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I recently decided to finally watch The Legend of Korra, after so many years without the Avatar universe in my life. The thing that is really driving me crazy is:

How did Zaheer manage to learn airbending in a matter of days while being locked up as a prisoner all by himself. How did he become so powerful that Kya was struggling to battle him and Tenzin almost lost to him?

This doesn't make sense. Okay, I can handle the fact that maybe Zaheer was a talented character, but he had to teach himself while Tenzin's teacher was the Avatar Aang himself. Nothing seems right to me, actually.

Maybe you know something that can help me stop thinking about it?

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A bender learning quickly or being self-taught is not unprecedented. Aang was able to learn the various disciplines within months if not days, although he had masters teaching him. Toph is generally considered to be the greatest Earth-bender, and she was completely self-taught - even inventing the technique of Metal-bending herself through experimentation.

If someone like Zaheer had a natural gift for bending, it's entirely possible that he could quickly catch up to someone with less affinity, even if said person (Tenzin, for example) had been training for far longer. Given that Zaheer

gained his air-bending ability from the Convergence,

it's also unknown how such potential is gained or measured. Quite simply, the normal rules for bending may not apply in his situation. Combine this with his already aggressive personality and motivation - something he used to great advantage even before becoming a bender - and you have someone who will push themselves hard to achieve success.

Also, keep in mind that Zaheer was not 100% self-taught. He gained his power of flight through the teachings of Guru Laghima, who had essentially done all the work. Zaheer simply had to follow the instructions Laghima left behind.

In summary, Zaheer is a highly-motivated & highly-adaptable person who is not afraid to experiment or put himself at great risk. He is also someone who did not gain his bending abilities the normal way, which may allow for unknown potential.

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    +1. In addition to his exceptional psychological traits, he was also an accomplished martial artist before the convergence. I'm sure many of those skills would translate to bending ability pretty well. – creeon Apr 12 '17 at 23:47
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    I always felt Zaheer trained his whole life as a bender without powers. Once he actually got bending abilities, everything fell into place. – user31178 May 7 '17 at 17:59
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(Not sure whether this is best as an 'answer' or just a 'comment', but...)

So first of all I think your question pre-supposes a few things. For one we don't know that he only had 'days'; we don't know when the Convergence happened in relation to his feeding schedule. Watching his intro again (

), it appears that 3 weeks pass between check-ups/feeding (woah). So at least, he had days; at most, he had up to 3 weeks (and that's assuming he didn't gain Airbending before a previous feeding & simply hide it because he wasn't practiced enough. Totally feasible).

Secondly, there appears to be a pre-supposition of 'mastery'. I don't know that I would call ^that 'mastery'. It's definitely talented (see below for my hypothesis), but he basically just jumps around & manhandles some guards; big gusty wind things, nothing really finesse-y. At the end, he doesn't even bother trying to jump from pillar to pillar, he just makes a series of jumps down, with a simple air cushion. (**Now I want to be fair; I'm making a lot of presuppositions of my own as to the 'difficulty' associated with various airbending moves. But hopefully I'm being relatively agreeable in those assumptions). It's clear, though, that what we see by the end of the season (some unknown number of days/weeks/months) is definitely more along the 'mastery' level, compared to what we see at the beginning of the season.

~

Now, to actually answer your question (or the stripped-down version I submit as a more precise one): "How did Zaheer learn enough airbending by himself to free himself & eventually go toe-to-toe with (what may perhaps be considered) the greatest living Airbending master)?"

To that, I would echo several of Omegacron's statements; stuff about "natural gift/talent", "we don't know his potential", "highly motivated", etc. However, I take a different tack.

It's established that Zaheer is in love with Airbender philosophy. His love affair with Guru Laghima, his encyclopedic knowledge of Airbender customs, history, lifestyle, poems, historical characters is impressive. Part of that, I believe, is a similarly-in-depth knowledge of the forms & styles of Airbending itself. We've all seen A:tLA's "Waterbending Scroll" episode; bending is really just martial arts & forms ("katas", perhaps?) that ostensibly anyone can read, study, practice, learn, and master. It's just that ineffable 'spark' of "benderhood" that is missing.

If you will, imagine a kid infatuated with Harry Potter & learning all the 'swish-flick' nonsense). Then one day, this Harry-Potter-obsessed kid is magically blessed with the actual ability to perform magic; he might very well perform at a higher level than some of his already-magical peers, due to his years of learning the forms (in fact, didn't this happen somewhere in the books? It's been a while).

So I envision a Zaheer that has spent his life (perhaps even before imprisonment) studying & memorizing everything there is to know about Air Nomads & Airbending. Then all of a sudden, he gets that 'spark' from the Convergence... And whaddaya know, he can do more than just spurt gusts with his fingers. This is further entrenched by the scene with him at the Air Temple 'being the leaf' so well amidst the spinning panels; he wasn't good at it because he had done it before (necessarily), but because he'd mastered the philosophy, mindset, and (potentially) forms associated with that trial.

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    Well this is definitely too long to be a comment... but this answer would benefit from a bit of sourcing on where you are getting the information or if this is just your opinion. – Skooba Apr 27 '17 at 15:40
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    @Skooba Hm, sourcing eh? Well, to be fair, much of it is my own musings & surmisings, but not all of it; the biggest 'source' of 'sourcing' would probably be the linked video showing the scene in question. Second to that, statements like "It's established that Zaheer is in love with Airbender philosophy." are... Well, how do I source that? Reference certain episodes? I'm not sure I can do that (been a while since I watched it, wouldn't know where to watch it now); it's more of just a feeling one gets having viewed the whole season/show. Eh? – Khyrberos May 11 '17 at 8:58
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Zaheer gained no special power boost from the convergence. He just gained the ability to bend like everyone else. One thing was different, however, his personality and morals. All the other airbenders were brought to the air temple to learn the ways of air nomads, this means being a pacifist in combat. Zaheer did not. This, explains why he is so lethal compared to other airbenders. He also uses his martial arts skills to aid his bending. In the clip where he breaks out of prison, he sweeps their legs using airbending then kicks them into the cell. If we look at Zaheer we see him do it as a non-bender. He uses it as an extension of himself, in this case, making his legs longer (if that makes sense) and able to augment his bending so well this is what makes him so powerful, not the convergence.

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Yes Zaheer did become powerful in such a short period of time without a teacher. But he did have a lot of time by himself in prison to concentrate and have peace within himself. He did mention reading stories about Guru Laghima and I presume he didn't just read about him but also other air-benders and air-bending. Also, he was locked up in a prison of metal without windows that could only be opened by metal benders, therefore as soon as he started bending he would have used his spare time to practice, meditate and therefore self taught himself. It was possible for him to self teach himself because he was in a metal prison, separated from the mainland by a retractable and extendable bridge and couldn't metal bend only air bend so no one could hear him or see him air bending unless they were giving him food but he would have monitored that so he could practice without the guards knowing until he got strong enough to escape.

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