Sanchin is the first kata taught in karate, as it teaches fundamental techniques however it also has very important parts that further augment training. Sanchin involves a very deliberate and controlled breathing pattern. This pattern involves taking long breaths in and long breaths out, in roughly equal time periods, paired with shorter, faster breaths, that are taking in approximately the same amount of air. The deliberate breathing of Sanchin can be used to clear the mind and allow the brain to focus more, protect the diaphragm, and increase flexibility and protection in the upper body.
These breathing patterns very closely resemble that of meditation. Meditative breathing has been seen to be very stress reducing, as it helps the body focus more as well as improving digestion. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that takes over after a stressful experience, and helps calm the body. Additionally, the parasympathetic nervous system inhibits the production of adrenaline. Meditative breathing seems to signal to the brain that the parasympathetic nervous system needs to take over. By controlling breathing when performing Sanchin, the body becomes more relaxed, allowing for an increased flexibility when participating in karate. Furthermore, deliberate breathing de-activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the fight-flight-or-freeze mechanism.
The fight-flight-or-freeze mechanism is the reaction the body has to a stressful or dangerous situation, in which the person will fight, flee, or freeze. When this mechanism activates, the body reduces the amount of oxygen flowing to the brain and increases the oxygen sent to muscles, allowing for easier usage of the limbs. The body also begins the production of adrenaline in the adrenal glands, which are located in the kidneys. The adrenaline is then sent to the brain, which in turn shortens the time it takes to think and reduces the reaction time. Meditative breathing effectively disables the sympathetic nervous reaction, allowing for better absorption and retention of information and hence, better memory. The reason people that have gone through extremely stressful situations, such as assault or witnessing a murder, can have trouble recalling events is because of the adrenaline in their brain at the time. So, by practicing Sanchin, the body becomes more flexible and ready to learn through deactivating the sympathetic nervous system, which is likely why Sanchin is traditionally the first Kata performed at the beginning of a class.
Additionally, Sanchin is the first kata taught to beginners, as it teaches the very basics of karate. One of these basics is exhaling on a strike, a technique done by many different martial artists to aid them in fighting. The largest aid is preventing the wind from being knocked out of them. When the solar plexus, located right in front of the diaphragm, is struck, it begins to fluctuate extremely fast, removing it from the autonomic nervous system. The nervous system can be broken down into two main parts: autonomic and somatic. The autonomic part controls functions that the brain doesn’t need to manually control, such as breathing and digestion. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems also fall under this system. The somatic system controls the parts of the body that require manual control, such as muscle movement. So, upon being struck, the diaphragm requires somatic control to stop the fluctuation; this is why being struck in the solar plexus is so effective, as it can cause the spasm of the muscle of the diaphragm located directly behind it. When striking, the body can open up and be at risk of being struck in the solar plexus. Sanchin’s breathing helps with this vulnerability. When exhaling, the diaphragm contracts, moving up towards the lungs, and the muscles around it tighten. This re-enforces the diaphragm, preventing it from being struck. Also, breathing out on a strike helps generate more power in a technique. Similar to a Kiai, exhaling quickly will move the body helping generate more force, similar to how sinking down when striking uses gravity to help generate force. Sanchin’s breathing is a tool that was likely used to help instruct some basic martial arts mechanics to beginners in a way that will eventually work into their subconscious.
Pilates, an exercise meant to be done using only the constraints of the body, employs a very similar breathing technique to Sanchin, strengthening the core. Pilates was made by a German physical trainer named Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. It uses only the body, and increases flexibility as well as strength, very similar to kata. The breathing used in it involves inhaling through the nose and expanding the rib cage, then exhaling through the mouth and contracting the abdomen, very similar to Sanchin. Pilates breathing also prevents taking air into the stomach. This would cause it to expand, causing the lower back to become unprotected throughout inhalation. Furthermore, expanding the chest when inhaling prevents shallow breathing, which tightens the shoulders and neck. Pilates uses the same type of breathing as Sanchin in order to promote flexibility and safety in the upper body. Sanchin likely uses these breathing techniques for the same purpose, in order to help in combat. The US military also uses these same techniques, but calls it ‘tactical breathing’ or ‘box breathing’. They use this to reduce the sympathetic response, allowing them to operate more optimally by reducing the amount of adrenaline in the brain, allowing for a clear mind. Sanchin breathing is used all over the world to help with protection and clarity of mind.
In conclusion, Sanchin’s extremely deliberate breathing has many important uses, such as clearing the mind, protecting the diaphragm, and strengthening the body. This deliberate and methodical breathing practice is often seen in other disciplines, such as meditation and Pilates. The benefits of Sanchin and this control of the breath is so fundamental and integral to karate practice that it is taught early in training to white belts and performed at the start of every class. Sanchin helps prepare the body and focus the mind, while strengthening and building core attributes of karate.