Naihanchi’s Strange Omission
In “te”, the indigenous Okinawa fighting art which evolved into karate, for the first three years some students practiced only naihanchi kata. Why? We may also observe that there are no high blocks or head strikes in naihanchi. Why? The answers are closely related.
Naihanchi does not present a full spectrum fighting system. It is not intended to. Naihanchi trains practitioners in the “earth element” aspect of the use of the body and mind. The attributes of the earth element are solidity and substance. The earth element is stable and hard to dislodge. In Chinese martial traditions it is associated with tiger characteristics – the use of muscle and sinew power, and the dominating force of mind. This is implied in the name naihanchi, characters meaning clawing or gripping the earth from within.
The premise is that the earth element, strong and stable, provides the proper foundation for the construction of a well-trained karate-ka, just as the earth element provides the proper foundation for the construction of a strong, stable building.
When you begin putting up a building you make sure the earth beneath it is stable, and that there is no water moving where the foundation will go. You make sure there are no voids, empty spaces or gaps, where air or water could enter and disturb the structure. You make sure there is no wood present – no stumps, roots or buried branches which metal might cut, which may deteriorate over time, or become fuel for fire to consume.
This is analogous, using Chinese five elements theory, to the use of naihanchi in constructing the training foundation of a karate-ka. Three years of naihanchi training makes a powerful foundation for the construction of a lifetime of training in dynamic, full-spectrum karate.
To defend against high strikes or seizing it is best to use rising and dropping and turning, as we do in all our other kata. High strikes, associated with fire element, are not optimally defended with earth element postures or techniques. We have many other tools in our kit to use in response to attacks to the head. Of course there are many techniques in the naihanchi kata that can be interpreted as strikes or seizing to the head of your opponent. But he is bent, and so his head is at your chest height, for this class of techniques.
The unexpected front-to-back stability of the stance substantiates our earth-element understanding of naihanchi. Although the side to side stability of the stance is well-recognized, the front to back stability is sometimes overlooked. Sometimes people do not know how to establish the naihanchi posture so that it is powerfully rooted front-to-back when put under pressure, and so the bunkai applications that make use of this aspect of the posture.
This understanding of the use of naihanchi works well, and we have applied it with good results. But this is an exploration, tested and validated, but not intended as the last word.
Post and photo by Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC, Yamabayashi Ryu Karate Dojo, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts and The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom. Post copyright © 2022 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC.
Thanks to Bruce Bishop, demonstrating naihanchi dachi in the photo above, for his observations about this kata series.
Wall murals by Tarleton Brooks.