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Andrzej J
Andrzej J's picture
Is Sanchin No Kata an exception?

Hello All. One of the key things I've been learning from Iain's material is that every kata represents a complete fighting system, and that every technique in the kata is designed to incapacitate your opponent. I see how that works in almost every kata I know - been studying Iain's bunkai of the Pinan Series, Bassai, Tekki and Kanku Dai and trying to apply those principles to other katas - but I'm a bit stumped by one of my style's most essential katas: Sanchin.

In Kyokushin, we learn a mix of katas derived from the karate styles Mas Oyama studied - Shotokan and Goju-Ryu. I've always heard that Sanchin and Tensho are the most important katas in the Goju system (and are equally important in Kyokushin), respectively representing the go/hard and ju/soft aspects of that style. Yet, here's the thing: both katas execute most of their techniques under tension, with a heavy emphasis on strong abdominal 'ibuki' breathing; both only use a single stance, which itself requires the muscles to be tensed against each other from the ground up. Now I've seen a lot of self-defence applications such as break-holds, wrist and arms locks and neck cranks derived from the circular movements in Tensho - but almost nothing like that from Sanchin.

Sanchin uses a very small number of techniques - uchi uke, gyaku tsuki, a grab that's supposed to pull your opponent onto a double nukite strike to the mid-section (which never struck me as very practical), and finally two shuto mawashi ukes to the front. I've practised this kata for a long, long time, and in the context of my training, I always understood it to be an isometric strengthening exercise for the body, which trained you to take some hard hits (instructors can be pretty ruthless in testing your stance) and control your breathing. But now, in the light of what I'm learning here, I've been trying to see if there's more to it than that.

In the last couple of months, I've read articles and books and watched videos about the kata from senior goju instructors. All of them go into the mind/body/spirit aspects of the kata, all talk in great depth about the details of how to hold the stance, how to breathe, and how to perform the techniques. But NONE of them mention real combat applications - which is a little frustrating and leads me to wonder whether Sanchin might be the only kata out there which is primarily a physical/mental exercise, rather than a fighting system in itself.

It is possible to apply the type of interpretation Iain does to Sanchin - the initial punch/block sequence is a bit reminiscent of a brief section of Bassai, but that's only ONE brief section of a very involved kata. Then there's the impractical-seeming grab-pull-nukite sequence, then the circular blocks while stepping backwards. But this doesn't seem to constitute a complete fighting system in the same way that pretty much any of the katas I've seen Iain interpret does.

Another oddity - the kata is said to be about "the application of power", yet there is no hip movement in the strikes. In each position, the hips are tilted, held firm and always facing forward, while the only movement is in the arms and the breath.

So, yeah - is Sanchin different in this way from all the other katas in karate, inasmuch as it is more of an exercise in conditioning the body for combat, than a record of real, effective combat techniques? Am I missing something here?


Wastelander's picture

Although I practice Sanchin, I am not a Goju-Ryu guy, so take this with a grain of salt. To me, it seems that Sanchin helps develop a certain "feeling" of movement. It's hard to explain, and it seems that not many teachers really even try, which leaves a lot of people not knowing what it's for. I've only been given short explanations, myself, by asking my Goju-Ryu friends.

One can certainly find fighting applications to Sanchin, but that does not seem to be the intention of the kata. That said, I feel that calling it "an isometric exercise" or "breathing exercise" or "moving meditation" is a little short-sighted. Sanchin teaches and develops structure, angles of strength and weakness, and body control, which are meant to improve your ability to execute the applications of other kata in the system. Essentially, Sanchin is the geometry to other kata's carpentry. The other kata are what result in a tangible product, but you couldn't do as good of a job without the underlying skills in Sanchin, just like a carpenter with no understanding of math can build a chair, but it won't be as good as if he knew geometry.

OnlySeisan's picture

I don't personally practice Sanchin, but I have read Kris Wilder's Way of Sanchin Kata. (I leave no stone unturned if it can help me with my own kata.)

I personally believe that a person's structure and body movement are the most important things in karate, and I believe Sanchin teaches this wonderfully.

I believe that Sanchin is also a complete fighting system because it transmits its own principles, which one can be extrapolated.

I think some kata can be deceiving because of their length and complexity. My own kata seems complex at first, but most of the techniques are just variations on the core offensive technique.

Chikara Andrew
Chikara Andrew's picture

Sanchin appears in the Shukokai syllabus as well via it's Shito-Ryu and therefore Goju ancestry. However the version we practice is a longer version than the Goju one with two turns, albeit these don't really add additional movements to the kata still repeating the punch block sequence.

Unlike most Karate katas which appear to have been developed in Okinawa under the influence of Chinese masters Sanchin existed and was practiced, and still is, in China in a number of different arts and styles. I remember watching an interesting video some years ago whereby various practitioners including Higaonna Sensei demonstrated their versions of Sanchin. Certainly some of the Kungfu versions were much more elaborate.

When the kata has been imported into Karate I think that practitioners have taken the conditioning and focus element from it and concentrated on this which I think goes some way to explain why there are two versions in modern Karate. . 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Always an interesting topic! While Sanchin does have bunkai, the general consensus from those who practise the kata (I don’t) is that it’s primarily about structure, posture and power. Kris Wilder has some nice lines that summarise this view (paraphrased from memory):

“Don’t look for bunkai in Sanchin,; Look for Sanchin in your bunkai”

“Sanchin is like the rain. If the techniques of the other kata are the trees, Sanchin is the rain that nourishes them all."

That’s not to say Sanchin does not have bunkai though, just that – for Kris and many like him –  it’s primary purpose is power generation and structure.

Here Ryan Parker shows some bunkai for Sanchin:

Chikara Andrew wrote:
Unlike most Karate katas which appear to have been developed in Okinawa under the influence of Chinese masters Sanchin existed and was practiced, and still is, in China in a number of different arts and styles. I remember watching an interesting video some years ago whereby various practitioners including Higaonna Sensei demonstrated their versions of Sanchin. Certainly some of the Kungfu versions were much more elaborate.

I think this maybe the video you are referring to.

All the best,


DaveB's picture

I have cone to believe that a fighting system is composed of 3 main components. Mechanics Tactics And Strategy.

The three areas are interwoven, each defining and shaping the others. Strategy I believe is the foundation.

For many of the fighting styles from Fujian in southern China, their strategy was to strike at close range. This prompted tactics involving use of both hands equally to contro lthe centre line and clear defenses and strike. This in turn led to mechanics aimed at generating power in a short distance, keeping the groin defended and the stance stable. This led to Sanchin.

Sanchin defines the core mechanics of the styles it inhabits, defining how to issue force and receive it, how to root and step.

The version I know is one of the southern crane variations. We spent a year on it before moving on to other forms. It has no turns and it includes breathing and tension that are the basis of Iron Shirt training within the style.

I believe the Okinawan versions that do it were also originally doing some variation on Iron Shirt, but I don't know if it was forgotten or just different to how I learned it.

Applications of Sanchin, to my mind, should focus on the application of those core mechanics, I.e. The fundamentals of rooting, thrusting, recieving, stepping and if your version has it, turning. You'll have heard of the principles of float, sink, spit and swallow (lift, drop, express and receive make more sense in English). These are meant to be embodied in the kata. They can refer both to what is happening in your technique and what is happening to your opponent.

That said I think Mr Wilder's quote about finding Sanchin in your Bunkai is spot on. We often forget that kata function as physical training as well as code books for fighting. I think Sanchin is simply in the doing.

Beekeeper's picture

Hi all,

Before I contribute, I wanted to mention (being new here) that I've been following this forum for a while now, and have been consistently impressed with the ideas shared in this space, particularly in regards to realistic bunkai applications. A lot of my recent progress with regards to decoding kata has been inspired by this sharing, so I'd like to quickly take this opportunity to thank you all for your help. :)

With regards to Sanchin, my idea is that it is the first kata in a series comprising of it, Sanseru, Seisan and Suparimpei, collectively constituting a complete self-protection system (insofar as my own research has shown). I won't delve into this too deeply (being beyond the scope of this thread), but basically by looking at the similarities between those four kata (e.g. their identical opening movements, the same movements found throughout, the heavy right-sided bias, their history, etc.), they seem to be of the same system and not four separate kata, in the same way that the five Pinan/Heian kata comprise a system. It's my belief, therefore, that Sanchin teaches the very basics of that system (which are built upon and expanded by the following three kata); in particular, basic concepts for limb-control, establishing/using/countering grips, and basic grappling skills.

Some people are of the opinion that Sanchin is primarily a routine for structure and conditioning, but, like you Sensei Iain, I like to make things hard for myself and have a practical, self-protection basis for all kata. I'm unconvinced that strengthening and breathing were it's primary purpose, and that its applications are just a by-product. That it's practised in this way in just about every dojo (and has been as far back as we can identify), is undeniable; that the kata is an incredible way of helping develop the strength, breathing, and structure of the practitioner (not to mention it's namesake stance), again is undeniable. Sanchin's amazing in these regards. However it's my personal belief that Sanchin was created to teach basic techniques and concepts to the practitioner, with strength and all of these other virtues being by-products of this practice. This is closest to the version I practise by the way (being a Goju-ryu practitioner):

I'm hoping one day soon to make a youtube video of these ideas, but for now I'll do the best I can by describing them verbally. As brief examples: the mawashi-uke at the end I see as primarily teaching a whole bunch of basic limb-control concepts to open the enemy up, e.g. sweeping one arm down-and-out whilst simultaneously bashing their neck with your forearm. Also, some of the gripping concepts that you teach, Sensei Iain, I think are encoded within the three opening 'block/punch' sequences of the kata - see this for comparison:

I'd love to see what other people have/can come up with in regards to this kata. Hopefully I can get a video up some time soon.



EDIT: for anyone interested, here's a link to the article that inspired this idea of the 'Sanchin System': http://dandjurdjevic.blogspot.com.au/2008/05/origins-of-goju-kata.html

Andrzej J
Andrzej J's picture

Thanks so much to everyone for the responses! A ton of food for thought here - love the Kris Wilder quotes and the bunkai in Ryan Parker's video, and watching the four different performances of four different versions of this kata was absolutely fascinating.

Simon Weaver
Simon Weaver's picture

I have come to learn that the value of sanchin is more for conditioning than fighting application. As a kyokushin karateka, qualified fitness instructor and sports therapist, I see the idea of the muscle "tensing" being an isometric exercise in order to strengthen muscles, perhaps used when you are training somewhere with no weights. Over time, sanchin will increase muscular strength and make muscles firmer, so they can withstand percussive impact while maintaining your balance during combat but another benefit is (they may not have known the science of it in the old days but they will have noticed a difference) that after you release the hard contractions, your muscles fill with nutrient rich oxygenated blood to feed the muscles and replennish ATP, which help with powerful movements. Combat application and power generation are not that feasible to me compared to simply conditioning to withstand strikes, after all, you can hit an aggressor as much as you like, but if you are unable to take a hit in a real fight, your chance of being the victor is slim. Also, it is a simple way to learn how to 'sync' your breathing with striking and to focus power or ki energy in every movement, as is need is actual combat. Two reason that support this are: 1- Sanchin is traditionally (before the taikyoku kata were introduced) the first kata taught, because the earlier one trains to become strong and learn proper breathing techniques etc, the better. 2- Sanchin is the only kata with which shime is practiced. This is the only practical way to, basically, test how well you have learned and how well your abilities have developed.  

css1971's picture

I don't practice it myself but Sanchin always seemed a bit short for a kata.

The video of the comparisons between the current Sanchin and various Kung-fu variations of San zhan forms it originated from with the back and forth stepping suggest to me it was originally used as part of a paired practice. If you imagine you're grappling with a partner who's stepping back and forth with you, similar to modern wrestling pummeling drills or a form of 3 step grappling sparring. As such it would be teaching core skills necessary for stabilty, grappling, gripping, locking, breathing and dealing with an opponent's body mass. The statement that it is a core kata that everything else depends on would be absolutely true in this regard.

Even with my very superficial knowledge of the kata I can see there absolutely are applications there, the obvious strikes, as well as joint locks, it looks to me like there's a fair bit of gripping going on as well and depending on the version, you could incorporate throws. I think you probably could base a simple fighting system with core techniques. Having said that... I do think compared to other katas it's the odd one out because I don't believe it was originally a kata :).

Kevin73's picture

I have looked at the main two branches of Sanchin kata in Okinawan karate (yes, there are many more sub divisions, but each seems to based on one of these two for the most part).  Uechi-Ryu and Goju-Ryu.

Goju-Ryu states that it changed the breathing and the hand configuration for the health benefits.

Uechi-Ryu states that it kept the kata the same as when Kanbun Uechi learned it in China with the open hands and different breathing/tension.

So what?  Their focus might be slightly different, but what it teaches it still in both.  Sanchin contains the SEEDS for all applications in the later kata.  Think of Sanchin more in terms of Wing Chuns first form, Sil Lum Tao (various spellings), it isn't "direct application" like we see in many bunkai/applications from other katas.  It teaches you the offensive/defensive concepts to make all the other stuff to work.

So, if you look at those ideas many applications can be pulled from the kata based on those ideas.  BUT, the kata itself doesn't really have applications in the normal sense of the word. Make sense?  LOL

For example, mawashi uke, if you look at the mini movements of it, it contains controlling and protecting your centerline with parries and blocks and exploiting and opening up your attacker's centerline.