What I learnt from Master Chong so far
by Vsevolod Vlaskine
I always had been curious about Taijiquan, attempted to take classes a few times in Western countries, but it never felt real, until I tried Master Chong's introductory class in California Fitness Centre at Orchard Road, when I just arrived to Singapore for work in 2001.The sweet memories about Singapore, which became my home for the next four years, always will be connected with Taiji classes, communication with Master Chong and my evening practice at the Duxton Plain Park.
Even though I still am a beginner, Master Chong asked me to tell about my experience. As he put it: "Tell how you moved from 'no-push' to 'push'." meaning one of the touchstones of Taijiquan, the exercise when one person tries to push the other away. Well, I have not moved to 'push' yet. I still hardly can move Master Chong, who is 20 kg lighter and 30 years older than me, while he pushes me out of his way with ease.
Master Chong's Taiji is a down-to-earth thing immediately connected to our health and martial abilities. He never stops demonstrating how Taiji works, repeating his explanations, correcting the students, and most importantly, thinking and improving himself all the time. I mention it, because I could not find such an inquisitive and caring approach at other teachers and masters. Never too proud or busy, he always is available for a push-hand session or a talk.
This humility seems to be an important part of both teaching and studying Taiji. Nowadays, new students come for a short while and go. Some of those who stay may not understand the teacher at once. The real teacher accepts the turnover of students and yet always tries to find a personal approach to everyone, as his passion urges him to pass his knowledge. The real student also keeps the humility, even if he achieves certain level, otherwise his growth stops. This is not the humility towards the teacher, but towards the matter he studies. In Taijiquan, it also is humility towards the opponent: listening to the other's body rather than asserting one's own skills or strength. Therefore, unlike other disciplines, for Taijiquan humility is an integral part both morally and technically. (It is interesting that light years away from Chinese martial arts, in the Orthodox Christianity, developing one's humility also takes the first place and pride is considered as the worst sin, the cause of all other sins, which confirms that the metaphysical character of humility may be a universal truth.)
The ways in Taijiquan are very personal for everyone: some people like explanations, some people better catch demonstration; some people are very passionate from the start, others get really involved, once the first results come. Everyone's body also differs in shape, proportions and size. (No one can get away without regular practice, though.) I am very used to dumbbells, cycling, squash - the things that don't exactly dispose to relaxation. Despite all the good advices from Master Chong and senior students: "relax your shoulders", "just drop your hands", I remained tense. First three years I learnt the routine and got stuck there and my daily exercise and Master Chong's efforts were of little help.
Once I got a bad flu and could only practise elements of the routine at home. I wore a heavy long-sleeve jumper, which let me feel the weight and position of my limbs very well. The flu made me too weak to tense up. Instead I suddenly managed to find a posture, in which my leg bones formed a firm and yet relaxed construction resting on the bone structure, tendons and ligaments. The posture did not require muscle strength (which I did not have at that moment anyway). I was surprised how stable I became and how easy it was to move. At that moment I understood the meaning of song yao song gua.
Importantly, I also understood that all my previous efforts to relax never would work out, as before I had been tense not because of my gym background, but because I always was out of balance. Tensing-up was just the body reaction to keep myself from falling down or compensate misalignments of my joints. I am not sure about other people, but for me relaxation by itself never had worked until I found the well-balanced posture. The correct balanced posture is first; then relaxation comes naturally.
So far, this was my greatest personal breakthrough in learning Taiji and the next one and half year I have been working on the postures, as well as alignments of various limbs and joints, trying to figure out mechanical and geometrical principles of stability, agility, and force application. It also helped me to understand old explanations by Master Chong, as well as the meaning of warm-up exercises, which had looked random and strange to me in the beginning.
Often, Master Chong says: "I teach you the principles. After a while you will be able to correct yourselves." My first few years, I was wondering how could I correct myself, when I spent all my energy just to remember the sequence of the movements in the routine, control my postures and try to relax (which never worked). Amazingly, now I think I slowly get it. No need to say that without Master Chong's generous guidance it would be simply impossible.