SANCHIN AS A MIND-BODY EXERCISE
By Paul Giella, PhD
This paper represents an effort to combine the author’s extensive study and practice in two areas that have been of major interest over the past thirty years. A student of Uechi-ryu karate under Sensei George Mattson since 1967, the author has always been known as more a proponent of the ‘do’ form than the ‘jutsu’. As a practicing psychologist, the author has extensive knowledge and experience in addressing human emotional distress. In this paper a bridge is constructed connecting the essential and fundamental karate exercise with important principles of psychological wellness.
Anxiety may be the most ubiquitous human emotion, virtually universal in human experience. Anxiety is the name given in this century, but not the only name by which this common human phenomenon has been known. Stress, worry, concern, alertness, vigilance, awareness, fear and terror and probably other terms as well have served to convey some of the nuances of this emotion along its continuum from mild to extreme.Without anxiety, we imagine, life would be perfectly tranquil and harmonious. “Don’t worry, be happy!” goes the Jamaican saying, and it is a common fantasy to imagine or believe that a life without worry or concern is even remotely possible. Everyone I have ever known has had to come to terms with some degree of anxiety as a condition of being alive.
Evolutionary scientists trace the origins of anxiety to the precariousness of life itself. We have life, and we are aware that it is fragile and vulnerable, and that it requires constant care and protection if it is to continue. This is true on an individual level as well as on a social group level and even a species level. For the purposes of this paper, I am confining myself to the individual level.
However life originated on this planet, it eventually diversified itself over the eons of evolution, to greater and greater degrees of differentiation and specialization. The familiar Darwinian model teaches us that survival is determined by adaptation to adversity. Survival of the fittest is the overarching principle on both the species level and the individual level. We compete with each other, that is; with other individuals and other species, for dominance and survival. Those that fail to adapt fall by the wayside. This fundamental fact of life means that strife and conflict are guaranteed to continue to exist, since they are the ultimate testing ground of fitness. Life without this challenge may be pleasant to imagine, but would not be in the service of advancement.
What does this have to do with Sanchin, or even with anxiety as a day-to-day human emotion? All of us have to come to terms with its many manifestations in our ordinary lives… there is no such thing as a stress-free life… so we are individually best off if we come to terms with this reality by developing mechanisms to deal with it.
Evolutionists trace the physical/mental phenomenon we call anxiety to a time in the history of the species when the struggle for survival was much more obvious and direct. If we look only at the last million years or so, a tiny fraction of time in evolutionary terms, we go back to a time when there were relatively few humanoid creatures struggling to survive in a highly inimical environment. (See Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites for a very well thought out exposition of the long evolutionary journey from primitive survival terrors to modern-day social anxiety). Our forerunners had to deal constantly with threats of annihilation from any number of directions. Weather, scarcity of food, fear of predators (who outnumbered these early humans by manifold) must have made life very precarious indeed. As we evolved, humans learned to group together for mutual benefit and to divide their social roles into greater and greater degrees of specialization. As specialization increased the social structure also grew much, much more complex and diverse. We learned to dominate many of the external threats (weather much less of a concern to us in most situations, wild predatory animals not a common threat in downtown Boston, nutritious food available to most on a consistent basis) the most overt and acute forms of fearfulness settled into the background of our consciousness.
Overt fearfulness gave way over the millennia to the more vague, derivative form we know as anxiety. In fact, the best definition of anxiety is a freefloating and nonspecific fearfulness; a disquieting sense of impending threat that cannot be clearly named. If there were a lion loose in my community I could quickly identify the source of my fear, and I would be able to deal with it directly by the age-old mechanism of fight-or-flight. Once the lion is dealt with, captured or killed, or I am safe behind locked doors, the fear subsides. Not so obvious or easy when the provoking cause of my distress is too murky to identify. Modern psychoanalysis teaches us that anxiety is a complex emotion, the culmination of many, many factors impinging on the individual, from their real and current life to long forgotten experiences from the early part of their life, and even the inherited pre-programmed and ancient fears that effected the species in its earliest days(Jung’s so-called ‘racial unconscious’). Our modern life is both highly complex and so ‘protected’, in a sense, that it is difficult for the individual to grasp just what the root causes of anxiety are. Yet we all have to deal with it to differing degrees.
How does anxiety manifest itself in the individual? It is both a physiological as well as a psychological phenomenon. The physical signs include: muscle tension, shallow, rapid breathing accompanied by a feeling of choking or not getting enough air, sweating, palpitations, dizziness, shakiness. Interestingly, these are many of the same physical signs that Sensei Canna has identified with the “chemical cocktail” that is called forth in a situation of threat. The threat is not so readily identifiable in our daily lives, but the physiological reaction still occurs on a mild, background level. For example; we would all recognize the threat if a stranger pointed a gun at us and demanded “your money or your life”, but it is much more subtle when the ‘threat’ is a combination of a hundred intercurrent factors (your health concerns, your job deadlines, your children’s issues, your finances, your national politics, the dreams you had last night… and on and on). So we live in a state of perpetual arousal.
Benson, in his familiar work The Relaxation Response describes the ‘kindling’ syndrome, in which the long term affects of these aggregate stresses lead to measurable negative health effects such as high blood pressure, digestive problems and psychological changes. The immune system can be compromised (indeed, a new field of study has emerged known by the tonguetwisting name psychoneuroimmunology to explore the interaction between stress and health.). The longer these stresses affect us uninterrupted, the more sensitive (not the less sensitive) we become to their effects on the mind and body. So it becomes important (critical, for those who are predisposed to psychoneuroimmunological hypersensitivity) to address this through a variety of lifestlye management practices.
Benson and others are proponents of meditation techniques such as yoga and TM, which have proven anti-stress effects. There is ample research evidence that virtually all forms of physical activity serve to alleviate stress to some degree.One would be hard-pressed nowadays to find a doctor who does not advise patients to incorporate exercise into their lifestyle.
While there are many forms of exercise, it is my contention that karate, and Sanchin in particular, is directly suited to address this problem. It addresses many of the components of stress/anxiety through one mechanism.
Jacobson developed the now well known set of exercises known as deep muscle relaxation. One sits in a well balanced position in a comfortable chair and proceeds slowly through a series of progressive clenching and relaxing movements of all of the body’s large, voluntary muscle groups. Beginning with the feet and ankles one clenches for several seconds as tightly as possible, all while breathing deeply and rhythmically with a focus on blowing the anxiety out of the body. One works his way up through progressive sets of muscles through the legs, torso, arms/shoulders, neck and head.The eyes are closed and the breathing is regular and deep. This is followed by a few minutes of quiet meditation, still focused on the breathing. These techniques have been taught to anxiety disorder patients since the 1970’s with some good success (especially among those who practice them faithfully and conscientiously).
One problem, though, with these exercises is that they are essentially passive. Much like the sitting form of Zen meditation one seeks to still the mind and the soul by practicing a form of profound stillness. Many students of Zen have found this task to be too challenging, as the natural wandering of the mind proves difficult to overcome. Mattson recounts, in The Way of Karate, the legend that Boddhidharma himself made up a Sanchin-like exercise for this very purpose; to help young monks focus on an active, as opposed to a passive, form of meditation. In my view, it is not simply the passivity of the Jacobson exercise that is problematic, but the essential aimlessness of it. It does not address the fundamental source of the anxiety, even though it does effect the result of it (the muscular tension and constant hyperarousal). I am not suggesting that there is no value to the passive forms of meditation. Zen, Yoga, TM and other techniques have met with notable success for some populations. But those that are temperamentally predisposed to a need for more active expression do better with the moving forms. And there are those who gain from practicing both forms.
It is not simply the fact that Sanchin is active that gives it its value, but the special nature of the activity itself.Recall that anxiety is, at its fundamental root, a derivative of primordial fear, or of the activation of the fight-or-flight response without the opportunity for discharge.It harkens back to the basic life-asserting struggle for survival that is universal and timeless. Since Sanchin addresses the fear of annihilation by physical threat it strikes more directly to the heart of the matter. It provides a more direct route to dealing with the feeling of personal vulnerability than the passive forms do. (One might even argue that the passive forms paradoxically increase the sense of personal vulnerability by promoting softness.)
Sanchin contains may of the elements of the deep muscle relaxation exercise. The voluntary muscle groups are rhythmically clenched and relaxed in coordination with a regular and forceful breathing pattern, which serves to break a pattern of chronic hyperarousal and muscular hypertonus. One cannot be both relaxed and tense at the same time, and Sanchin brings these two diametrically opposed states under much more direct conscious control. The repetitive interchange and shifting back and forth between muscle tension and muscle relaxation combine with the breathing to lift one out of the anxiety feeling of passive vulnerability to the sense of being more fully in charge or in control of the physical self. As with the other forms of meditation, the separation of the practice from the ordinary day-to-day is an aid in its effectiveness. We go to a special place (the dojo, or ‘way of study place’), change into a special uniform, perform to special commands, join with the ‘group mind’… all in the service of achieving an elevated sense of spirit and a deeper mental clarity… similar in effect to the other techniques, but with the added benefits of aerobic exercise and self-defense practice.
Since the Sanchin exercise also contains the promise of a practical application of the movements to self-protection, it simultaneously provides an enhanced sense that one can deal with a physical threat. Therefor, one feels less vulnerable. Jerome Frank, in the 1970’s book Persuasion and Healing, speaks at length about the importance of the so-called placebo effect in all forms of medical treatment. Placebo, from the Latin “I will please”, refers to the importance of the healer offering the patient something that carries the promise or enhances the hope that the method will bring about the therapeutic effect. It is critical that the healer believe in the real effects of the technique, and that the patient either believe it also, or accept it on faith. Placebo is not a sham or a bluff… there must be some context in the cultural worldview which gives credence to the method, otherwise it will not serve to put the subject into the healing frame of mind. This is thought by many to be an essential, a sine qua non, of healing or learning of any sort. (See the writing of Andrew Weil for a more contemporary exposition of this idea.) Regarding Sanchin, it is essential that both the student and the teacher believe that that there is direct value to the exercise in enhancing personal strength and diminishing fear based on a subjective sense of weakness. Sanchin accomplishes this in a number of ways. There is the obvious increase in muscular strength that comes with prolonged practice. There is the critically important belief that the movements themselves are not random or haphazard physical movements just for the sake of exercise but rather directly applicable self-defense techniques which, when done correctly and repetitively over a long period of time will give the practitioner a significant physical advantage in a fear-inducing confrontation. Were we to practice movements which we knew to be ineffective we would lose a significant element of the mind-body mix.
There is also the physical Sanchin ‘test’ itself. To my thinking, it remains important that the student train to withstand a fairly vigorous test of the body’s integrity. Not only does this insure that the muscles will be properly conditioned to clench or focus fully and forcefully, but an element of “stress inoculation” will be introduced into the exercise. Stress inoculation is a term used by psychologists in the treatment of clinical anxiety states. It involves exposure of the subject through a graduated series of controlled steps to the anxiety provoking or phobic stimulus. The subject practices the relaxation response techniques in the midst of the mini-situations that invoke the underlying anxiety in controlled dosages. When they can handle it comfortably at one level, they step up to he next, and so on, until they are able to confront the actual fear-inducing situation in vivo. For example, a patient with a phobia of driving on the highway would start by learning the relaxaton technique and then practice it while exposing himself to closer and closer approximations of the driving situation itself. Eventually, he would practice while driving on the highway itself. As exposure and comfort level increase the phobic response, acute anxiety, diminishes to the point where it is no longer clinically significant. The Sanchin test has to be a real threat, at least to some limited degree in order to be a credible aid to learning. Too easy, and there is no element of anxiety to confront. Too hard, and it is not a test, but a retraumatization that can actually set the student’s progress back (just like if the phobic patient tried to drive on the highway too soon and experienced a panic attack). The skill of the teacher lies in knowing the degree to which the student can handle the physical test; there must be a challenge in order to engage the student’s full effort. But it must not be overdone, certainly not on a regular basis, because there is the danger of convincing the student, on an unconscious level, that he was right to think himself weak and vulnerable. We will never know how many students have quit karate for another sport because the practice was not challenging enough, or because they have been scared off by an overzealous sensei.
We should ask why it is that these elements of stress inoculation, or relaxation response training, or active meditation need to be practiced over and over, day after day, for years or for a lifetime. Why would it not suffice to “learn” Sanchin to the point where one “knows” it and knows he is strong and capable of self-defense… and then stop practicing? The answer is important and multifaceted. It is realistically impossible to achieve a life with out at least some degree of threat to survival. It appears to be part of the human condition to have to deal with threat throughout the lifecourse. The need to restore a sense of inner balance is an ever-renewing one. Having achieved inner balance on one day does not guarantee that it will hold to the next. We need a reliable method of restoring inner harmony when ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ have disrupted it. We need an ever-renewable technique to cope with the ever-repeating phenomenon of stress. As an example from everyday life; how many of us have started the day with a sense of tranquility only to have it ruined by some road-rage driver gesturing in a crude and threatening manner, or being talked down to in a humiliating manner by a superior at work? Over and over for the next few hours we replay the scene in our head, imagining what we should have said or done… the scenario becoming more Hollywood with each viewing. Then we get to the dojo for a vigorous workout and the significance of the event just seems to melt away. Inner harmony is not a static state, so we need to constantly work to restore it.
It is also important that the exercise remain imperfectable. When is one’s Sanchin good enough? Never! Even the most senior teachers continue to work on the subtleties of the form in an effort to generate just that much more speed or power. The belief that one has not exhausted the full potential of the exercise serves the dual purpose of keeping one working at it and also perpetuating the belief that the anxiety reducing potential of the exercise has not been fully tapped. When one does continue to experience some small degree of anxiety, despite performing the exercise at a high degree of proficiency, one places hope in the belief that there is room for further growth, with the implied promise of greater effect. It is therefore important that students always believe that there are teachers or more advanced students who can teach them something new. The final ‘fallback’ fantasy in this regard is the belief that the “ancient masters” knew the secrets of perfect inner harmony, which we could share if we only perform our exercises the way they did. There is always room for improvement. Mattson’s first diploma reflected this with the phrase “…the path of no limitation”. Whether the Sanchin exercise really can potentially eliminate all insecurity is less important than the belief that it can. As noted above, it is important that both the teacher and the student share this belief in order to benefit from the placebo effect. We can contrast the accepted doctrine of Uechi-ryu with that of some other styles or teachers. Over the course of his career, Bruce Lee took to referring to kata as “organized despair”, and he ceased to believe in its value, dropping kata training in favor of other types of drills. Rabesa mentions a conversation with Joe Lewis, who told him that kata practice is viewed mainly as a beginners’ exercise, used to establish a foundation then eventually supplanted by sparring and bag work. While there may be some practical value to the views of Lee and others, there would be a loss of the ‘mind’ aspect of this important mind-body exercise. Uechi-ryu has always held as a fundamental tenet that kata training – Sanchin training in particular – must be practiced indefinitely. The possibilities for new understanding are endless. An example from everyday dojo life will elucidate this point. How often is the flow of the class interrupted by a debate among the senior students on the “correct” interpretation of a move? Someone points out the utility of a movement against a specific attack, the second person invariably adds “but what if there are two attacks?” or ” what if attack X is followed by attack Y?” This line of reasoning can, and often does, go on ad infinitum and reflects the subtle anxiety that lies deep within us all. No teacher ever responds “it does not matter how you do it, since it does not work anyway”… teachers encourage students to continue to explore the ‘hidden meaning’ of their moves. This leaves open the promise of future confidence, if not the actuality of it in the present.
The imperfectibility factor also reflects the fact that the extreme subtleties in variations of the form, the speeds at which it can be practiced, the emphasis placed on the interplay of hardness and softness, form an exercise so complex that a number of lifetimes would not suffice to integrate them all. We adopt as our shared value the paradoxical belief that the exercise is fundamentally imperfectible but still must be studied with some hypothetical future perfection in mind.
If I have made the case that Sanchin is a true mind-body exercise for the average karate student, what about its usefulness in a clinically impaired population? Could Sanchin replace counseling or medication for individuals whose anxiety states have significantly constricted their lives? My experience as a psychologist working with hospitalized patients has not been encouraging in this respect. I have not found that the anxiety is too extreme to address with the exercise, but that it is most difficult to get them to commit to a disciplined and regimented program. Medications offer a quick fix, and they are effective in the sense of immediate symptom relief. This trap is very seductive, and the average clinical anxiety patient dreads the onset of another panic attack so strongly that it becomes a monumental task to get them to forego medicines in favor of an exercise that takes months or years to do effectively. One might think it a useful compromise to start with pills during the start-up phase of the exercise training with the goal of eventually backing off the medicines. This is, in fact, the program in the best cases, but those are usually in persons whose anxiety has never reached the truly crippling stage. Persons with mild to moderate clinical anxiety appear to benefit the most from a ‘behavioral’ program. The old adage that says that ‘the rich get richer’ seems to hold… those who are already disposed to activity, and whose anxiety is not outside of the grossly “normal” range, seem to be the most receptive and most responsive to a long term self-improvement program. ( Standard professional practice requires that I avoid dual relationships with my patients, so I could not teach them karate myself, but I do continue to discuss the benefits and refer to a good sensei when I have a patient who I think would benefit.)
We could drop the concept of ‘clinical pathology’ and discuss Sanchin as an element of wellness-oriented lifestyle management for the average individual. Wellness is now understood not as a static state, but as a mode of living. When Liebergott says in response to the question “have you ever used karate?” “I use it every day” I believe this is what he has in mind. There is emerging research evidence that a belief system is helpful to optimum immune system functioning. This can be seen in religiously-oriented individuals as well as those who have adopted other worldviews that place their experience within a larger context. At this point, the mind-body connection also starts to take on a spirit element as well. Spirit is a difficult concept to define, but seems to suggest an enhancement to the sense of the self as interconnected to a larger whole. Living in harmony with this whole appears to promote psychological and physical health. Karate-do, the “do” implying a way of life, resonates intuitively with these ideas. Karate without the “do”, that is, without Sanchin practice, has its utility as pure “jutsu”, but falls short of the overall wellness-oriented ideal.
As a purely practical training exercise Sanchin is well known to increase the physical strength and self-defense capability of the practitioner. In this paper I am describing its additional benefits as a mind-body exercise which addresses a number of related human concerns around self-protection, self-development, health maintainance and stress reduction. While not unique in this regard, it is particularly well suited to certain personalities. For those willing to put in the long hours and do the hard work Sanchin adds real value to the management of their lives.
Benson, H. The Relaxation Response. Wm. Morrow and Co., 1975.
Canna, V. Internet Forum: Self-Defense Realities and personal communication, 1998.
Ehrenreich, B. Blood Rites: origins and history of the passions of war. New York: Holt, 1997
Jacobson,… deep muscle relaxation exercise, reference unavailable.
Frank, J. Persuasion and Healing.
Jung, C.G. Man and His Symbols. London: Aldus Books Ltd., 1964.
Liebergott, H. Scissors, Rock, Paper. Brockton: Pea body Publishing Co., 1996.
Mattson, G. E. The Way of Karate. Rutland, Vt. And Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co.: 1963.
Rabesa, A. personal communication, 1999.
Weil, A. Spontaneous Healing. New York: Knopf, 1995
This paper is respectfully submitted to the Promotion Board of the Uechi-Ryu Karate Association, North American Chapter, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the rank of Rokkyudan/Renshi.
Milton, Massachusetts July, 1999