The other day I was teaching a short seminar on Uechi-ryu Sanchin at Vancouver Mind Body (1). It was a good mix of students from a variety of “styles” including Shotokan, Goju-kai, Shito-ryu, etc., and I had a very enjoyable time teaching the class. During the break a participant asked me why the breathing was done the way it is in the kata. I looked at her and in all honesty replied, “I don’t know”.
Sure, I know the reasons that my teachers had told me when I was training (strengthen the body, the lungs, cultivate ‘ki’, massage the internal organs, and even the none answer, “we’ve always done it that way”) and repeated them but cautioned her that it was all speculation. None of it, to my knoweldge, had ever been proven as far as I knew.
After the seminar I did a little digging in the scientific literature using a few search engines (pubmed, sportdiscus, and google scholar) using the terms: sanchin, kata, breath(ing), respiration, health. This was by no means a literature review; just a cursory look at what’s out there. Not surprisingly I found basically nothing specific to sanchin kata from pubmed or sportdiscus, but in google scholar two non-peer reviewed articles came up. The first article described an experiment looking at the physiological changes that occur in the body when performing sanchin, but did not deal specifically with breathing. It was not a particularly rigorous experimental design and had a tiny sample size. So, its conclusions are not generalizable. The second article tried to explain the effects of sanchin kata in relation to hard qigong. Unfortunately it was mostly speculation as it failed to cite any relevant scientific literature so its conclusions are tenuous.
Since I couldn’t find anything of relevance to sanchin in the research literature, I decided to take a broader approach and searched the same engines using the terms: qigong, yoga, breath(ing), respiration, health. This time there was a plethora of research articles, literally hundreds, but many dealt with the health benefits of either yoga or qigong on sick populations with ailments such as COPD, obesity, asthma, and diabetes. There was very little research on the effects of qigong or yoga in healthy populations. Since these practices almost always included breath training as one component to the instruction, it is impossible to know the effect of it alone. Moreover, the type of breath training is poorly described in most of these papers so it is hard to know if it is equivalent to the breathing pattern used in sanchin kata (making it more difficult to dis-entangle things when you consider the variety of breathing patterns used in sanchin both inter and intra Karate styles).
From all those papers two of them stood out to me because they focused only on the effects of a specific yoga breathing practice called bhastrika in a healthy group of subjects (2). The first article looked at visual and auditory reaction time in a group of school boys aged 13 to 16 following 3-months of bhastrika training. The authors reported a signficant decrease in both reaction times compared to baseline. They speculate that the decrease in reaction time may be due to, “changes around the somatosensory and parietal areas of the cerebral cortex suggesting an affective arousal.” In other words, the bhastrika increased the level of altertness and at the same time produced a calming state on the mind. Unfortunately, this study is poorly designed as their is no comparison group and the subjects participating in the study were basically a convenience sample.
In the second article, the authors looked at the effects of bhastrika on grip strength, leg strength and reaction time in a group of healthy male subjects aged 18 to 40 years old training out of a yoga centre. This study was not much better designed than the previous one as they assigned subjects to bhastrika training followed by ‘breath awareness’ (3). The authors found a significant effect for grip strength, but not for leg strength or reaction time between the two breathing practices. Looking at the numbers, the increase in grip strength was very small (40.6 vs. 41.4 kg in the bhastrika group, and 40.4 vs. 40.5 kg in the breath awareness group). The authors speculate a variety of reasons for the increase in grip strength in contrast to the lack of effect in leg strength such as the difference in fast versus slow twitch muscle fibre concentration between the hands and legs.
So what does this all mean? As I stated at the beginning of this post, it wasn’t an exhaustive literature review, but based on what I found I can say that there is no evidence favorable or unfavorable on the effects of sanchin breathing in the scientific or medical research literature. In other words, the jury is out.
(1) Now before you start yellling at me that I don’t know or teach Uechi-ryu, remember that these two gentlemen not only taught me Kobudo, but also taught me Uechi-ryu for a number of years. The fact that I don’t teach it is a separate matter 🙂
(2) Bhastrika is typically described as using deep inhalations and forced exhalations through the nose using the abdomen and this description seems to have more in common with Goju-ryu sanchin kata than the Uechi-ryu version. Even then, its still unclear if it has any real overlap with the breathing used in Goju-ryu. Someone more knowledgeable than me in yoga could perhaps comment.
(3) Unfortunately, they don’t explain what this actually consisted of and the fact that the subjects were attending a yoga centre means that there was probably already some sort of training effect which could ‘wash-out’ any effect of the training.