Stances in Naihanchi 1


When karateka, who practice Shuri-Te lineage karate, realize that other styles utilize a different stance when practicing Naihanchi (aka Naifunchin/Naifuanchi/Tekki/Chulgi/etc.), they often seem to fixate on that difference. Most instructors who teach Naihanchi tend to emphasize the importance of the structure of the stance–some even do shime testing (as seen in the video above) to reinforce the importance of the structure. I feel that this structure-focused approach tends to make karateka feel that the way they were taught is the only way it should be done. Don’t get me wrong–structure is certainly very important–but there is more to Naihanchi than the structure of a single stance, and just because a specific structure is vital to your version of Naihanchi, that does not invalidate other methods.

Naihanchi stances from Chibana Chosin (left), Motobu Choki (center), and Funakoshi Gichin (right)

Among the styles that practice Naihanchi, there tend to be three primary stances that are used. One of them is the “toes-in” stance that is typically referred to as Naihanchi-dachi (Naihanchi stance). Another is kiba-dachi (horse-riding stance), with the toes pointed forward. The third stance seems to be one that used to be popular, but has fallen out of favor. It is shiko-dachi (sumo stance) with the toes pointed out at angles. There are varying degrees in each of these stances, but they will still fall into one of these three primary categories.

Itosu “Anko” Yasutsune

The “toes-in” Naihanchi-dachi may be the most common, but it also seems to be the newest–at least in the context of Naihanchi. Motobu Choki remarked that he did not like Itosu Anko’s “pigeon-toed stance” in Naihanchi, and that it was not the proper stance. It’s entirely possible that other Shuri-Te systems were doing it, as well, but Itosu-lineage karate seems to be the only one that propagated the “toes-in” stance. This, to me, seems to indicates that it was something Itosu introduced. That does not make this method “wrong,” of course. It simply means the stance may have a different purpose. In all likelihood, that purpose is a focus on structure, rooting, and strength-building.

Itosu trained under a man named Nagahama, from whom he is said to have learned “strength-building” karate. We don’t know for certain what style he taught, but it has been suggested by Scot Mertz that “Nagahama” is the old Okinawan pronunciation of the name “Nakaima,” which is the family that teaches Ryuei-Ryu (a Naha-Te system). If that is the case, then it is quite possible that Itosu would have learned Sanchin, and modified the Naihanchi he knew to be more Sanchin-like. You can even see the similarities between Sanchin-dachi and the “toes-in” Naihanchi-dachi in the image, above. Even if Itosu did not have any training in a Naha-Te system, he may simply have figured out the rooting benefit of turning the toes inward on his own. Either way, this stance is very good for rooting yourself to the ground, and developing a powerful base.

Motobu’s preference for a “toes-forward” kiba-dachi seems to be a good middle-ground for stability and movement. The more rooted you are, the less mobile you will tend to be. By pointing the toes forward, you can remove some of the tension from the stance, which frees you up to move more quickly. For a rough-and-tumble fighter, like Motobu, this makes perfect sense. In addition, the “toes-in” stance can be a little harsh on the knees and ankles, so it is possible that he simply felt it was harmful. It is actually fairly common for karateka who practice Naihanchi with a “toes-in” stance to change their stance to a more “toes-forward” or “toes-out” position as they grow older, for that reason.

Motobu Choki demonstrating a Naihanchi application

This type of kata training made Motobu’s legs strong, and his rooting and structure were most likely quite solid. I do feel that it is worth pointing out that Motobu, despite his practice of the Naihanchi kata in kiba-dachi, did not use kiba-dachi in his application of Naihanchi. In fact, the vast majority of techniques that we have photographs of him demonstrating use either shiko-dachi, or shizentai-dachi (natural body stance), which is like a short zenkutsu-dachi (front stance). In the image, above, you can see one such example. You can also see it in the images I used in my post about Motobu and Konishi demonstrating old ti concepts. Clearly, Motobu felt that the stance could be changed in application, but was still important for training purposes in his kata practice.

Students of Yabu Kentsu practicing Naihanchi in shiko-dachi

Finally, we come to what may be the oldest Naihanchi stance–the “toes-out” stance of shiko-dachi. This stance seems to have been used fairly commonly prior to World War II, but fell out of favor after that. Even some students of Itosu–such as Yabu Kentsu and Funakoshi Gichin–taught Naihanchi in shiko-dachi. That said, those men also trained under other instructors, who most likely taught the shiko-dachi method in Naihanchi, as opposed to Itosu’s “toes-in” stance. Of course, Funakoshi also changed the stances in Naihanchi over time, so he may not be the best reference. Aside from that, we know that Shuri-Te-based systems that do not include Itosu in their lineage (such as Matsumura Seito and KishimotoDi), as well as Tomari-Te systems, utilize shiko-dachi in their Naihanchi.

Me, performing the beginning of Tachimura no Naihanchi

If the “toes-in” stance is focused on stability and rooting, it stands to reason that the “toes-out” stance would be focused on mobility. This is true, to a point, but it isn’t necessarily the type of mobility you may think of. The stance still serves the purpose of dropping your center of gravity, and loading your legs with your body weight, which can make it hard to step while maintaining the stance. Of course, you would not be stepping while maintaining that stance in application–you would be stepping from a natural position into that stance, which is quite easy to do. Once you are in that stance, it is still easier to move when your legs are not locked into position, and the “toes-out” position also allows you to easily raise or lower your stance, or shift your weight from one leg to the other. Despite this mobility, it is still a stable stance–in judo, it is called jigotai-dachi (defensive body stance), where it is used to defend against being thrown, and it is used as the primary stance in sumo. It’s prominence in grappling arts indicates that it still keeps you stable and rooted enough to stay on your feet, which is vital for self defense. In my view, these features make shiko-dachi the ideal stance for live fighting and self defense. It does lose some of the rooting and structural benefits of the tension generated by turning the toes inward, but not so much as to leave you unstable.

 

In the end, the choice of stance in Naihanchi is up to you, as the individual karateka. Do you want to develop a powerful, immovable structure, or do you want to be quick and mobile, or something in between? Yes, your Sensei will teach it the way it is done in your style, but karate is a very personal journey. You may change styles, or train under a different instructor, or get an injury, or any number of other things that can influence the way you train. As an example, in the video, above, you can see Katsuya Miyahira (a senior student of Chibana Chosin) demonstrate Naihanchi Shodan. He clearly would have been taught to do this kata with the “toes-in” Naihanchi-dachi, as that is what Chibana used. Despite that, he does the kata with his toes pointed slightly outward–not as far as the shiko-dachi of Yabu Kentsu or Kishimoto Soko, but far enough to be distinctly different. Not only that, but he also steps off-line in spots, rather than maintaining the purely-straight enbusen (performance line) of Naihanchi. Some have said he merely did this things because he was old, or ill, or injured. I prefer to think he merely adapted the kata to fit his body and his goals.

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Noah

About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.


One thought on “Stances in Naihanchi

  • Samir

    Noah, I’m very glad to see this post of yours. Actually I’m wondering right now why there aren’t any other comments praising it. I don’t think everyone knew the subject you explained so well (my experience actually tends to point to the opposite direction even when looking at “advanced” practitioners). Was your article just too good for a wider appreciation?
    However, I want to congratulate you for this article, and actually for others where I should still drop by just to say: “this one was awesome, too”. 🙂

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