Sanchin Kata is generally accepted as the oldest kata in Okinawan Karate. Its origin can be traced to the stationary breathing exercises performed by Buddhist monks at the original Shaolin Monastery. These breathing exercises were developed by Bodhidharma to provide a regimen for the monks so that they would not fall asleep during long hours of meditation. These basic exercises were then expanded by the monks into a method of empty-hand combat so they could defend themselves and their monastery from invaders.
Sanchin is part of the original Iron Monk Form, Tei Shao Mu Tshien. Kanryo Higaonna brought a version of Sanchin to Okinawa in 1879 after studying Kung Fu in China for nearly 15 years. Sanchin was originally performed from one rooted stance; several steps forward and backward were added later. It was practiced with open hands, but Chojun Nfiyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu, changed Sanchin to closed fists. Master Higaonna is reputed to have had such precise breath control and muscle tension while undertaking Sanchin that he left marks on the floor where his toes had gripped. He also let his students attempt to choke him with various implements during his practice. Higaonna taught this kata to Chojun Nfiyagi, who in turn taught it to Tatsuo Shimabuku.
Sanchin translates as "Three Conflicts," "Three Battles," or "Three Gods;" the three conflicts referring to mind, body, and spirit. Sanchin brings these three together to create a state of enlightenment. Sanchin is a widely practiced kata, present with minor variants in Isshinryu, Goju-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, and Shotokan.
Sanchin teaches neither new techniques nor fighting skills. Its purpose is esoteric. It is usually first taught at the Roku-Kyu (green belt) level in Isshinryu but remains untested until the Ik-Kyu (brown belt) level. Sanchin asks for a lifetime of training. It involves deep tension breathing known as ibuki and precise body movement (taisabaki). The different types of breathing are revealed at different stages in the learning of the kata. Many Sensei believe that Sanchin represents the true essence of Karate-Do, both spiritually and physically.
Kanbun Uechi, the founder of Uechi-Ryu, felt Sanchin Kata was so critical that he required his students study it for several years before progressing to the other kata. Sanchin Kata forms the core of Uechi-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and other Naha-Te based Karate systems. Through the diligent practice of Sanchin Kata, Isshinryu karateka learn intrinsic muscle tension, breath control, and ki development. The simple techniques of the kata involve only basic punches, chest blocks, nukites, and two circular blocks.
Master Shimabuku stated there was not any discernable fighting application for Sanchin Kata, and its purpose was exclusively to develop muscle tension and conscious breathing.
In 1692, Jui Meng, a famous Shaolin monk, stated that "the lungs are reservoirs of air, and the air is the lord of strength. Whomever speaks of strength must know of air." Each technique demands the karateka to focus under extreme tension. Although the techniques are elementary, the breathing is decidedly complex. Due to the slow ibuki breathing, Sanchin is the longest Isshinryu kata to perform in terms of elapsed time. At the end of the kata, the air remaining in the karateka's lungs is expelled in three sharp bursts.
The only stance used is Sanchin Dachi. Proper and consistent practice of Sanchin Kata promotes strong ki development, catharsis on physical, emotional, and mental levels, and breath control. When a student is tested on Sanchin, an upper-rank delivers multiple blows to the student's body whose muscles are tensed. A popular demonstration of Sanchin power involves breaking boards over the body of the karateka working through Sanchin.
Many Okinawan Karate authorities criticize the regular practice of Sanchin Kata for health reasons. Sanchin is a pseudo-isotonic and pseudo-isometric exercise which enables one to achieve and sustain a high heart rate with low impact. The deep tension breathing in Sanchin also opens the lungs, increases blood circulation, opens the capillaries, strengthens the heart muscle, massages the lymph system, and opens epidermal glands. However, Sanchin has also been blamed for the early deaths of many Okinawan karate masters, mainly from the Naha-Te based Karate styles, which practice Sanchin rigorously.
The incorrect practice of Sanchin results in physiological damage due to the rapid, drastic hemostatic pressure changes and hastens the onset of a stroke or aneurysm to those individuals prone to arteriosclerosis. When Sanchin is practiced correctly, without putting excess strain on the smaller arteries and the bowels, it proves beneficial. Forced Sanchin practice increases blood pressure due to strain placed on small arteries of the body. Sanchin should always be practiced with dynamic tension and students must be careful to proceed slowly when learning this kata and clarify its purpose. An already healthy individual will not experience any adverse effects from Sanchin, but an individual prone to heart problems should exercise extreme caution.
As a spiritual and mental exercise, Sanchin provides numerous benefits. It induces memory, both neuro-muscular and cerebral, of the feeling of being either hard or soft. This is beneficial because it enables one to obtain an awareness of inappropriate muscular or mental tightness or looseness. Sanchin also serves as a strict Zen exercise of breathing and mushin (no-mindedness) and induces calmness, awareness, and egoless confidence. It also develops ki by focusing the energy into a single-minded purpose. Master Shimabuku felt that Sanchin was perhaps the most important Karate kata and stressed its constant practice. Back