The Principle of Thirds:
How to Exercise Moderation

Posted by Paul Cavel on 25 September 2017

The Rule of Thirds is so fundamental to all Water method energy arts training that it is one of the Five Primary Principles.* However, it’s also by far the most elusive of all the principles to target because your intent, your aim, is always moving, absolutely requiring you to cultivate a good relationship between your body and qi, and remain present to them continuously during practice. The real value of the Principle of Thirds extends far beyond training results and can be practically applied to living a more fulfilling and rewarding life.

[Artwork by Sophie Manham]

What Is the Principle of Thirds?

The Principle of Thirds states that healthy individuals would use two-thirds of their effort and energy while always leaving one-third in reserve, which is applied to:

  • The length of time they practice or engage in any activity.
  • The intensity of their practice or to which they engage in any activity.
  • The depth of their practice.

So, for example, if stretching, you would not reach out beyond two-thirds of your maximum flexibility; if running, you would not run further than two-thirds of the distance your stamina would permit and you would not push your body past its comfortable level of intensity.

When Ill, Injured, Stressed or
Compromised in Some Way

If compromised or the person doesn’t feel they’re operating at normal capacity for any reason, they flip the equation and use only one-third of their effort and energy while leaving two-thirds in reserve, which is applied to:

  • The length of time they practice or engage in any activity.
  • The intensity of their practice or to which they engage in any activity.
  • The depth of their practice.

If we again take our example of stretching, you would not reach out beyond one-third of your maximum flexibility; if running, you would not run further than one-third of the distance your stamina would permit … no, no, no! You wouldn’t run at all: the point is to slow down and stay far behind your maximum effort to avoid strain and any level of pain. Just remember that there is a difference between pain and discomfort.

Why Adhere to the Principle of Thirds?

The Rule of Thirds prevents injury or damage to the body, exhaustion of your energy, as well as strain in the mind or internal resistance, allowing you to train another day. By keeping one-third in reserve, you’ll always be left feeling you could do more, and therefore don’t drain your reserves or sap your ability to continue long-term training.

The number one reason top athletes drop out of professional sports is because of injury. They push too hard and snap, crackle, pop! The same goes for businesspeople who consistently use force–they get desperate, greedy, overwhelmed by their emotions or simply burn out before they achieve their ultimate goals. A smooth and steady flow can help you keep it together for the long haul and make your work, passion or sport more enjoyable for you and others in the meantime. The senior executives I train are well aware that they must set the pace or they will too easily become overwhelmed by it, and they have a self-selecting quality for being able to create and use space in the midst of the madness. It’s a skill that anyone can develop with the proper time and application of their intent.

Diminishing Returns or
Diminishing Resistance

Focusing your intent without the push-and-force mentality is a training process that entails learning how to apply your full effort–without strain–to keep from depleting energy reserves. To start, in your practice (or when performing any exercise for that matter), you attempt to exercise to the point where you feel your system is functioning well and you can sustain this feeling for awhile. When you finish, you want to have the sense that you could have practised a bit more. You don’t want to feel that you could have done a whole lot more–say two or three times what you did–but you don’t want to be exhausted from exercising.

Moderation is so important because it accomplishes two key goals:

  • Leaves a reserve in the energy banks of your body.
  • Prevents resistance so that you continue training over years and decades.

When you go beyond your comfortable ability, the body simply resists being forced into high performance: the cunning mind of any intelligent individual, fuelled by the powerful rebound from the push, will find any excuse not to train.

Adhering to The Rule of Thirds generates incredibly gentle, low-impact exercise, which in turn allows the body to heal. In the process, you prevent further setbacks from the body becoming stiff or closed down due to inactivity or overdoing it. It is an essential key, allowing for complete relaxation of the mind, body and nervous system to support recovery, because the body’s natural healing defences operate optimally when the body is relaxed and open (rather than under pressure and closed down).

The Principle of Thirds Supports Personal Growth

The Principle of Thirds can be adapted to the needs of any individual depending on their current state of health and other personal factors. So it provides a general operating strategy rather than absolutes that can be limiting to some individuals. Yet the Rule of Thirds provides a framework for any individual to assess the present state of their body, mind and qi before practice to ensure they don’t push themselves beyond their ability or remain lazy and perpetually under do it. Being in touch with your present state of being and capacity is precisely what allows you to adjust, and grow.

* Origin of Principles

The Rule of Thirds is one of the 42 fundamental principles that drive and underpin internal arts training at all levels and stages of development, which are covered in my upcoming book:

The Tai Chi Space: How to Move in Tai Chi & Qi Gong >>

Breathing Exercises

Breathing practices are an excellent way to get in touch with your personal two-thirds limits, and use that awareness to strengthen any weak areas you discover. In my next few posts, I’ll cover more on breathing exercises you can use to wake up your mind and develop the power of your intent.

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