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Sanchin Breathing: Are you hurting yourself?

by George Mattson

The following post on the “CyberDojo” represents a popular concern that martial artists have regarding the practice (or I should say incorrect practice) of the Sanchin kata. Bill Glasheen then presents his views on the subject. GEM

It has long been known that dynamic tension katas were of questionable value, despite being strongly supported by those who have been taught to do them. Just as hypertension is damaging to the body over a long period of time, such artificial spiking of the vascular,cranial, and pulmonary pressures is NOT good for you and will do some damage, especially if you happen to have a predisposition to hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, or congenital vascular abnormalities (A-V malformations, aneurysms, etc). There are benefits to breathing control, but it appears physiologically that sanchin hard ibuki breathing should go the way of knuckle toughening, knuckle pushups, and straight leg situps- DON”T DO IT. If you want to work on muscular dynamics, use weight training with proper breathing control, including kata with weights for resistive exercise and balance control. For breath control and focus, it woudld be safer to use taichi style soft breathing and concentrate on centering, rather than using the extreme isometric contraaction of sanchin style forms. It is possible to focus on muscular dynamics without doing the damage that such isometric contraction produces. There are adverse effects to the heart (dysrhythmias) Lungs (increased pulmonary pressure), kidneys (transient hypertension),eyes (increased intraocular pressure). Do small amount of damafge for long enough, and the body can no longer repair itself. . Taichi has been shown to have positive health benefits, where sanchin style isometric contraction does not. Just a thought, for those who insist on doing the kata “full bore”, the body is a wonderful machine, and will adapt to most abuse, however, there are limits, and sanchin goes beyond those limits, just like straight leg situps, knuckle pushups, and traditional hand toughening. Just because Joe Blow did it and survived, doen’t make it good for you. Everyone who does knuckle toughening develops some degree of arthritis. Everyone who does isometrics does some degree of barometric damage to various organs, everyone who smokes does some damage to their lungs and heart. Do what you wish, but it is a bit like Russian Roulette, des neh? Osu

Wild Bill The Tuchuk (Khalizek of the Kur Clan) aka William H. Johnson, RN Univ of Va,Cardiac Cath Lab, Box 438-24,Charlottesville, VA 22908 whj5k@galen.med.virginia.edu

I find the previous note facinating in that it makes perfect sense, and yet in its eloquence and clarity, it demonstrates what I view as a misunderstanding in how Sanchin should be practiced. I think this gentleman is accurately describing Sanchin as he has seen it performed and as he was taught how to do it.

My qualifications: A doctorate in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in systems physiology. A dissertation on rhythms in cardiopulmonary systems, which includes quantification of how respiration affects arterial and venous pressure, heart rate, and peripheral vascular flow. Five years of research in the field of cardiology. Renshi rokudan in Uechi Ryu (one “style” of sanchin). Nidan in Shorei Kai Goju Ryu (another “style of sanchin). My humble opinions follow:

In the Uechi Sanchin

Moderate tension should exist only to hold the pelvis under, keep the abdomen firm (not hard), keep the shoulders pulled down, and keep the straightened fingers rigid. The strikes and blocks are done with focus, and with as little counter resistence as possible. Uechi Ryu is a predominantly open handed system that employs specialized strikes with pointed surfaces to vulnerable areas. Maximal efforts are not necessary. 400 lb bench press ability is not necessary. Therefore there is no need to create a breathing technique WITH the strikes as it makes no difference in the ultimate utility of the strike. Uechi stylists thus choose to “hide” the breathing by taking breaths between strikes. There are exceptions to this in the Uechi system; any pushing movements would benefit from doing an exhale with the movement as there is resistance to the movement in much the same way as there is resistance to muscles in a bench press. But the bulk of the system (and the focus of Uechi Sanchin) is application of low internal resistance, focused techniques – good relaxed and fluid movement. The Valsalva discussion is moot.

In the Goju system (from my perspective, experience, and opinion) The points of tension for the pelvic tuck, firm abdomen, lowered shoulders and firm hand are identical. However the Goju sanchin has a closed fist instead of an open, pointed hand. The hand positions are meant to be abstractions of the types of techniques done in the system. The predominant technique in Goju Ryu is the seiken (closed handed punch). The trademark technique of Uechi Ryu is the shoken (one knuckle punch). Goju’s technique allows – and to some extent requires – more total energy. Consequently the practitioner benefits from resistance training. This is done in the Goju Sanchin through its dynamic tension fist strikes. The kata was choreographed long before Olympic weights and weight training machines were invented and in common use. However the way that these activities are done can – and should – be identical. The proper breathing in Goju Sanchin and a bench press should NOT be a Valsalva maneuver (breath hold).

If one is doing a bench press with 50 pounds, IDEAL breathing would be a gentle exhale with each weight extension. There is a little value to this in that: 1) no breath holding exists which would create the Valsalva maneuver, and 2) the slightly increased intrathoracic pressure would increase blood flow to the muscles being worked. A similar situation exists in karate with a strong punch. All the same physiologic principles apply.

If one is doing a bench press with a very heavy weight, IDEAL breathing would involve a more restricted exhale. The object is not to use the epiglottis as a cork. The principle is similar to the art of pressure cooking. A pressure cooker maintains a constant internal pressure to speed the process of cooking. The pressure inside is directly proportional to the little weight that one puts over the hole. Some pressure cookers actually come with several sized weights. One might be used to cook vegetables quickly. Another might be used to tenderize stew beef. In weight lifting and karate, the amount of counterresistance to an exhale should be proportional to the amount of work that one wants to do with a motion. We don’t cork the pressure cooker because we don’t want dinner all over the kitchen. We don’t do a Valsalva maneuver in weight training or karate because we don’t want strokes, aneurisms, hernias, hemorroids, or blackouts. If I am benching my max, I perform a veritable kiai (resistance to exhale results in a very loud yell).

Goju Sanchin was designed to give us the ability to practice a tremendous dynamic range of resistance motions, and to learn how to correctly titrate the breathing resistance. Those I see practice the vein-popping muscle- rippling window-rattling sanchin are – in my humble opinion – suffering from testosterone-induced showmanship. They do impress some people. They do not impress me as being particulary enlightened. The amount of time a martial arts practitioner spends moving pianos for self defense is rare. So why spend so much time practicing something that has little application? Most smart martial artists evolve to a point where they get the job done with the LEAST amount of effort.

One final note. Everybody always talks about exhaling. Does anybody out there (with the exception of Bill Clinton) ever inhale? The nose-restricted inhale is the yin half to the epiglottis restricted (yang) exhale. Restricting an inhale LOWERS the intrathoracic pressure. This increases venous return and subsequently gives the heart more blood to pump out on the exhale. This also eliminates the cumulative negative effects of restrictive exhales. One should not be done without the other.

My conclusions: the negative effects discussed are irrelevant in the Uechi Sanchin. They are potentially there in the Goju style Sanchin, but only if done improperly.

Bill Glasheen

More from Bill Glasheen regarding Sanchin breathing. . . specifically in the Goju system:

Goju sanchin – IF PROPERLY DONE – does not involve isometric (same position) but rather isokinetic (same speed) exercise. One does not do Valsalva (breath holding), but rather slow, measured breath release. It is the exact type of breathing that one should do in the weight room, with the amount of resistance to the breath being proportional to the weight being pushed. Breath restriction on inhale gives the yin (lowered pressure) to the yang of the restricted exhale (raised pressure). And if one doesn’t “breath hold” on an isometric exercise, then that too can be safe.

Transient increases in blood pressure are a natural consequence of getting up in the morning. Everything from getting ticked in a traffic jam to doing some jumping jacks will transiently raise blood pressure. It’s sort of like having a car. One wants to rev the engine to drive it – you just want to be sure not to “red line” the engine, or drive the engine hard all the time. Plus biological systems will develop stronger engines if put through a regimen of moderate stress and then rest.

Karate, like guns, is dangerous in the hands of the ignorant. As with guns, a careless person will do more damage to oneself.

Bill Glasheen

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