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Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: The Way of Sanchin Kata: The Application of Power

When I review a book on martial arts, I can't help but feel that there is a certain amount of cheekiness involved on my part. You see, it's pretty much a given that the author of the book I'm reviewing has skills considerably more advanced than my own (not much point in reading the book otherwise, right?), so it's hard to
escape the "Who-am-I-to-criticize?" feeling. Nevertheless, hoping that someone will get something out of my take on a given volume, I press on...
I have long been interested in the kata sanchin. It's likely that only God knows for sure just how long it's been around. It exists in a variety of forms in various kung-fu systems (usually written in Roman letters as saam chien) and at least three different Okinawan versions come easily to mind: the Goju Ryu version, the Uechi Ryu version, and the Motobu Udun Ti version.

The versions differ noticeably from one another, and it doesn't help that the kata is often performed badly--terribly badly, so much so that even I, though I practice a system that does not include Sanchin in its curriculum, can recognize how bad the situation is.

Of this much I'm sure: you shouldn't look and sound as though you're about to cough up blood and entrails when you do Sanchin.

I picked up Kris Wilder's The Way of Sanchin Kata: The Application of Power because--even though the system I practice doesn't include it--I choose to practice Sanchin. To my mind, it seems important and useful, though I don't think I can quite subscribe to Hiroo Ito's opinion, given in the foreward, that:
The very basic kata in Okinawa-style karate is sanchin, and it has been understood historically that you master karate only if you master this kata.
After all, there are quite a number of Okinawan systems and subsystems that do not include Sanchin at all, and the skills of those practitioners certainly don't seem lacking to me. However, for various reasons, I decided that I would try to learn and practice the Uechi Ryu version of Sanchin, and though the instructional video I have isn't bad (It's Rod Mindlin's, if anyone is wondering), it was nevertheless clear to me that there were things about the kata that simply aren't adequately explored, and I needed extra instruction, preferably from someone not doing the coughing-up-blood-and-entrails version. Mr. Wilder's book appeared to provide some of the details I was trying to figure out.

I have not been altogether disappointed. Even though Mr. Wilder's book deals almost entirely with the Goju Ryu version of Sanchin--which, I would guess, is also pretty much the same as the Isshin Ryu version, since Shimabuku Tatsuo presumably imported the kata directly from Goju Ryu into Isshin Ryu--he carefully notes details of the movements that are clearly applicable to other versions of the kata and explores the whys and wherefores in considerable depth and his material has therefore helped me with my practice. Since Mr. Wilder says:
The goal of this book is to achieve a better understanding of sanchin kata through the mechanics, history, and applications of the kata.
I guess that means that his goal has been achieved, at least in my case.

The book starts out with a brief history of the kata. It is necessarily somewhat brief, for the simple fact of the matter is that the ultimate origins of the kata are lost in time. As Mr. Wilder says:
...the viewpoints between the versions of the history of sanchin kata are difficult to make clear. It is only possible to touch upon a handful of points on the timeline with reasonable assurance when looking at the history of sanchin kata. Finding the root, or the clear origin, of sanchin kata is as difficult as it was for the British and French in 1854 to find the headwaters of the Nile river.
This section, therefore, did not really offer anything new and startling, but rather recapped the well-known basic historical facts: that the kata is known to be at least several hundred years old, exists in more than one version, was an integral part of the martial arts systems taught by Kanryo Higashionna and Kanbun Uechi, and was altered somewhat further by Chojun Miyagi into what is now probably the most widely taught version, that of Goju Ryu.

After that, Mr. Wilder spends some time discussing the relationships between physical movements and mental processes, the way the hemispheres of the brain communicate with each other, the differences between various kinds of brain waves, and elements of training that affect all of these. Mr. Wilder's comment that
Moving in sanchin kata, because it is a walk and not a march, helps create better communication between the two sides of the brain.
reminded me somewhat of some of the things I have read about the Feldenkrais Method.

The next chapter is largely about how to measure one's movements--how close the fist should be to the body, etc.--and contains one particularly fascinating section asserting that the Fibonacci Ratio is quite noticeable throughout Sanchin kata.
...because this ratio is among the basic mathematical formulas upon which nature builds, it is important that we acknowledge this and work in harmony with nature, and not against it. Think of it this way; close your eyes and imagine you have everything you need to build a ten-foot-tall pyramid--the stone, the mortar, and a crane. In your mind, take a few seconds and build the pyramid.

Now look at it. The point is at the top, correct? Clearly, you cannot build an upside-down-pyramid and have it stand. It simply is not stable and tips over to seek a balance point. If you did build a pyramid upside-down, you would need supports to hold it in the upside-down position. Those supports, of course, would not be needed if you build the pyramid correctly to begin with. It follows then, that in sanchin kata, one should adhere to the ratio. Not to do so is the equivalent of building an upside-down pyramid.
And then a little later:
Sanchin kata teaches the fundamentals of karate that can then be extended over the entire syllabus of karate. This extension of this principal gives the practitioner the structural integrity of the basics throughout their martial arts techniques.
The next several chapters dwell mostly on the mechanics of the kata, building from the ground up, through the feet, then the legs, then the hips, and so on. Mr. Wilder goes into great detail as to which muscles should be doing what, which is very useful information. When he gets to the arms, he spends a little time talking about the mechanics of the punch, giving a good deal of extremely useful information which is, I flatly guarantee, given insufficient attention by far too many karate practitioners. Not that this is altogether their fault; the sort of detail that Mr. Wilder gives is simply difficult to communicate adequately to each member of a class of twenty or more students. Frankly, I got almost all the way up to black belt in Taekwon-do without being familiar with some of the details Mr. Wilder gives, and when I made the switch to Okinawan karate, my instructor had/is having to help me unlearn the bad habits I had acquired.

At one point, Mr. Wilder said something that arrested my attention. Referring to the way the punching hand rotates from palm up (at the side) to palm down (at impact), he says, emphasis mine:
Staying relaxed allows for quickness. During the first three quarters of the distance the punch covers, it is relaxed. Once the fist has passed the other fist, the rotation then begins. This exchange of fists takes place in the last quarter or so of extension toward the target.

The twisting of the fist at the last moment is important because it creates a snapping shock instead of a push punch. The twisting of the punch at the last third or so of the length the punch travels is in line with the Fibonacci Ratio in the form of a spiral. Again, this is a case of a movement that conforms to, and uses, nature instead of trying to force the body to comply with the will of the individual.
This interested me because for some time I have been dissatisfied with using the English word "punch" to describe what we are learning to do in our group. It has seemed to me that a "punch" is more of a hard push than what we do, which more closely resembles making a relaxed, whipping strike--creating a "snapping shock," in Mr. Wilder's words--with the knuckles, and I have grown to prefer the Japanese term tsuki.

In the remainder of the book, Mr. Wilder covers the "Iron Shirt" aspect of the kata, breathing, "rooting," the movements of the kata, testing the kata, and training implements.

I found it interesting that when discussing the "Iron Shirt" effect--which, according to him, allows the practitioner to take blows without injury--it seemed to me that he dwelt more on how to achieve this effect than on how it works, and I can only speculate that it has something to do with something Yang Jwing-Ming talked about in one of his books: that many pressure points can be "armored" by tensing the muscles around them. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that being able to control one's muscles immediately and completely in this regard could be useful, but I don't recall Mr. Wilder directly addressing the isue.

I had mixed feelings about the material in the breathing section. Although it was very clear and helped to explain why the breathing of the Goju Ryu practitioner sounds the way it does (and it can be, and is, frequently done incorrectly, so this material should be given close attention by Goju practitioners seeking a clear explanation of this breathing), it seemed to me that the breathing in the Goju version of the kata was the only sanchin breathing addressed, and one thing anyone looking into sanchin will immediately notice is that the breathing in the Uechi Ryu version is considerably different. It is also very difficult to find a clear explanation of how the Uechi Ryu breathing is done--it is usually described as simply "natural" and "hissing"--and I was hoping to find more about it in this book. On the other hand, the material in the book was so clear as regards the Goju version that I felt like I had picked up a tidbit or two that would at least be applicable to my practice.

I did enjoy the material on training implements, especially the makiwara. The makiwara, it seems to me, is unique. No other training device gives feedback to the practitioner in precisely the way it does. As Mr. Wilder says:
Striking pads, focus mitts, heavy bags, water bags, and other training aids are not direct replacements for the makiwara. The reason for this is the makiwara gives instant and direct feedback in the form of non-recoiled pressure. As a heavy bag moves away from your fist and swings back when struck, it takes time to sway from your strike and then return. The makiwara gives instant pressure--the harder you hit, the harder it gives pressure back toward you.
The only thing I didn't like about the book was a rather obvious lack of editing. Over and over again, I found sentences that were so poorly framed--often not even grammatically correct--that the information they were trying to convey was obscured. I don't blame Mr. Wilder for this. Taking care of that sort of thing is the job of the editor, and whoever it was did not do his job very well.

Overall, the book is informative and useful, and though I would still recommend that anyone trying to learn the kata on his own take advantage of one of the video treatments of the subject, there is no doubt that anyone already knowing the kata and trying to improve his knowledge and performance will find this book well worth purchasing.

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