The "naihanchi stance"

Readers of my blog will be aware that I am at odds with many karate practitioners in relation to how the kata naihanchi/naifanchi should be performed.

I have previously detailed my dislike of "hip shaking" - ie. pre-loading or telegraphing the hips to gain extra power - in practically every technique in naihanchi/naifanchi.

However I have recently become aware of another point of disagreement I have with many schools over their practice of this kata: the stance.

Many schools today practise naifanchi in what amounts to a relaxed, shoulder-width stance, with feet parallel. This is known as "heiko dachi" in Japanese. Even if it isn't exactly a heiko dachi, it is very near it (it certainly isn't a horse stance which is one and a half to 2 shoulder widths between the feet).

Consider, for example, the video below:

Naihanchi shodan by Onaga Michiko - performed in what is, to all intents and purposes, a normal shoulder width stance

I presume that the basis for this variation is the feeling that more modern incarnations of mainland Japanese karate have lengthened and deepened stances for training and aesthetics at the expense of functionality. This is particularly said of the innovations by Funakoshi Yoshitaka, son of shotokan karate founder Funakoshi Gichin.1

That Funakoshi Yoshitaka did lengthen and deepen karate stances is beyond doubt: an examination of photographs from the early 20th century shows karateka in higher and narrower stances.

Stills of Funakoshi Gichin performing naihanchi or tekki shodan

Not only did Funakoshi Gichin himself use higher stances, but so did his rival Choki Motobu (see the picture at the start of this article). In the case of naihanchi kata both men adopted a stance which was considerably narrower and higher than that seen in modern shotokan, for example.

But was this older stance a heiko dachi (natural stance, shoulder width, knees largely straightened)? I think the answer is definitely "no". As far as I can tell, naihanchi has always been characterised by a distinctive stance: a horse stance with the feet parallel, often called "kiba dachi" - sometimes "naihanchi dachi" - to distinguish it from the "shiko dachi" (a stance used in naha te as well as arts such as sumo, where the feet are angled outward rather than parallel).

Kiba dachi is, and always was in my view, the stance known in China as "mabu" - literally "horse step". Now it's true that Funakoshi and Motobu both had a narrow kiba dachi/mabu - however I see this is as within the usual range for horse stance.2

As far as I can tell, naifanchi was designed to be performed in a horse stance. It appears to be the case historically (see any old photos of naihanchi, for example) and I would argue that it is also the case pedagogically. It is not a heiko dachi kata. When I see it performed with feet shoulder width (heiko dachi) I can't help but think that someone has missed the point.

Kata were, in my view, designed for training and putting the body under load. This might not involve the very deep stance depicted earlier in this article, but it involves a load of some kind nonetheless. Horse stance isn't a relaxed, high stance of the kind one might adopt when waiting in a queue.

In this regard take careful note of Motobu's stance at the start of this article and see how low he is sitting; there is nothing "easy" about this stance. It requires considerable leg strength just as any traditional or formal stance does. This is quite different to heiko dachi, which has virtually no knee bend at all (and accordingly requires and generates no conditioning).

But what of the argument that stances should be "natural" for fighting purposes?

Motobu was himself a very practical man who insisted on functional fighting techniques - yet his naihanchi still featured a stance which can be described as anything but "natural" or "relaxed".

The problem with the argument that stances should be "natural" lies with the definition of of that term. If by "natural" one means "non-injurious" and "biomechanically sound" then I agree - all stances should be "natural". However if "natural" is interpreted as meaning "the way one stands in ordinary day-to-day discourse" then I disagree entirely. If this were true, then we'd be doing kata every day - as we walk to the bus stop or when we stand talking at a barbecue.

The problem with the latter definition is it confuses training with fighting. It also sees stances as fixed postures rather than snapshots in a continuum.

And I want to make an unequivocal statement that there is no danger in people "fighting in stances that are too deep". This argument is often raised by combat sports practitioners to criticise traditional forms, but it holds no water at all: When you fight you will naturally rise to a more relaxed posture - however you will be conditioned to lunge and deepen where necessary (the "snapshots" to which I refer above).

Kata aren't meant to look like fighting. They are training drills for conditioning the body. Accordingly stances don't have to be "real" - they can and should be lower so as to add "load", as discussed earlier.

Moreover, if you can do something in a low stance it is easier in a high stance.

I look to the Chinese arts for their mabu - horse stance. It isn't as low and wide as that seen in modern shotokan, but it isn't quite as narrow as Funakoshi's or Motobu's kiba dachi (it is just a tad wider than their's). In particular I recall my instructor teaching me a form designed by Hong Yi Xiang of Taipei - Da Peng Zhan Chi (see below) and telling me to use "mabu" - a stance slightly narrower than kiba dachi. My experience with Chen Pan-Ling's various arts is consistent with this.

Da peng zhan chi - a form designed by Hong Yi Xiang which features "mabu" or horse stance

There are many forms I've seen that operate along the sideways line in China which also use horse stance (mabu). In China, if it isn't a mabu, then it's either a gong bu or zenkutsu dachi (forwards stance), or cat stance or a stance like xingyi's zhan bu (or a few other odds and ends, like "chi bu" or "chicken step").

So in the end I see the stance in naihanchi in terms of Ockham's razor: what looks (in Motobu's and Funakoshi's case and in every other surviving early photo of naihanchi) to be a horse stance is probably going to be a horse stance. This is particularly so given its ubiquitous nature in Okinawan karate and Chinese quan fa and its importance in the far eastern martial arts. I think it is far more likely to be a horse stance than a relaxed upright stance or some other "strange" stance existing only in this kata and which meets the complex "koshi" interpretations we give the kata today.

With respect to those who would compare naihanchi's stance to sanchin, I don't think there is any evidence to support the assertion that it is a modification of an hourglass stance. The mere fact that it is used by some schools for "shime" testing doesn't qualify it to be "sanchin in another guise".

I figure if it looks like a horse stance, it probably is and always was.


1. See the article "Master Funakoshi's karate" by Graham Noble.

2. See this article from wikipedia on the horse stance.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic