes all out, gives 100%, and soon collapses to rest and recover. The tortoise takes its time, proceeds at a comfortable pace, and is able to last for a very long time. In spite of the message of this fable there is almost nothing in our culture that promotes this approach to exercise or any other activity. What was the thinking of the Taoist Chinese who invented it and just what is the nature of tortoise type exercise?
Perhaps the one essential characteristic of Tai Chi and Qi Gong exercise is combining work and rest into one activity, which means greater efficiency. This principle is actually based on the natural order. For example, the human heart is such an efficient organ that the total time at rest exceeds the time at work and the heart is able to continue beating for many decades.
In addition to imitating nature, the Taoists recognized that if exercise was pushed beyond a certain limit a reaction would kick in causing diminishing returns, inefficiency, and even injury. This limit was defined as approximately 70% of what is possible for any one person on any given day. (100% was defined as just before the breaking point.) It was discovered that beyond 70%, the human nervous system begins to sense danger and invariably starts to tighten up the body as a protective measure. The higher the percentage the more the tightening and there is no way to override this reaction. Thus pushing the limits was seen as detrimental.
More subjectively , the 70% mark may be defined as the most comfortable level of work. Or we could ask: What’s too much? What’s too little? What’s just right? My Chi Gung colleagues call this the Goldilocks mean in reference to another fairy tale. Finding this sweet spot is more of an art than a science, and most us will err on the side of too much. This is partly because it seems implausible that doing less will get us any further. But the Chinese experience showed that a moderate approach will expand one’s capacities most quickly and safely.
Philosophically, it is said that a creature is given a certain number of heartbeats, breaths, etc., and to use them up quickly means a short life. The tortoise uses them slowly and is thus the symbol of longevity. Practically, Taoist practices train you to slow down the breathing rate even during high speed activity, and it is quite possible to avoid getting winded, but instead feel at rest. Perhaps most importantly, if the mind is at rest, any activity will be performed more efficiently.