Learning from a teacher, learning without a teacher
by Vsevolod Vlaskine
I learned Taijiquan from Master Chong during my four years in Singapore. Master Chong's classes were fascinating and helped me to lay at least some basic foundations of my exercise.
After moving to Sydney, I did not happen to join a regular class, despite many attempts. Australia has a few very strong Taiji schools, but unfortunately most of them not in Sydney and out of my reach. Thus, for the last I have been practising on my own apart from yearly trips to Singapore, as well as rare and brief tuition from other great Taiji teachers visiting Sydney.
My learning situation has changed drastically: In Singapore, I had two classes a week and took notes, which on average had 3-5 specific corrections Master Chong gave me, meaning that over my four years in Singapore I received from Master Chong a few thousand corrections.
Therefore, I had to answer two questions for myself: how to train and why do I still study Taijiquan?
Indeed, why? The social aspect of it is taken from me. If there is any specific spirituality in Taiji, I have not achieved that level, yet. Thus, the main reasons left are supposed to be vague "health" and "martial abilities". But why necessarily Taiji? The Australian health and fitness industry has a lot to offer. And this country is almost as peaceful as Singapore, unless you go to wrong places. Sword fighting or horse riding used to be most refined skills crucial for one's survival only one hundred years ago. Now, they are just a rather exotic passtime. Don't "martial arts" belong to the same category?
My rationale has been that Taiji is a low-impact art of self-defence, 'low-impact' being the key word. Apart from giving you more self-confidence (often a false one) without actual fighting, it may not improve your chances to successfully win a fight. However, as a minimum, it is great for damage control.
If you learn boxing or MMA, you cannot escape being thrown, hit, or kicked. With a number of micro-injuries acquired over years, I cannot not afford any more damage from rough training. I also have to carefully control my workout with weights to avoid further trauma. And that is what I found Taiji is excellent for: it gives me the fine-tuned control over each movement, great balance, the ability to achieve the farthest reach with the minimum stretch or exert force with the minimum strain, not only if an opponent tries to actively inflict damage, but in all the aspects of my life: exercise, work, cycling, walking, or catching falling objects.
Taiji achieves it in a constant research into one's biomechanics. This awareness of your own body is especially acute, when you train on your own: without a teacher, I have to make all the mistakes, explore all the variants of a move. Sometimes, I eventually discover the right answer myself. Sometimes it comes from videos (it is terrific that Shifu has started to post his short instructional videos on the Internet). Sometimes, when I visit Singapore, Shifu gives me a single precise correction and after all the failed attempts everything falls into place. And that's, I guess, is the answer to my first question.