Many of us have long been told that the kata Sanchin is the foundation upon which our karate should be built, and that the meaning of this kata’s name is something on the order of “three battles.” Indeed, in Japanese, the name is typically written as 三戦, with 三, of course, meaning “three,” and 戦 basically being a kanji for “to fight.” In the West, the three “battles” which the trainee is engaged in are most often identified as being those of body, mind, and spirit. While this may indeed be a very helpful way for Westerners to conceptualize the practice of the kata, it has never quite sit well with me given that traditional Japanese cultural thought does not usually make a distinction between “mind” and “spirit.”
In any case, the benefits and lessons of the kata Sanchin are important ones. First, Sanchin teaches the karate-ka about the tensing (and relaxing) of the body, an aspect that is not as simple as it may seem to the uninformed. Sanchin helps to develop effective breathing, as well. While there are some differences in how various “styles” approach this part of the kata, there is little doubt that all methods develop increased breath control and full, powerful breathing. Proper breathing and application of body tensing are key to a karate-ka’s kime or focus.
There are also psychological benefits to be gained from Sanchin practice. For one, the kata is truly a form of “moving Zen.” Sanchin demands that one learn to stay in the present, resisting the tendency for the mind to wander; keeping it focused and concentrating as each and every move of the kata is carried out with correct breathing and body tension. The relatively slow and measured way in which it is typically performed makes such consistent mental focus all the more challenging to achieve. Sanchin training also serves to strengthen the will of the karate-ka, and it drives home the lesson that “the real opponent is oneself.” A full-on performance of the kata can be a grueling, demanding experience, and the temptation to “let up” or “cheat” at some point can be powerful. Battling that temptation helps one develop a strong, tenacious will.
With its relatively basic techniques, measured pace, and physical and psychological demands, Sanchin can, perhaps, be seen as not as “exciting” or as “fun” to do as many other kata. Its practice may therefore sometimes be neglected. But anyone truly interested in raising the level of their art would be wise to invest much time and energy in the pursuit of mastery of this extremely important kata.