The Double-Edged Sword – Sanchin

The Okinawans love to party.

And Karate masters are no exception.

Actually, if you have read your history, you should know that the red-light district of Naha, Okinawa, had its fair share of regular shady visits from various Karate masters.

It’s true!

Anyway, over to the topic.

At parties people often drink alcoholic beverages, right?

Well, once – a long time ago – I was at some kind of event in Okinawa when I noticed a famous Goju-ryu master drinking a beer. Nothing strange about that. But… he had really much ice in his beer. So, “Sensei, why do you put so much ice in your beer?” was the obvious question.

The reply was something I will never forget.

It was something along the lines of:

“It helps against my hemorrhoids. Too many Sanchin kata, you know, he… he…”

Silence.

“Okay… rewind! Are you telling me that you, a famous, seemingly healthy, 10th dan Goju-ryu master are drinking beer filled to the rim with ice… because it helps against your hemorrhoids?!” was what I wanted to ask. But I just nodded and probably changed topic or something. Like I said, it was a long time ago.

Sanchin.

The kata that Goju-ryu (Uechi-ryu and Isshin-ryu too) basically is built upon. Along with nearly every traditional Kung Fu style out there! It is to Shorei-ryu what Naifanchin/Naihanchin is to Shorin-ryu.

It’s the foundation.

The origins of Sanchin (in Japanese to the right) can even be traced to the breathing exercises performed by Buddhist monks at the original Shaolin Monastery. These breathing exercises were developed by Bodhidharma (Daruma), the transmitter of Zen to China, to provide a regimen for the monks so that they would keep being strong and healthy during their time at the monastery. At least that’s how the story goes.

And this guy got sick from it?

For those that don’t know, hemorrhoids are swelling and inflammation of veins in the rectum and anus” according to Wikipedia. (A word of warning: Don’t check that Wikipedia article out unless you want a big picture of somebodys hairy behind etched in your mind).

Practising the kata Sanchin is supposed to be healthy for you. To use a more modern language, Sanchin is a isotonic and isometric physical breathing exercise which opens the lungs, capillaries and the epidermal glands, strengthens the heart muscle, massages the lymph system, teaches you correct alignment, tension/relaxation, posture and technique, and a bunch of other things I can’t spell…

Oh, and I almost forgot, it also – evidently – gives you painful lumps in your butt.

So, seen from that perspective, Sanchin is something of a double-edged sword: something that has (or can have) both favorable and unfavorable consequences.

It’s all about how you do it.

Breath in… breath out.

So how should you do it? Well, I thought I could share my thoughts on this.

Let’s start with correct technique for breathing:

Sanchin was “invented” long before Olympic weights and weight training machines were invented. However… the way that these activities are done (weight lifting and Sanchin) can – and definitely should – be identical. The proper breathing in Sanchin (and a bench press for that matter) should not be something known as a Valsalva maneuver.

That’s when you get increased internal pressure and hypertension, and before you know it you will be standing at parties explaining why you have Titanic proportions of ice in your beer to some foreigner.

“Valsalva what?” you might ask. And I’ll explain. But remember, I’m not a doctor in anything. I’m no certified professional physicist. So take my word for what it is.

(But then again, to draw a parallel, do you need to take courses in “Introduction to Creative Writing”, “Intermediate Creative Writing”, and “Advanced Creative Writing” before writing a poem?)

The Valsalva maneuver is performed by forcible exhalation against a closed airway, usually done by closing one’s mouth and/or pinching one’s nose shut. It’s what many people do when diving, to equalize pressure. And it’s what many people do when practising Sanchin kata.

One shouldn’t do the Valsalva maneuver (breath holding) when practising Sanchin, but rather slow, measured breath release. Ideal breathing would simply be a gentle exhale with each technique. Not getting your face all red, with veins popping out of your forehead, which I too often have seen people do.

Using correct breathing means:

  • No breath holding exists (which would create the Valsalva maneuver)…
  • …and  the slightly increased intrathoracic pressure would increase blood flow to the muscles being worked.

You know, I recently saw one of those Ultimate Fighter shows on TV. During a fight one coach was repeatedly screaming “Breath in through your nose! Breath in through your nose!” to his fighter.

“Karate people should learn from that” I immediately thought.

Why?

Because, breath restriction (inhaling through the nose) on inhale gives the “yin” (lowered pressure) to the “yang” of the restricted exhale (raised pressure) which we use in Sanchin kata. Breathing in through your nose lowers the intrathoracic pressure. This increases venous return and subsequently gives the heart more blood to pump out on the exhale.

One should not be done without the other.

Unless you want possible strokes, aneurisms, hernias, or blackouts… along with something painful (and nasty) between your butt cheeks.

But that’s not everything.

To remain healthy when practising Sanchin, there is one more important point to think about, besides breathing correctly.

The final secret is spelled r-e-c-t-a-l  s-p-h-i-n-c-t-e-r.

You need to contract your rectal sphincter. To use a more casual language, you need to perform something weight lifters refer to as “the anal lock”. I’m not going any deeper into that (pun intended), you can probably figure out what I mean.

Just squeeze.

Tight!

And don’t release until you have completed your exercise.

So… what else remains? Well, probably a lot. The puzzle of Sanchin takes years to complete. Can it even be completed?

I don’t know.

I actually haven’t trained long enough.

But I do know that knowing your breathing and a certain “lock” will help you a long way. At least if you want to remain healthy.

On the other hand… if you want an interesting topic for party conversations, then go ahead, squeeeze your eyes out. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

I heard hemorrhoid cream is cheap nowadays.

18 Comments

  • Diego Romero
    cool article! my two cents on the matter first, ultra mega hyper extremely agree on valsalva = bad. it's REALLY bad for you. secondly, the ibuki (the "heavy" breathing method used in sanchin and some other kata) is not actually forced, as some people may describe it. forced breathing means you're using your throat to stifle the air flow (it's the only way to "force" breathing actually, if you think about it). instead, ibuki is the measured but powerful controlled pressure of the abdomen; heavy duty abdominal breathing, if you will, where you concentrate in collapsing your diaphragm (and thus your lungs) down instead of inflating them outwards (the breathing movement should be seen in your lower abdomen, not in your ribcage), then breath out by slowly contracting (with or without tension) the abdominal wall (like a stomach vacuum but without holding your breath), which will then push the diaphragm and lungs back up, compressing them and pushing the air out again. this contraction of the abdominal muscles also brings pulls the ribcage and hips a bit together, and aids in the development of correct posture for sanchin dachi movements (gluteal and abdominal muscles contracted, without excessive pelvic tilt caused by using only the glutes and hip flexors). ok, i'll stop rambling now cheers
    • Dave Brewer
      you are 100% correct. However, hemorrhoids are the least of your worries. Consider this: Miyagi Chojun died at age 53 from (some sources say a heart attack others a stroke). Shimabuku Tatsuo died at a (for okinawans) a relatively young age of 67. Both practiced numerous times a day. I know of several advanced practitioners (names withheld) that have extreme high blood pressure (some as high as 180/90) that. I myself quit sanchin after age 40 (at the counseling of Hanshi Doug Perry of Shorinryu Shorinkan) after I suffered from a serious heart murmur) Now I am not saying that Sanchin should be dropped. Quite the opposite in fact, I feel the kata, like all things should be done in moderation. Often, especially in Isshinryu (to include the method performed Angi Uezu--who has had several strokes) the fundamentals should be stressed without starting with the breathing patterns prior to the sequence of the kata being taught. Sanchin can be effective but one must learn it correctly and this requires a good teacher---something is often lacking
  • andi
    "The big inhale comes from the big (i.e. complete) exhale", some Zen master said, I've heard. This works good for me. A slow and complete natural - i.e. sponataneous self-releasing - inhale through the nose, triggered by a complete exhale works good for me. I make a funny shrivel-face while doing that :O)
  • Ben
    Actually, the hemorrhoids theory may have some validity. From personal experience, I tend to get diarrhea after a serious sanchin/tensho session. I feel nicely tingly and fine otherwise, with a feeling of general relaxation. I personally don't like to practise sanchin too often though... kihon with regulated breathing gives me a good kick too! :)
    • *Too much informaaaation...*:p
      • Ben
        Woopsie :P
  • JamesD.
    Your article was dead on, Jesse! Very good information that waaaay too many practitioners of sanchin are not aware of...even in Okinawa! I have been "corrected" by several Okinawan masters in the past during testings, telling me that my sanchin breathing was all wrong or "too weak" due to not enough tension on my exhales! I would just smile and say thankyou (and after testing, go right back to doing it my master's way).
  • What happens when you keep everything very tight is your blood pressure raises. This is not mandatory bad, as long as it does not last too long. I have practiced the Yoshukai Karate version of Sanchin, you keep everything tight all the time. I do not think it is wise. I use Sanchin in my Tai Chi classes. We tighten during the breathing out, and RELAX during the breathing in. So you have an alternance of tight and soft times. WHen you breathe in, you relax your body, let the abdominal muscle relax, raise your ribcage to fill up your lungs. Then, you push your ribs down, this pushes your lungs down on your diaphragm, it also pushes all your guts under your diaphragm (Stomach, spleen, pancreas, liver, instestines). Then you start squeezing your abdominal muscles and your anus (which slightly tilts your pelvis)and this begins the breathing out. During this phase, you use your lungs to push on your guts and expel out of them the blood that is staying there. This blood goes out of the lower abdomen cavity to the chest, limbs and head. As you are also (very slightly) increasing pressure inside your lungs, there is a better exchange of gas inside them. you absorb more oxygen, you release more carbon dioxide. Your breathing is more efficient. So what happens here is that you send more blood to the head, and this blood is more loaded in Oxygen than it usually is. So if you do that a lot, you hyperventilate, and can get dizzy. The blood pressure increases because of the pressure applied to the lower abdomen, little arteries if there walls are weak, might bulge, or even crack. The solution is : RELAX when you breath in ! let the blood go back into the lower abdomen and your guts expand. By doing so, you actually massage your guts by rhythmically applying and releasing pressure to them, and you make the blood circulation better. This is where San Chin is a very healthy exercise. Hemorrhoids will happen if you practice like a mule, keep everything tight all the time, the blood is pushed so much out of the lower abdomen that the veins bulge and all this kind of things, it maybe look very impressive, but when your veins bulge, your arteries do to...
  • Gregor
    Very interesting article! Very good title! :-) Thing which must be taught from the very beginning of the Sanchin practice, but as you wrote often is not. And eventually effects are dual: good and bad as well. Alas.
  • Rob
    I was told to imagine I was holding a coin with my butt; the other advantage is that no one ever wants to borrow money from me!Thanks for another interesting article :-)
  • Connor H.
    I love you.
  • brian
    HiYeah i have read alot of the older masters telling there students not to do so much dynamic tension and clenching in there sanchin and above all breath naturally.Also if you look at the CMA versions they are all fairly realaxed with very little muscle tension. Sanchin is about breath control not about hove tight you can clench your muscles or how loudlly you can exhale or how firece you can grimce.In fact Hohan soken taguth a shuri-te version of sanchin to his first students but when he saw what many others were doing and even some of his students he stoped teachng it becasue he new what it would do to there health.Thankyou brian
  • Kassidy Ottinger
    Appreciate you sharing, great blog article.Much thanks again. Fantastic.
  • marko
    Kakva glupost! NE,od sanchin kate NECES dobiti suljeve!!! Kretenizam...
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    I've just started learning Sanchin kata. Thanks for the interesting discussion in both the article and comments. I have a much better idea of how to breathe now. That is the reason I wanted to learn this kata in the first place. Plus this discussion has been hilarious (laughter is also good for your health).
  • Eva
    Thank you for the wonderful article. My husband has taken Uechi Ryu Karate since the 70's. I asked him to teach me just recently. He started with Sanchin and the Horse Stance. I know I will be learning and practicing just this two katas for the next 3 years and then some! I feel so much more alive after practicing!
  • Isshin-ryu has 2 fundamental kata, Naihanchi (yin) & Sanchin (yang), and the Uechi-ryu Sanchin I was taught was done with speed and no ibuki breathing. One thing many people teach, is that sanchin is about "tightening" the muscles. From what I was taught we don't focus on tightening the muscles, but position our body in a way so our muscles tense themselves. It's all about posture. Toes/knees in, pelvis pushed forward, back straight, shoulders down & back & chin tucked in, etc.. This will naturally tense a large portion of our muscular system. Goju & Isshin-ryu Sanchin teach chinkuchi. Many think chinkuchi is a mystical power source, but in actuality, chinkuchi is the cultivation of energy through body mechanics and control. Chinkuchi is Sanchin kata performed in a millisecond. Speed & relaxation until the point of impact, then lock. The lock is chinkuchi. My sensei, who began training on Okinawa in 1958, married an Okinawan lady and has lived there years at a time, allowing him to train with many famous masters in almost every style there is. He says Sanchin is prolonged chinkuchi. He teaches if we want to stop an attacker with one blow, chinkuchi is the best because it prevents any buckling of the joints allowing 100% of our force to be expelled into the target. He says, "that's why they make bullets out of lead & not marshmallows."lol. As for the loud breathing, I was taught this isn't so important when practicing alone, and is a tool used in the dojo to teach how breath & physical movements coincide & are done at the proper time, and the explosion at the end of the outward thrust (kime), has an appropriate amount exhalation. The breathing itself should not have any affect on muscular tension, therefore, should not be a cause of physical harm. If we look at Sanchin Shime (when someone gets hit & kicked doing Sanchin), most of the hits come at the end of the exhale, then another small exhale is done, relax, step, etc.. My sensei, has trained with many now famous Goju-ryu masters. He has told me some understand Sanchin better than others. So if Sanchin is done with incorrect body mechanics, there will be unwanted side effects. Even some that do know how to align their body, do it at such an extreme they cause themselves damage. He told me Tatsuo Shimabuku Sensei told him not to do Sanchin more than a few times per day. One interesting, and very humorous, story Sensei told me was that some of the old timers would do Sanchin in the nude. He said one Okinawan sensei was doing Sanchin like this and handed him a pencil and told him to push the pencil into his buttcrack when he did the kata (it's hilarious hearing him tell this story). But anyway, he didn't want to disrespect the Okinawan sensei so he did as he was told. Sensei said he couldn't even get the eraser in. He said the Okinawan sensei made him use a lot of pressure too. lol. But this ain't even the half of it... This man told Sensei to feel his testicles, and when he did, nothing was there. This Okinawa had pulled them up into his body. Some may cringe at this, or refuse to do it because of insecurities. However, Sanchin is a study of the body, how we bring everything to center (tanden) & direct our energy from there. It just so happens, our tanden is located very close to our private areas. From lessons like this, my teacher has gained the trust of many Okinawan sensei and has learned many secrets. After years of training under him, and him testing my character, he's shared many of these secrets with me. He doesn't do the pencil test but has shown me things like raising the big toe for certain techniques, how we hold our pinky finger & countless other things will produce chinkuchi. My point is... the way we breathe does not affect our tension. We don't worry about tightening muscles because if our body is correct, they'll tense themselves. My sensei is 78 years old. He still does Sanchin with full tension and says many believe Sanchin is bad for you, and when he finds out any of the harmful things it causes, he'll let me know. lol. Sanchin is for health. When done properly, I undoubtedly believe it will do just that. Lastly... the Okinawans I've met like to joke. The guy could've been doing just that when you asked about ice in his beer. My father drank his beer on ice & added a little salt. If he was joking or not, he did make you think about it enough to write an article on it. Lessons come in many forms and some of the best come in the most unlikely ways. Who would imagine that a pencil could be used to illustrate how we draw everything to center? lol. Anyway, good article. Enjoyed the read. :)
  • Charles James
    Well done, I can't tell you how many folks would watch me do sanchin and immediately fell me how wrong I was and then proceeded to demonstrate all the inappropriate and unhealthy ways to do it. I suspect the Goju-master was just overdoing his kata for all those years - go figure. One reason I always question things regardless of being a highly ranked Okinawan sensei or first generation Isshinryu practitioner or a Goju/Uechi adept.I will admit that I did it wrong for a huge amount of time but then I got religion. If done right, regarding that lock thing, you will naturally lock that area up but I digress.Great, copied some quotes for future references because they were well written.

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