Karate, Balance & Naihanchi
Karate, Balance & Naihanchi

Karate, Balance & Naihanchi

“Karate is about balance
– yours, then your opponent’s.”

Yabu Kentsu used to emphasise the importance of new recruits obtaining a grounded sense of balance through Naihanchi kata. He is quoted as suggesting trainees perform the kata 10,000 times a year as a base practice. This would amount to 28 reps / 20 minutes practise daily. Why Naihanchi?

Naihanchi is a tanren kata of all Shuri based styles, which means it is a fundamental practise containing core movement dynamics and principles.

Prior to the introduction of the Pinan forms it was the first kata taught to new trainees. In his autobiography Funakoshi Gichin recounts that the first few years of his training comprised of naihanchi practise. 

Unlike most other forms, Naihanchi proceeds along a single line embusen. In the Hanashiro version the movement initiates on the right and then moves leftwards. It utilises the naihanchi-dachi stance adapted by Itosu Anko with the feet held parallel to develop the connective tissues of the legs and support lateral movement. Older versions utilise the open-toed shiko-dachi posture which is more practical in application. 

Assuming naihanchi stance a student begins with heels together in kiotsuke, opening the toes wide and then pivoting on the balls of the feet to align them straight on the inside edge. Alternatively the stance can be measured by dropping one knee to the floor along line (a) placing a fist, and then the heel of the second foot as depicted. (illustration) So the formula is one length heel to knee, plus a fist, then heel.

an illustration of how to stand in the karate side-stance naihanchi

Pressure is correctly dispersed from the heels to large toes with a weight ratio of 50/50. Do not grip the floor with the toes, have them relaxed. Knees are kept bent with a simultaneous feeling of rotating the thighs outwards whilst also holding something between them. Like riding a horse, do not squeeze the animal but ‘connect’ through the feeling of gripping with the inner thighs.

The hips are balanced with the lower and upper abdomen drawn together with firmness. Chest is open with shoulders back and head erect. Imagine a line of engagement from the perineum to the crown and avoid leaning the body forward to take strain from the legs. Keep the spine straight and shoulders down. Strength is focussed in the hara.

Movement in naihanchi is performed with one foot passing over the front of the other with no gap between. Techniques to the left and right utilise the waist but not at the expense of destroying the position of the legs and hips. 

As a practise it develops the strength of the legs through isometric training. It’s important to understand that the thousands of muscle fibres in the thighs and legs do not all develop simultaneously but rather in batches. The longer we hold a stance then some fibres relax and others pick up the strain. With continued practise, working with the breath, the length of time spent in the form can be extended and the connective tissues will also be strengthened. The trembling of muscle fatigue is a phase that fades if the trainee persists. This is likened to the old ‘muscular’ strength draining and allowing a new force to build. Ki. 

This type of training is reflective of standing qigong based practises, particularly of the ‘iron shirt’ or external variety. In Japan the name Tekki, meaning ‘iron horse’ came to replace naihanchi.

Already then we can see that training in the physical range has transpired to the mental and spiritual level through the ‘willpower’ required to persevere. Karate is like this. 

If we consider the earliest name for the kata we hear of Naifaunchin. This can have an interpretation of something akin to ‘internal, divided, conflict’. Comparatively ‘sanchin’ (three conflicts) is a tanren kata mostly taught within Naha based styles and the two have similar and complimentary meanings. At the Bugeikan we preserve a shuri-te version of Sanchin handed down from Matsumura Sokon.

Internal conflicts, three conflicts, are representative of the unifying process required to bring total balance of body, mind and spirit. 

“Open the body and the mind will follow”

The body will lead the mind. In seeking to achieve unified equilibrium in the physical, mental and spiritual dimension it is always easiest, and often less traumatic, for an individual to be led to a physical limit. Exhaustion. This is why much of karate’s early training is to bring trainees to a realisation of what they physically can and cannot achieve. Seeing, feeling and experiencing this truth gives them a certain base from which to build from. In time they can look back along their journey and observe the very real and positive changes that have occurred. 

Often at a point of exhaustion a moment of tranquility can transcend. 

Through the serious practise of Naihanchi trainees are provided with a practical means of developing their physical, mental and spiritual balance. When training in nature I will often utilise fallen logs and small ledges to improve my practise. Students fearful of heights or with vertigo are encouraged to do so atop of walls. Barefoot is best.

Layered upon the naihanchi stance are a range of techniques, the applications of which comprise of ‘stopping methods’, ‘various strikes and methods of power transference’, ‘leg techniques’, ‘grappling’, ‘grip reversals’ and ‘disengagements’. A rudimentary repertoire of essential boxing skills for defence.

Naihanchi nidan and sandan, are later compositions to expand the technical range. Whereas shodan introduces various striking and defensive methods, parts two and three further develop grappling techniques to enable one to overcome the opponent without resorting to destruction. 

Knowledge of one thing teaches the opposite
First you gain balance, Physically, mentally, spiritually
Then you influence the opponent’s 
– Physically, mentally, spiritually.