So, what does a rusty Ford tractor have to do with karate?
Well, nothing really. But then again, everything. Hey, that’s kind of like a Zen riddle isn’t it?
Several years ago, say the late 90s, at one of our post-seminar workouts, Sensei Harrill was working with me and a couple of my senior students on Sanchin Kata.
Now first let me say there are several versions of this kata and while they have commonalities, they are not the same. A version of Sanchin can be found in several Chinese and Okinawan styles including Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Uechi-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Isshin-ryu. There are certainly others as well. Tam Hon taught a martial arts style that was called “Saam Jin” which is Cantonese for “Sanchin.”
At its essence, Sanchin is taught to help the practitioner understand body mechanics and condition their body while learning to deliver properly focused techniques from a stable platform.
It is also, unfortunately, a kata about which a prodigious amount of “bullshit” has been propagated. But that is not the subject of this post.
Isshin-ryu Karate’s Sanchin
The Isshin-ryu version of this kata is really quite difficult in its simplicity. It consists of only five steps (three forward and two backward) and there is a great deal of repetition. But, like an onion, there are many layers to this kata and as your understanding grows, and the more layers you peel away, the more you realize there is to learn. It gives a new level of understanding to the idea, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know.
I had been working with Sensei Harrill for some time now and had made a lot of changes in how I trained, and this included Sanchin. I now practiced Sanchin most often with the vertical fist (which I liked because it fit our basics). I still, on occasion, will practice with the corkscrew punch as I had originally been taught, and sometimes I will mix it up. At that time, I was trying to get a handle on what the kata taught as far as body mechanics, as well as the many different breathing patterns found in the kata (none of which, by the way, resembled a gasping pressure cooker about to blow its top).
However, there was one movement in the kata that always gave me a fit. I practiced and practiced, trying different ways of executing the movement, and nothing seemed to work for me. I had once seen Sensei easily demonstrate the use of that movement at a seminar on a pretty big guy. The guy moved! But I felt like I was not even getting close. And of course, as I demonstrated my Sanchin Kata while Sensei watched, that was readily apparent to him.
You’re not doing that properly …
I probably felt like that was the “understatement” of the year. I was painfully aware of that fact. especially seeing what he had done with that very same movement.
I am sure that I replied with something to the effect of, “I know, Sensei. I just can’t seem to get it right.”
And I remember him saying something like, “You don’t have the right focus.”
The hook …
So, how did I change my focus? By listening to what my Sensei told me!
He said to imagine a rusty old red Ford tractor that’s been sitting in the field for a while. Now you’ve got to crank it up and plow that field. You finally get the tractor started, climb up into that seat. and reach for that big old shift lever with your right hand. Then you squeeze and give the lever a strong tug. And what happens? It doesn’t budge. It’s pretty much rusted into place. What do you do?
I thought about it a second … stand up and give it a real yank, I was thinking.
Then he added … but, imagine you have to keep your butt in the seat.
Now that’s an altogether different proposition.
Which muscles would come into play and when? In what order would you use them? How would that feel internally? Think about it.
And over time, that earlier “movement” that had previously been using the muscles of my arm changed. It began to originate at my core. It employed the rotation of my hips, my abdominal muscles. the lats, the shoulders, and finally … the arm. The pull became a properly-focused, mechanically sound whole-body movement. And after working on it awhile, when I tried it in the dojo, people began to move.