5. Goju and Sanchin

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5. Goju and Sanchin

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By Graham Noble

If you kook at this history, one thing you notice is the relatively early ages at which some of the pioneers of Goju Ryu died. Kanryo Higaonna, Naha-te’s original master, died at sixty three and Miyagi himself at sixty five. Kenwa Mabuni was sixty four; Seko Higa, sixty eight; Seiko Fukuchi, fifty six; Kanki Izumigawa, sixty one. A little more recently, (1993) the well-known Masanobu Shinjo died at just fifty five. And writers on karate history often contrast those figures with the longevity of the masters of the Shorin Ryu, or Shorin Ryu related, styles: Sokon Matsumura, around ninety when he died; Ankoh Azato, seventy nine; Ankoh Itosu, eighty five; Gichin Funakoshi, eighty nine; Chotoku Kyan, seventy five; Chosin Chibana, eighty four; Hironori Ohtsuka, ninety. It seemed that karate masters usually lived a long life – except if they were practitioners of Goju Ryu.

Of course, that wasn’t a full statistical analysis, and it may have just been a bad run: the more recent masters of Goju Ryu seem to have lived, or be living, a normal lifespan, or longer. Still, Juhatsu Kyoda, Miyagi’s fellow student under Kanryo Higaonna lived to eighty, so that has reinforced a question in some people’s minds as to whether there is something about Miyagi’s Goju that produced those early deaths.

A lot of this centres around Goju’s Sanchin training. The consensus is that the original Sanchin was similar to the Uechi Ryu form: that is, performed at normal speed, using the open hand (nukite) in the the thrusting movements, and without the harsh, rasping breathing of the Goju form. Saburo Kinjo remembered being told that “originally Sanchin was done with open hands and the striking was done with nukite.” Also, the breathing was silent, and “different from today’s Sanchin training, the teacher never struck the shoulders of students. There was no such training method.” Although Shigekazu Kanzaki (To-on Ryu) had never practiced Sanchin with the open hands, he too thought that “in China they performed Sanchin with kaishu (open hands) and tsuki with nukite”, and he recalled Juhatsu Kyoda saying that it had been Kanryo Higaonna who had changed the thrusting movements from nukite to the closed fist. The Goju Ryu people also believe that it was Higaonna who changed Sanchin to a closed fist form. The change to a slow kata, practiced with constant muscular tension and with an emphasis on an exaggerated breathing method, may have also been started by Higaonna, and then perhaps as Miyagi developed his teaching he gave greater emphasis to these features.

The change from the open hand may simply have been a reflection of the Okinawan liking for the closed fist. The students of both Chojun Miyagi and Juhatsu Kyoda recalled that they would be scolded if they relaxed their fist in Sanchin practice. In one of his blogs Mario McKenna noted that among Kyoda’s training equipment was a pair of old-style Sandow grip-dumbbells, (small metal dumbbells with a spring grip sold by the famous strong man Eugen Sandow). Apparently Kyoda had bought the dumbbells by mail order many years ago, and he used them to train the grip while performing Sanchin. “They’re a great training tool,” Mario commented, “and believe me when I say they are exhausting to use as part of your Sanchin practice.”

The breathing technique in the Goju form is unusual: you breathe in or out slowly with each movement, (breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth), as the body is held in muscular tension. The out-breath is performed with a loud, harsh, rasping sound. In the March 1967 edition of the British “Judo” magazine Robert W. Smith reviewed the new edition of Mas Oyama’s “What is Karate?”, which included a section on breathing methods including “Ibuki.” Oyama would have learned this breathing technique from his Goju teacher Neichu So, and although the Okinawans often criticise Japanese Goju and its methods, this ibuki breathing doesn’t look too different from the breathing used by Okinawan karateka in Sanchin. In any case, Bob Smith commented that “Ibuki is forceful breathing done at full contraction with sound effects which may only be termed amusing. Even the hardest external forms of China would laugh at it.” In 1985, when a group of Okinawan karateka made their second trip to Fujian, similarities between the Fujian Sanzan form and Sanchin were commented on, and the Okinawans asked about breathing. The Chinese reply was that “It should be natural, and it must not be apparent to your opponent.” (“Kindai Karate” magazine, April 1986).

Some critics have supposed that this combination of slow breathing and muscular contraction in Sanchin is unhealthy and leads to high blood pressure and heart problems, especially as you get older. Mark Bishop, for example, (“Okinawan Karate”, 1989) noted that many of the karate teachers he met on Okinawa criticised Goju Ryu “for its general hardness” and advised him to stop training in the style “or face high blood pressure-related illnesses and a premature death.” The idea was that the practice of Sanchin constricts blood flow, puts pressure on the heart and “is said to be the cause of high blood pressure and obesity amongst Goju Ryu practitioners over the age of forty.”

Similarly, Kenji Tokitsu, (“Histoire Du Karate Do”, 1993), while noting the strength and conditioning methods of Goju Ryu, commented that two main criticisms of these practices could be made: first, that the contraction of the muscles linked to the breathing risks unsettling the body’s blood pressure, and second, that, even if a person can strengthen the body to resist blows, that capacity cannot be maintained for a long time. “If one follows the same type of training without taking acoount of the changes in the body with age,” Tokitsu wrote, “at a certain point the equilibrium of the body breaks down and weakness ensues.” Ironically, Chojun Miyagi thought that the Sanchin breathing method would be good for your health.

I don’t know how scientific any of this is, maybe not much. Sanchin has been a basic practice of Goju Ryu for quite a long time now, but I don’t know whether its effects, good or bad, have ever been the subject of a long term scientific study. There seems to be little reliable information on the subject.

George Mattson, the well known American Uechi Ryu teacher, took a special interest in Sanchin kata, and he asked Kanei Uechi, the headmaster of the style, about the differences between the Uechi and Goju kata. Uechi was diplomatic, but said that because of the breathing method in the Goju Sanchin it should be classified as an exercise rather than a true karate kata: “The breathing in Goju Sanchin strengthens a student’s body and is very good exercise,” Uechi told Mattson, “but the breathing should not be used in the martial arts stage of karate. When you exhaust your complete breath, a weak spot occurs, which should not exist in karate. Keep your breathing circular so that at no time will you be weak. This way you can perform at any moment.” Uechi also went on to say that it’s best not to be too concerned with breathing “as the natural way is the best and correct way.” He thought that the student will adjust his breating naturally as he progresses through his training. “Because of the tension that is required for the kata,” he explained, “the student’s muscles will not allow him to take a deep breath, and what breathing is done is mostly up and down rather than in and out, without outward signs of breathing. It is also natural to hold one’s breath during periods of strain, and then to release it in a burst afterwards.” In contrast to Goju Ryu practice, Uechi practitioners do not breathe during the thrusting movements, rather, at the end of the technique they make a short hissing sound to show the sharp release of the breath. Mattson commented that Uechi was not dogmatic about breathing and that as a general rule “the student should breathe when necessary.”

Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu share a common view that Sanchin is the most important kata in karate. Kanbum Uechi, the founder of Uechi Ryu was reported as saying that you could master all the essentials of karate by just doing Sanchin, and Chojun Miyagi used to say a similar thing: according to Genkai Nakaima, Miyagi would say that if you practised only Sanchin all your life, you would not have to practise any other kata. It sounds like an idea that had been handed down from the past, a time when people might know only a few kata, or have little variety in their training methods. Nakaima once asked Miyagi: “How many times do you practise Sanchin to think that you have performed it well?” and he replied “I think I perform Sanchin well only once out of thirty times.” At that time Miyagi was about thirty four or thirty five, so that would have been in the early 1920s, the formative period of Goju Ryu. Twenty years or so later his view was still the same. In a 1942 article, “A MIscellaneous Essay on Karate”, he wrote: “Before entering the way of karate you have to develop your body and mind by doing Sanchin exercise . . . When I see karate done on Okinawa, I think we are apt to pay too little attention to heishu (basic) kata. Even your best kaishu kata may be lacking without the fundamental base given by Sanchin training.”

Today, in the age of professional fighting, contact, mixed martial arts competition and self protection training, it’s hard to make sense of Sanchin as a training method. As Mark Bishop wrote (“Okinawan Karate”): “Although this type of dynamic-tension Sanchin breathing is fast becoming popular, I could find no really convincing explanation for its practice, apart from its being a crowd gatherer and a somewhat dangerous body-builder.” The kata is frequently done unreasonably slowly, with overemphasized breathing and fierce grimaces, and as Bishop was suggesting, the main point of all this often seems to be to impress onlookers. Also, the breathing method is so contrived that it’s hard to see how it could be be applied to the speed and chaos of combat. There is a question too whether the slow thrusting movements with muscular contraction develop punching power or stifle it: the contraction puts tension in the arm, whereas knockout power - in professional fighting and all those street knockout videos on You Tube and other sites - comes from a certain looseness and sharpness in the movement, the use of bodyweight going into the punch, and follow-through. As someone put it on one of the web discussion groups: “Too much tension stifles power. Muscular tension acts as a brake, taking away power rather than adding to it.”

The purpose of Sanchin, then, must be to build up the body – “the Goju body”, as it’s been called. Zenshu Toyama, a Seko Higa student, told “Classical Fighting Arts” magazine (No. 47) that in Sanchin you should “adopt the correct stance, and also grip the floor like an octopus would with its tentacles to keep your balance . . . It is vitally important to adopt the correct stance, lower your weight, then grip the floor. On the mainland they don’t teach like this so they have no stability and can easily be knocked down.”

Sanchin is a basic training kata, not a fighting forms, and presumably the idea is that the principles embodied in Sanchin underpin and feed into the rest of Goju practice, the other kata, kumite, and so on. One of the objectives of Sanchin training is to make the body hard and resistant to punches and kicks, and that is what the testing tries to measure and develop . . . but what about the head? You can’t toughen that, and if you simply stand still, facing fully forward in a rooted stance, you will get your head taken off by a good boxer. And in street knockouts too the main first attack is almost always a punch to the head.

The Sanchin stance is probably an old inheritance from Fuzhou: you can see similar principles at work in Five Ancestors style, to take just one example, where there is a use of a short, compact, forward-facing position. The Goju Sanchin stance too is short, square on, a little hunched over maybe, the body held tight, the feet turned slightly inwards, the hands held to the front with the elbows close to the body. Overall it looks like a stance for close quarters fighting, where you need to draw the body in to protect the vital areas. Its origins may thus lie in a natural response to attack which, in a slightly developed form also provides the inner tension and springiness for the “swallow” and “spit” technique. . . . perhaps.

Looking outside karate you can occasionally find a kind of sanchin-stance-in-embryo in some old self defence books. For example, “Disarming in Hand-to-Hand Combat”, published by The Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1943, page 5, shows a “Defensive Position” which is almost a prototype Sanchin stance: compact, slightly crouched, feet shoulder width apart, one slightly in front of the other, both arms held in front with elbows close to the body, hands open. Most of those old unarmed combat books don’t show preparatory stances but another example is the well known and comprehensive “Hand to Hand Combat” published by the United States Naval Institute (1943). This does show a ”Contact Stance”which from the waist down is essentially a cramped form of Sanchin. As the book describes it: “Knees are brought together from the position shown in illustrations 2 and 3 (natural stances) in order to avoid sudden kicks to the groin”, which again illustrates a drawing together of the body for combat at close quarters.

It’s stretching a comparison, but I’ve sometimes thought that the sanchin position has similarities, in boxing terms, to the “Peekaboo” style taught by Cus D’Amato, the trainer of world champions such as Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and Mike Tyson. D’Amato also taught a short, square-on, crouched-over stance with the hands held in front of the body and face. But the full effectiveness of that style required speed, fast and powerful punching combinations, footwork, and the great head movement that you can see in some of Tyson’s early fights. In “Scream. The Tyson Tapes” by Jonathan Rendell, (edited by Richard Williams, 2014), Jose Torres, a D’Amato student and one-time Light Heavyweight World Champion, referred to this. “Moving the head”, he explained, also means moving the body to the side, and the analogy he gave for this was a train track: if a train is coming at you, you move to one side or the other. “If you move backwards the train is gonna kill you. The strategy was to discourage the opponent from throwing punches. If the punch comes straight, you move to the side. If it’s a hook, you bend down. You cannot move back. Pulling back is an invitation to get knocked out.”

But there is none of this flexibility or sophisticated movement in Sanchin: you simply stand still, in a rather muscle-bound, stiff stance, your head held stationary in a wide-open position, often with a kind of fierce looking expression on your face. The practice of Sanchin kata may harden the body to some extent but otherwise it’s hard to know what to make of it. The only defence is by way of the mawashi uke (roundhouse block) at the end of the kata and it may have been this lack of defensive technique in Sanchin that led Miyagi to develop Tensho to soften or augment the practice of Sanchin. Maybe . . . . who knows?

In any case the issue of head blows undermines the raison d’etre of Sanchin testing. Conditioning the body is an understandable goal, but in Sanchin testing this seems to be stressed at the expense of defending the head from strikes. Moreover, in modern karate and contact martial arts fighters have to deal not only with head punches but with powerful kicks to the head such as roundhouse and back roundhouse kicks, and even front kicks to the jaw, (which have produced devastating knockouts in MMA contests).

As a case in point, the Kyokushinkai knockdown tournaments, which have been running since 1969, allow full contact punches and kicks to the body, and kicks to the head - but no punches to the face or head. The contestants can take any number of blows to the body, but if they are hit with a kick, or an – accidental – punch to the head, they pretty much always go down. And these fighters are at least as well conditioned as the Goju and Uechi people. This makes you wonder about the overall usefulness of Sanchin testing in today’s world.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to test students by repeatedly punching them in the head, but this absence seems to lead to an overcompensation by stressing the hardening of the body and in many cases almost making a show of it.

Mario McKenna, an astute practitioner of To-on Ryu - and previously Goju Ryu - told Lex Opidam (“Meibukan magazine” No. 5, 2005) that “One of my biggest personal contentions is taking the mechanics of Sanchin as they are and grafting them onto all the aspects of your karate. If you are not careful then I believe this will result in an overly stiff and artificlal karate.” Mario went on: “For me the most important aspects are the proper alignment of the muscles and bones in conjunction with the breath, and the use of circular stepping. The conditioning and iron vest training are secondary. Proper Sanchin training should place the body in the right condition to produce quick, explosive movement. This is accomplished by dropping and relaxing the shoulders, keeping the elbows in and maintaining continuity of reaction forces from the ground through the legs, back, and arms.”

Even taking into account its supposed importance, Sanchin is still just one element of the overall training method that Chojun Miyagi developed for his Goju Ryu, the five-part training structure that he set out in “Karate Gaisetsu”. That structure remained surprisingly unchanged after his death, and Okinawan Goju Ryu has remained one of the most traditional of karate styles: modern developments such as point competition, knock-down competition, full contact karate, and mixed martial arts, have largely passed it by and it has stayed with the training structure that Miyagi laid down in the 1930s . . . and over the years that has proved appealing to many people.

There is something attractive about this old-new style of karate, and its search to bring together a strong body, smooth, compact movement and effective technique. Years ago, Terry O’Neill told me about the time he first saw Okinawan Goju Ryu, in the early 1970s in Japan, at the Yoyogi dojo of Morio Higaonna. Terry was a famous karate competitor then, he had worked the hardest doors in Liverpool for many years and his effectiveness in fighting was undoubted. He was a dedicated Shotokan karateka but on one of his visits to Japan he met Hugh St. John Thompson, another Shotokan man who had recently switched to Okinawan Goju. “You’ve got to come down and meet this terrifc teacher,” St. John Thompson told Terry. When they went to visit the dojo, Higaonna, “this little, diminutive guy” met them at the station and took their bags, and the first thing Terry noticed was the calluses on his hands, “knuckles like I’d never seen before”. When they got to the dojo Higaonna gave a demonstration of kata and applications and Terry was immediately impressed by his compact technique and power generation at close distance. Higaonna showed Terry some of those techniques and I remember him telling me the feeling he had when the small but strong master of Goju moved in close and demonstrated attacks to the vital areas of the body with his powerful hands and fingers: that this was like the art he had read about in books, the real, old, and deadly art of karate.

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