Notes on Sanchin Kata
by Sensei Raymond Kerridge

Sanchin and Tensho are the two basic katas of Okinawan Goju-ryu karate.  The importance of Sanchin can be glimpsed in Chojun Miyagi's statement that the essence of all karate is contained within this one kata. If you want to gain deeper understanding and insight into Goju-ryu karate, Sanchin is the barrier you will need to pass.


To the best of our knowledge Sanchin kata originated in southern China, and indeed versions of the kata are still being performed both there and in Taiwan.  As with most karate history there are very few original written records to refer to, however, Sanchin is mentioned in the Bubishi, indicating that it is at least 150 - 200 years old.

Many southern Chinese styles have adopted versions of Sanchin as their basic kata, but it is with the old southern White Crane (Jap. Hakutsuru) styles that it is most often associated.  Its purpose within  the southern Crane styles was as a basic energy, speed, and power builder which supported the rest of the system.  Unlike today's karate versions, the Sanchin of southern Crane was performed with speed, penetrating power, and with a unique fast breathing pattern.

The Sanchin that Kanryo Higaonna brought back to Okinawa after his stay in Fuchou, China is not the same one we normally practice today in Goju-ryu.  Some time after the death of Higaonna Sensei, his successor, Chojun Miyagi revised the kata in significant ways so that it more closely exemplified the "go" (hard) aspect of his Goju-ryu karate.  Whereas the old master's kata was fast, explosive, and contained 180 degree turns, Miyagi's version is slow, with overall body tension, deep powerful abdominal breathing, with forward and backwards movements, only.

Three Battles

Sanchin kata can guide and instruct us on many levels.  Indeed, the characters which make up the calligraphy for Sanchin combine to mean "three battles" or "conflicts" so even the name gives an indication that the kata operates at multiple levels. The three elements which are in conflict are the body, mind, and breath (in China and Japan, breath is synonymous with spirit, ki, and energy.)  It is important to state that although we will consider these elements separately in this article, they are all inextricably interwoven in karate practice.

Only when these three elements are in harmony is it possible to reach our potential in both karate technique and character development. As in the rest of nature, the three elements are impermanent, but Sanchin kata provides a way of temporarily uniting these three elements. In the same way that a magnifying glass focuses the energy and power of the sun, Sanchin can focus and develop the karateka's energy and power.

Each of the three elements can be thought of as the gates of Sanchin and we can use this knowledge to get insight on this kata.

The Body Gate

Sanchin can be used to strengthen, condition, and toughen the physical body.  This is achieved through the application of tension and abdominal breathing. Every needs to be tensed for the entire duration of the kata.   Sanchin is an isotonic exercise which not only strengthens muscles over a large range of their motion but also torques the arm and leg bones, so increasing bone mass.  It is a fundamental exercise in developing Mushimi heavy, sticky hand.

The isotonic tensing of the body automatically slows down the action of the techniques.  This not only strengthens the body but also provides an opportunity to observe and learn the correct way to perform the hand techniques, rather like a slow motion video in which all phases of the technique can be observed.  For example, you will be able to ensure that the entire length of the arm rubs along the side of the body, and that the corkscrewing of the fist is not started too early or too late...invaluable lessons for combat.

The body's center of gravity is located in the abdominal region, just below the umbilicus. We are physically centered in hara whether we like it or not.  The centering of the body element is emphasized by placing our crossed hands in front of hara during Yoi.

After Yoi, we move out into Sanchin Dachi and the arms move in to Chudan Morote Yoko Uke. The body position so formed is a signature kamai (guard) position for Goju-ryu karate.  The kamai  focuses on the hara.. When projected downwards, the angle of the forearms converge over the hara.  When projected upwards, the angle of the legs also converge over the hara.  The same applies to all of the succeeding techniques in Sanchin kata.
Performing Sanchin two or three times during a training session will provide maximum benefit and will not adversely affect healthy people. However, if the kata is performed incorrectly or excessively it can damage the body.  Any time the muscles are tensed with great force, blood pressure increases.  Consequently people with high blood pressure should not perform the kata in this way and should, instead, practice using the old, original form. Whether you have normal blood pressure or not, it is important to remember not to overly tense the neck muscles, because this could constrict the arteries and veins that come in and out of the brain.

The Mind Gate

The mind is centered in the hara by focusing attention on the rising and falling motion of the abdomen while breathing.  The mind is the director of everything in Sanchin kata.  This means that the mind has to maintain focus and concentration over the entire body throughout the  performance of the kata.  This is perhaps the most difficult and yet the most beneficial aspect of the practice.

In being mindful of the mind you become aware that the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, yet Sanchin demands total mindfulness over the whole body to ensure three things:
1.  that the muscles below the neck must remain fully tensed, the whole time,
2.  that all the hand techniques are executed correctly, and
3.  that the abdominal breathing is being  maintained along with the correct breathing pattern. Have the old masters set us an impossible task?  You begin to see why Sanchin was and is so valued.

The Breath Gate

The breath (spirit) is centered in the hara by using deep abdominal breathing.  Most people breath high up, in the thorax, meaning that the chest muscles are the primary ones used to bring air in and out of the lungs.  Experienced martial artists however, breath abdominally, meaning that the abdominal muscles are the primary ones used to bring air in and out.  Breathing abdominally is superior for our purposes because it increases lung capacity, promotes greater oxygen exchange and also flushes stale air out the lungs more efficiently than thoracic breathing.  Abdominal breathing is also essential to developing and storing Ki in the body (see later) and is an essential part of haragei (hara development).

Hara is the Japanese name for the abdominal region of the body.  The old masters considered hara to be origin and storehouse of martial power and it is not surprising that hara development is greatly emphasized in Sanchin kata.  Each waza from the beginning Yoi onwards is centered on the hara.  Yoi means "prepare yourself" referring to the need to prepare body, mind, and spirit for combat.  This is accomplished by centering all of these elements in the hara.

Breath is synonymous with spirit.  It is well known that emotions can be controlled by adopting appropriate breathing patterns.  Even a deep sigh or one long out breath can have the effect of calming you.  Forceful breathing is one way to project a martial spirit.

Goju-ryu Sanchin is known for explosive inhalations and exhalations. The main purposes for this aspect of the training are as follows:
a.  It aids and facilitates the projection of both physical and mental power.
b.  It produces an audible manifestation of power (the noise can unbalance some people).
b.  It promotes an understanding of the relationship between breathing and contraction of the muscles.
c.  It assists the student in correctly focusing the mind (attention).
d.  It helps students coordinate techniques.
e.  It helps develop sensitivity to the development of local ki.

By coordinating abdominal breathing, explosive exhalation, and correctly applied muscle contraction, you can produce phenomenal power for an instant.

Breath is also synonymous with "ki."  The term ki (or "chi") has many meanings, the most important for Karateka being "intention" or "will."   It is a kind of mental energy, although it also has a physical/material manifestation.  The old masters believed that  ki was universal and a fundamental necessity for life, and that without it, no action or life would be possible.  Ki also permeates mind and body and mediates the exchange between the two.

A fundamental tenet of Chinese traditional medicine is that in addition to universal ki, we are all born with our own personal store of essential ki which we inherit from our parents.  We can also partake of the universal ki by eating nourishing foods and doing certain exercises (kiko.)  On the other hand, dissipating lifestyles reduce essential ki, and once it is gone, we die.

The old masters discovered two methods of supplementing their essential store of ki.  These are the internal method, called Naikan, and the external method, called Gaikan.  Sanchin kata is most directly related to Gaikan, whereas Tensho kata is more directly related to Naikan.

The external generation of ki (Gaikan) is said to be achieved through exact muscle tension exercises required in Sanchin kata.  Through constant tensing of the muscles, universal ki is said to be drawn into the muscles.  Acupuncture theory tells us that every finger and toe is directly linked through meridians to internal organs such as the heart, small intestines, bladder, kidneys, gall bladder liver, lungs, large intestines, stomach, and the spleen.  At the completion of sanchin practice, the locally generated ki enters the meridians and are circulated to nourish these internal organs.

Sanchin is a heishi (closed fist) kata.  This means that the ki generated during the performance of the form is not emitted outside the body, but is kept within to nourish the practitioner's own body.

I would like to finish  with a few comments about the breathing pattern, the inhalations and exhalations in Goju-ryu Sanchin.  There are several breathing patterns, so the one to choose will depend on the aspect of training you are working on.  Even so, all of them have the same basic characteristics.

First, you must set up pressure in the hara.  Think of the hara as a steam boiler and use the abdominal breathing to pump up the pressure.  Next "lightly" tense the muscles controlling the throat in order to constrict the exhaled air. The slight (note slight) constriction acts as a type of pressure relief valve to ensure that pressure remains in the hara.  It is the air passing this constriction which gives Sanchin breathing its characteristic sound.

If you could diagram the basic exhalation pattern it would look like an equilateral triangle with one side absolutely vertical.  Using this particular pattern, the exhalation starts with an explosion of air as the fist leaves the chamber position and reduces progressively as the fist travels outward.  When the fist is in the vertical position of the corkscrew (tate ken) there is a second explosion as the fist corkscrews into the imaginary target.

The reverse pattern can also be used.  A light explosion as the fist leaves the chamber and an ever increasing exhalation until the tate ken position is reached, and then a further explosion as the corkscrew punch penetrates the imaginary target.

Sanchin as a Combat Kata

Because the kata is performed so slowly, students wonder if it has any combat application or is Sanchin "just" a conditioning kata.  I would refer back to Miyagi Sensei's comment about sanchin containing the essence of all karate.  Sanchin is a devastating combat system and you close off a wealth of combat application by dismissing it as conditioning kata.

For example, the  foot placement, close positioning of the thighs, upward tilt of the pelvis, the pinched in position of the elbows and. the drawn in position of the jaw provide protection for many of the bodies most vulnerable vital areas. Chudan morote yoko uke and Toroguchi, for example, provide unparalleled opportunities for close range defense and counter attack.

There are many other aspects of Sanchin that I have not covered in this short article. If you are interested I will post them later on.  Let me know how you are progressing.

*above article by OKK Sensei Raymond Kerridge....all rights reserved (c) 1998*
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