Best of 2012: Martial Arts
"Be mindful of the insubstantial and the substantial."
On the dry-erase board in the corner of the Tai Chi Association's open and airy second-floor studio, master instructor Michael Paler has left his students words of instruction, encouragement and advice. At the top is this deceptively simple suggestion.
Turns out these words are all we'll hear from Paler today; Howard Drossman, a beginning tai chi instructor at the school, says Paler happens to be on the rare vacation when we visit. "The school wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Michael," says Drossman, a middle-aged college professor. "It's a shame you can't meet him."
Paler's absence, however, does give his students the opportunity to speak candidly about their school's master. And they say Paler is a gifted instructor and true martial artist. While he understands and stresses the martial, or self-defense, aspects of tai chi — often lost or ignored in tai chi schools — Paler apparently also captures and imparts the spiritual and healing qualities that draw young and old to the Chinese import.
"I came to it for the spiritual and relaxation qualities," he Drossman says, "but Michael is a very great martial artist."
The school is decidedly calm, inviting and peaceful. This afternoon, only a few students are mingling about after a push-hands class. Also present is Monika Milburn, also a certified instructor. She says that she was attracted to tai chi, and Paler's school, after surviving cancer.
"I realized I needed a big change in my life," says Milburn, who's referred to as the school's matron by another student. "I wanted to speak [tai chi] like a language, so that it would come out of me like an eloquent expression."
What she's learning under Paler, she believes, will allow her that freedom. — Chet Hardin