Western New York Karate Center
September 30, 2016
Chinkuchi (pron. chin-koo-chee), Okinawan for “sinew-bone-energy,” is considered to be at the heart of Isshin-ryu. There are many karateka who have attempted to interpret what Master Shimabuku meant when he would focus on this concept. With that in mind, chinkuchi should be considered as worthy of on-going thought and discussion; a dedicated martial artist should not halt their exploration of this topic with any one article and should definitely revisit chinkuchi in their training with frequency.
For our purposes, chinkuchi will be defined as the coordination of the mind, body, and spirit to achieve the most effective Isshin-ryu technique. Thus, we will examine how each of these elements contributes to chinkuchi.
When determining the correct course of action, a karateka must be strategic. The nature of one’s circumstances, the conditions of the environment and the character of one’s opponent(s), as well as the desired outcome of one’s actions, must be considered when selecting a course of action. Furthermore, the mind of a karateka must see each action they will take as part of a series of moves, each timed to be executed at the correct range, with each move setting up the next for the optimal effect.
But, with all this thinking, one should wonder how a karateka could respond fast enough to a threat to have a chance of mounting a successful defense let alone anything else. As we shall address below, all aspects of chinkuchi must be respectful to the yin-yang of their nature. As a martial artist should have shoshin, or an open mind, when training, one should have fudoshin, or a fixed mind, when executing a series of moves. And more critical to chinkuchi, while one should have zanshin, or a state of total awareness, prior to and subsequent to any encounter, mushin, or no-mindness, should be one’s mind during combat. That is, the role of the mind in chinkuchi is to first strategize before engaging in an encounter, but once started, the mind must be release from active thought during the engagement.
There is a wealth of physical considerations involved in chinkuchi; so much so that the perfection of physical aspects of chinkuchi practically overwhelms the study of the other two components, mind and spirit. Indeed some authors when examining chinkuchi speak only of the physical aspect of it and completely neglect the role of mind, spirit, or both. Moreover, the yin-yang of the physical aspects of chinkuchi, while sometimes obvious, are often left unaddressed:
Stance – one must take the appropriate stance for both the opponent’s threatened action as well as the desired outcome of one’s response. But, one should also incorporate the fact that while one will be in a stance in some moments, there will also be times where one is not in a stance. Where a stance represents stability and provides the appropriate platform to launch a specific offense or defense, no-stance is a time of flexibility and having multiple possible choices of offense or defense. Furthermore, chinkuchi in this regard also involves utilizing the movement going between no stance and stance to make the desired techniques to follow even more effective.
Breathing – control of one’s breath will not only significantly affect one’s endurance in an encounter but, more importantly, also chinkuchi. While one might think that the yin-yang of breathing is simply the pairing of inhalation and exhalation, it also is the pairing of the flow of breath and holding one’s breath. Conscious control of the timing, speed, volume, and depth of a breath is as important as all other physical aspects in achieving effective chinkuchi.
Power – likely the most seductive aspect of martial arts, power is also the most misunderstood. Too often, students focus on generating a degree of force that will be so decisively destructive that no defense will deter the irresistible intensity of their action. Let alone the fact that a karateka should consider both non-destructive techniques as well as destructive ones, a focus on intense force often leads a student to tense muscles that must be relaxed for the best chinkuchi. But there is more than just tension and relaxation involved in the generation of power. The yin-yang of power also includes hard contact and light contact, expanding of limbs and contracting of limbs and all in a coordinated manner throughout the entire body such that the body is solid where and when it needs to be and fluid otherwise. Respect and use of the yin-yang of power will not only allow for the appropriate and desired degree of force to be generated but also will contribute to developing the maximal possible speed in the delivery of that force.
Form – form is the final physical component. While form often refers to specific techniques executed in their ideal manner, form also refers to a set of underlying principles. For example, the shoulder is able to be engaged with the greatest strength when it is either at 45 degrees above or 45 degrees below the plane of the shoulders. The elbow is able to be engaged with the greatest strength when it is at a 90 degree angle. Also, one should generally maintain an upright posture without leaning forward or backward and certainly not to either side. The yin-yang of this component refers strictly to its self; one is either demonstrating form or one is formless. Similar to stance, it is in the transition from formlessness to form where chinkuchi will find its best expression.
The third and final element is spirit. By spirit, I refer to qi or the life-force. For the best chinkuchi, a martial artist must engage their connection with qi. The yin-yang of this element is that one can either be expending qi or absorbing qi between one’s self and one’s environment. Most common, the martial artist will take the qi directed to him or her by the aggressor and then either allow it to flow through, divert it, hold it, or send it back to the aggressor. Master Shimabuku put a particular emphasis on the act of “centering” with regard to this element of chinkuchi. Centering in Isshin-ryu refers to fully connecting one’s lower dantian with the qi of the universe; connecting at the soles of one’s feet, up through the legs and into the lower dantian as well as connecting at the crown of one’s head, down through the neck and chest and into the lower dantian. The lower dantian is located three finger widths below the navel and two finger widths deep. The lower dantian is also called the “golden stove” and “cinnabar field” and is thought of as the “root of the tree of life.” By centering, the mind becomes clear and the body not only becomes balanced, it also becomes immovable. Further, by centering, one achieves full control over the flow of qi within one’s body and thus one’s qi cannot be used against one.
In summary, chinkuchi is the coordination of mind, body, and spirit, respecting the yin-yang of every aspect of each, in such a manner that one is able to be maximally effective in what one intends when one acts as a martial artist. While the above should impress one that there are many aspects to chinkuchi to consider and could be experienced as almost overwhelming, it is recommended that one should instead consider that it is the pursuit of chinkuchi that makes martial arts a lifelong process. It may be a lot, but taken a piece at a time, and then a chunk at a time, chinkuchi can be achieved. But, it certainly will not be achieved if you don’t consciously and routinely give it attention as an organizing principle of training.