Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sam Chien? Who's that?

Miyagi Chojun, the founder of Goju Ryu Karate, considered Sanchin to be the most important kata in his art. So much so that his students learned nothing but hojo undo (strength training), high repetitions of basic techniques and multiple repetitions of Sanchin kata for their first three years.

His contemporary, Uechi Kanbun, founder of Uechi Ryu Karate, shared those sentiments. He believed that the core techniques of karate were found in Sanchin and two other kata.

Until recently in my martial arts training, I never liked Sanchin. I still don't like the way that most people perform it with an emphasis on dynamic tension. If I got nothing else of value from my years of Yang Taijiquan, it was breaking the bad habits I acquired as a result of dynamic tension exercises.

There are also good arguments to be made that dynamic tension is bad for your health. Some have argued that Miyagi's death at 65 from a heart attack was due to his practice of Sanchin with dynamic tension. I've also heard that Miyagi and his student, Yamaguchi Gogen, suffered from severe hemorrhoids as a result of their dynamic tension training.*

But there is more than one way to do Sanchin, or its Hakka Chinese predecessor, Sam Chien. My friend, instructor and training partner, Don, brought back a version of that form from a trip to Malaysia several years ago.

Uechi Kanbun (above) and Miyagi Chojun (below, checking a student's kata) both considered Sanchin Kata to be the core set for karate students. Though I disagree with their use of dynamic tension in Sanchin practice, I've come to appreciate the Sanchin Kata from my study of the form's Chinese predecessor, Sam Chien.

He told me that there were three ways to practice it: with dynamic tension, like the Okinawans and Japanese; slow and relaxed, almost like a Yang Taijiquan set; and fast, with full power and intent.

I've always preferred the latter two methods.

At first, I wanted to learn that set out of curiosity. I've trained in both Chinese and Okinawan/Japanese forms and this form was the missing link between the two cultures.

A comparison between Chinese Sam Chien Kuen and Okinawan/Japanese Sanchin Kata

Over time, I did research on that form. Thanks to Youtube, it is possible to watch different versions of that set. In addition to the three ways listed above, I've seen versions using both hands simultaneously, (like Don taught); alternating hands; using front kicks during the forward step; moving forwards; moving backwards; and with weapons.


Sanchin Kata practiced with sai (aka chai, gen, tjabang)

Since I'm doing more forms that avoid knee drops and duck-walks to rehab my knee, I've been working that form into more of my workouts. So I was pleasantly surprised when Don suggested we run through Sam Chien several times during our Saturday workout.

Don made added a few twists to that form, adding a more pronounced salute to the beginning and a fa-jing exercise.

Today, I worked the Sam Chien form as well as the Yin Ching Kuen from Yau Kung Mun Kung Fu, into my circuit. It was an interesting contrast, going from the short, uncomplicated Sam Chien to the much longer Yin Ching Kuen. On the other hand, both forms make use almost exclusively of hand techniques and place a great emphasis on the hourglass stance in their footwork.

But it turns out my knee isn't the only part in need of rehab. Almost two weeks ago, I wrote about how I did more than 100 pushups on either five or three fingers. It turns out, I overdid it.

Normally, I do my claw pushups on softer ground or on the padded floor of the Carport Kwoon. But that day, I did them on much harder ground than I'm used to.

For several days, my knuckles on both hands were very stiff. My left hand is back to normal, though the knuckle of the middle finger on my right hand is still stiff and sore. To be honest, it feels almost like I broke it.

So I've been doing my pushups just using a good ol' fashioned pushup bar. Though I haven't had x-rays, I'm treating it like I did break that knuckle and refraining from knuckle or claw pushups.

After closing the circuit part of my workout, I decided to experiment with doing Sam Chien with weapons. Today, I broke out with my chai (called sai in Okinawan) and my sam jei guan (three-sectioned staff).

Nothing fancy. With the chai, I did 10 reps each hand of some flipping and thrusting moves using the Sam Chien footwork. For the sam jei guan, I did some figure-eights, alternating sides, with the Sam Chien footwork.

After doing that, my fingers and forearms didn't miss not doing claw pushups.

*For more information on the health risks associated with dynamic tension training and how it may have harmed men like Miyagi and Yamaguchi, check out pages 36 - 37 of "Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques", 2nd edition, by Mark Bishop.

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