Sanchin & the Seven Chakras

An examination of the link between Martial Arts and Yoga

           Teaching Martial Arts for over 25 years, I have learned a few things. I am still learning. Which is why I say I study martial arts. It appears that there are many misconceptions about traditional karate, and it’s popularity has been in decline. The Western view latches on to physical aspects, cutting it from its deeper philosophical roots. At the same time, I have observed that Yoga has become quite mainstream. I have always felt there are general similarities between yoga and karate. Recently, I’ve realized some deeper connections between them.

           The style I study is Uechi-Ryu (pronounced way-chee roo). It is a traditional style, derived from a Southern Chinese system. I will not elaborate on its history here, but there are a few key factors I’d like to emphasize as they relate to this article. Briefly; the style is named after its Master, Kanbun Uechi. He left his home in Okinawa for Southern China. There he studied under a Buddhist monk. It is said Master Uechi spent the first several years learning and developing the form Sanchin. I should also include that this form is not unique to Uechi-Ryu, and is predominant in other Okinawan styles. 

            When I first started training, in 1988, I was taught that Sanchin is the heart of the Uechi-Ryu system. It means “the three conflicts”, and it is “the way”. This was quite intriguing. What could be in this kata and why did it take years for Master Uechi to learn it? I had high expectations of it, but upon first seeing it, I was disapointed.  On the surface, Sanchin is quite dull. There are no flying kicks or fancy moves. It may look quite odd to the outsider. The practitioner appears to take a pigeon-toed, knocked-kneed stance. While doing some heavy breathing, they proceed to take simple steps forward, making basic strikes. Then, someone punches them in the stomach. What? Yes, an instructor will repeatably hit the student.

           With training and study, I began to gain a greater understanding of it. To summarize the physical stance: the body is lowered by bending slightly at the knees, while keeping the back upright. This lowers the body’s center of gravity, giving one greater balance and stability. The foot position creates a wider base, and guards the groin and femoral artery. The arms are held up to protect the chest and torso. The heavy breathing helps to accomplish a dynamic tension of all the muscles. All creating a strong, harden body virtually impossible to knock off balance.


M. Strong, being tested in Sanchin -1992

           There are many videos of Sanchin available online where you are bound to see the practitioner standing resiliently against a barrage of hard strikes to his abdomen, legs, chest and shoulders. You will even see boards being broken over the shins, thighs, abdomen or forearms. These are incredible demonstrations of strength, achieved through years of body conditioning. This can be quite misleading to on lookers, and even to practitioners themselves as to Sanchin’s purpose. I have heard several times from advanced karate-ka, and even black belt instructors that “We Uechi guys can take a punch”. There’s an error in this mentality. The point is not to take a punch. There are a number of blocking techniques we practice. Simply taking a punch would render them usless. No, there is a great deal more to the kata.

           I would term Sanchin as a physical meditation. Meditation is often associated with deep relaxed states, where one attempts to clear the mind. Here the tensions in the body are released, and muscles are to go soft. Sanchin seeks the same state of mind, but on the opposite end of the physical scale, where all the muscles are engaged and tense. In both types of meditation, correct breathing is integral. The hitting or “testing” done in Sanchin is meant to check if the practitioner is indeed holding their body in tension. Simultaneously, the testing helps guide ones state of mind, by maintaining their focus. The mind easily wanders, but few things can bring your focus to the present like someone who is about to hit you. I should say that the strenght of the hits varies on the skill level of the one being tested. Beginners recieve light taps and verbal cues to “tighten-up”.

Sensei Strong tests a student in Sanchin - 2018

           Sanchin is a guided meditation. Beginners are discourage to practice the full form on their own. Instead, an instructor walks them through it, telling them when to step and turn, making corrections to their posture and technique. The goal is to achieve a clear focused mind and strengthened body, subconsciously, ready to react without anticipation. Correlations with yoga begin to emerge.       

           Many practice yoga to improve the body’s muscle tone, balance and flexibility. However, beneath the physical, there are other benefits. Namely; stress release, which in turn can have real positive physiological effects like boosting the immune system. Yoga essentially is the practice of “stopping the mind“. A Yogi works to move energy through specific points of the body, referred to as chakras. This is achieved through breath control, bodily postures and meditation. Similarly, only the physical aspects are seen by the outsider. But the practitioner should learn the philosophical concepts of mind/body harmony as well. The connection between yoga and martial arts runs deeper. In particular, I want to address the chakras.

the half-pigeon pose

I have never practiced yoga myself, except to borrow a few poses for stretching. The “pigeon pose” feels great on the glutes, by the way. But, it would seem that you can’t really get to far in yoga without running into the chakras. What I offer below is my interpretation of them based on some research.

           Chakras are defined as energy centers of the body. Their importance is becoming more widely accepted, yet Western medicine or skeptics may argue their validity. Understandably, for one thing, if you were to perform a dissection, you cannot locate and remove a chakra. They aren’t tangible or measurable by any valid scientific means. Attempts to do so appear as quackery. 

            If we were to examine a light from a lamp by dissecting it, we would pull the light bulb from its fixture, leaving us with the glass shell and element, but no light. Taking it further, we would find the wiring, leading to an outlet, leading to a fuse box, leading to transformers, eventually leading to the power station where the electricity is generated. Yet we still would not discover the original light we sought to examine. Analogically, a chakra is this light. The fixture may be a gland of the endocrine system, perhaps the wiring presents as the nervous system. As I understand it, chakras are biological energy centers generated by a complexity of various systems in the body.

           From a historical standpoint, understanding them is warranted, particularly for the Uechi-Ryu student. When Master Uechi began teaching in China, he taught only a very few things. They were; three katas (one of which was Sanchin), Kotekitai (a body conditioning exercise) and Chinese medicine. A major aspect of traditional Chinese medicine are meridians. These are supposed channels of energy connecting various organs in the body.  Accupunture stems from this idea. These meridians travel through centers in the body, which are congruent with the chakras.

There are seven major chakras, located at specific points in the body. There is some variation in their interpretations. I am offering only a brief summary here:

1 – Root; relating to survival , feeling grounded and secure.

2 – Sacral; relating to creativity and sexuality, feeling physical pleasure.

3 – Solar Plexus; relating to will power and conquest, feeling in control.

4 – Heart; relating to love and feeling.

5 – Throat; relating to communication of truths, feeling honest, vulnerability.

6 – Third Eye; relating to focus and deep thought, feeling intuitive.

7 – Crown; relating to spirituality, feeling connection and pure bliss.


           The idea is to have a healthy flows of energy through each chakra. Problems arise when there is a deficit. In that case, it is said a particular chakra is closed or blocked. For example; Financial troubles may threaten the basic need for food and shelter. This translates to feeling insecure about one’s own survival. If one is stressed over financial issues, there are yoga exercises that aim to open the root chakra. Thus, dissipating the stress, maintaining a healthy body, and inviting positive opportunities that would resolve the matter.

           When we examine the chakras further, an interesting duality arises. If you connect them with concentric circles, with the heart at the center, pairs of opposites emerge;

           1 &7 – biological survival / spiritual existence,

           2 &6 – physical pleasure / transcendent thought

           3 &5 – self assertion / vulnerable expression

           At center we have love, where selfishness terminates, and selflessness begins. It is the same point. Both exist together.

           We can feel this yin and yang at work in the body. Imagine that you have been put in a position where you have to admit to something. Perhaps you were wrong, and need to apologize. The moment you’re on the brink of expressing it, it causes that “lump in your throat” feeling. I would theorize that this could be chakras 3 & 5 in conflict. The expressive energy wells up and needs to be released, but gets held-back. The assertive energy can’t be wrong, and tries to swallow it down. The 3rd chakra is sometimes referred to as The Warrior. Indeed, when we express our true feelings, we are letting our guard down. Interestingly enough, the solar plexus (the 3rd chakra or warrior)  is a primary target for Uechi-Ryu karate-ka. For physiological reasons, a hard direct strike there can be fatal.

           As a Sanchin practitioner, here’s where knowledge of the chakras became even more interesting. If we can pair the chakras in opposites, we can group them by their similarities. When you look at first three, these energies are what drive us to hunt and eat, reproduce, produce waste, and claim our place in the pecking order of our society. You find they all relate to the basic biological self. They are of nature and so termed the earthly chakras.

            We’ve already established that the upper three are opposites. Communicating inner truths, transcendent thought, and heavenly bliss. These energies drive us to realize something greater than the self, a connection or oneness with all things. So we could term these three as the heavenly or universal chakras.

           Again we are left with the heart in the middle. Here, the energy is to give and receive, to love and be loved. This is where we feel. We understand ourselves as something greater than our biology, but we still desire our individuality. It is the self.

           It should be apparent now, to the Uechi practitioner, that these are the 3 conflicts of Sanchin; earth, man and universe. As I teach it, the term conflict is synonymous with balance, and balance as not a static state, rather constant ebb and flow. Man is not meant in the collective sense, rather singularly as the self. 

           This is, of course, a theory. However, it is difficult for me to believe that Master Uechi trained for years in the mountains with a budhist monk only to develope a strong body able to take a punch. Perhaps what he truly achieved was a means to balance the energies of the body; the self holding balance between the earth, and the universe. This was acomplished by moving the body in a specific form, while in a meditative state. Much like yoga. Sanchin endeavors to extend that into a calm readiness for attack or, what my Sensei called, “ultimate awareness”.