Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Liquid Staff


he first time a placed a martial arts staff in my hands, I thought the weapon was heavy and clunky. Trying to imitate a monk in an old Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movie, I swung it around – and promptly hit myself in the shin.

Pain sometimes opens doors.  I told myself: “Relax…and learn from someone who knows.” And that’s what I did.

My early work with a staff involved basic striking, thrusting and blocking. Usually the striking amounted to using one end only, like an elongated version of “whack-a-mole”. Meanwhile, I managed to reach new levels of stiffness in thought, rigidity and execution.

When Chau Sifu taught me his first staff form, I learned an important point that went well beyond martial arts practise: each weapon has its own “personality”. If you grip too hard, you choke off its life; if your hands are too loose, you share none of your energy with it, and the weapon just falls away.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, learning to acquire that sort of special balance can also work in all sorts of relationships –with the objects around you, and - especially - with the people in our lives. Let them be themselves, let their voices ring out, and share your energy with them.


Later, working on the Shepherd’s Staff, I discovered that moving with a staff requires a constant change of balance. You don’t just grip and swing: the grip is mobile, exquisitely fine, and plays along the entire length of the weapon, constantly adjusting.

With the Monkey Stick, I discovered that the staff can become very fluid, like a chain whip. Gone was the idea that you could strike only with one end, or at best with both ends. Every inch of the stick became alive to fighting 360 degrees. I found as well that staff fighting wasn't restricted to long or medium range techniques - the close quarter aspects of staff fighting are almost limitless.

The knowledge - an the methods to access that knowledge -  resides in all the Kung Fu staff sets. Or in the Okinawan Bo Kata. Or in the patterns and forms of any martial art that you practise.


Next, I linked the staff to “internal” martial arts.

“Here’s where you lose me,” I hear the Karate practitioner sigh. “I don’t practise Tai Chi.” Well, I found Okinawan Bo work to be full of internal movement, both of the physical  and chi-related kind. In fact, the Kata Tokumine No Kon, taught me a lot about Fa Jin (explosive force) using the staff.

Here are some suggestions for personal practise –

1.     Hold the staff horizontally in front of you (the staff is parallel to the floor). Use a relaxed grip, in fact, relax all along both arms, and allow the arms and staff to “melt” into one another. Make sure also to relax the shoulders.

2.    Begin rolling the elbows in a downward circle, right… though you were playing gently in the water. Notice how, in a sense, the staff begins to actually feel like water.

3.    Begin stepping slowly forward, then backward. Don’t use a deep stance; remain natural and comfortable.

4.    Now begin turning 45 degrees to the right, then the left. Stay relaxed. Notice how you’re starting to play out toward all directions. In a sense, the staff and you and your environment are now one.

5.    Notice too, how every inch of the staff can strike out anywhere in large – or small – fluid motions.

Try this routine with any of the staff postures that you already know – or are currently learning. The circling motion doesn’t have to be forward and downward; if you hold the staff in a vertical position, for example, you can practise clockwise and counter-clockwise circling.

Martial arts training is a laboratory where you experiment with the sharpening of your senses, with different states of mind, with objects around you in the world. Touch the staff, the staff responds. Grip it properly, and it sings.

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