Sanchin - The Three Battles

What is Sanchin?

            Sanchin is the first of the traditional kata learned in the Gojyu-ryu syllabus. It is the only kata that falls into the kihongata (basic kata) category. There are various forms of Sanchin, but in Meibukan we practice the style adopted by Miyagi Chojun Sensei, wherein he incorporated closed fists and the two turns.

            Despite being classified as a “basic kata” Sanchin is quite complex. Rather, kihongata is meant to indicate that Sanchin teaches you the basics, not that it is basic or “easy.” It requires intense concentration, physical and mental awareness and great control. We learn Sanchin so early on because it creates the foundation for all other kata and kumite drills, and because it takes a lifetime to master. Master Yagi Meitoku said that Sanchin should be practiced three times a day for optimal health benefits: the first time with no power, then with some breath and tension/relaxation and then the third time at full power.

Why do we practice Sanchin with audible breath?

            In addition to teaching proper posture, stance, guarding and punching techniques, Sanchin also introduces students to breathing. The way of breathing in Sanchin is very natural: we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. As babies we naturally use this type of deep breathing to fill our lungs, but as we grow older we tend to use shallower breathing, only filling the top part of the lungs in our chest. Sanchin helps correct this by breathing deeply and pushing the air as far down as we can. This serves several purposes. We get more air, we massage our internal organs by expanding our lungs beyond our ribcage area, we learn to hide our breathing by pushing it down rather than allowing it visibly move our upper chest cavity and shoulders, and we encourage good posture by using our breath to straighten our spines to get the most out of it.

            The type of deep breathing used in Sanchin is called ibuki breathing. Though it might sound like we are “making a noise,” what you hear is just the sound of air being inhaled and exhaled with a lot of pressure. When exhaling we aim to leave our mouths in a round position with our throats open; the pressure comes from our diaphragms, not from our throats. This can be further applied to our kiai in the kaishu kata.

            There are four types of breath in Sanchin: long in, long out; long in, short out; short in, long out; and short in, short out.

Why does Sensei hit the students during Sanchin?

            This is called shime and has two main purposes. First, it provides conditioning for the student, and secondly it checks the concentration and balance of the student. In a proper Sanchin no kamae, a karateka is well protected from attacks, by mostly exposing areas of the body that can be strengthened by body conditioning. Weak points such as the neck, groin and armpits are protected by a straight spine and tucked chin (neck), relaxed knees and forward foot turned in slightly (groin), and elbows being closer together than your fists (armpits). That means Sensei is always checking your “armour”--parts of your body that you will use to defend yourself.

            The main targets for shime are: between your shoulders and neck, your lats, your thighs and your calves. Doing shime to someone performing Sanchin requires care and some training to make sure you're benefiting the practitioner and not injuring them. When you strike the body, your palms should be open and relaxed. When striking the legs, aim for the middle of the thighs and calves, away from the joints.

            Traditionally, Sanchin is practiced without the jacket part of your dogi. The dojo provides a safe place for karateka to learn what it feels like to be hit to build the mental endurance in case they should ever find themselves in a confrontation outside the dojo. If the first time you are ever struck is in a real fight, you could be momentarily startled by the pain, and lose the reaction time you need to decide your next move.

What is the meaning of Sanchin? What is the purpose of Sanchin?

            The kanji of Sanchin translate to “three battles.” This is commonly interpreted as the battles of your mind, body and spirit. It is the karateka's goal to unify these three elements of the self in the practice of Sanchin. The physical component of these battles is the most apparent. This involves breath control, muscle tension and relaxation, shime, grip/tsukamu, proper posture, proper kamae and balance/stability (to name some elements). To conquer the mind requires intense concentration, koroshi no me, shime conditioning and visualisation, among others. The battle of the spirit has to do with creating harmony between the physical and mental aspects of Sanchin. This is our will, or intention, to push our abilities to the highest level.

            The above is only the literal meaning of Sanchin. The purpose of Sanchin is to build ki: ki wo ne ru. The cultivation of our spiritual energy is the basis of our entire practice both in and outside the dojo. Sanchin is classified as “moving zen.” It is our way of meditating in karate. Ki comes from our hara, our centre point. This is one of the reasons why the deep ibuki breathing is employed. By expanding our diaphragm and creating a spine perpendicular to the earth we optimise the conditions for building good ki and transferring the energy through our bodies.


By Simon Mackie 

Okinawan Traditional Martial Arts
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