Shikodachi and Nifanchin dachi (horse stance) – does the modern low form match kata origins from Okinawa?
by Shihan Jason Armstrong
Note the height of all the below founders of modern karate & compare the stance geometry to what one sees in tournament these days as "correct" form…. If one is trying to pass on the traditions of karate as represented by some of the founders, why do we often see a different stance type rewarded in tournaments and belt tests?
Photos 1-6, Left to right: Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu founder) doing Pinan Nidan & Seinenchin; Tani (founder of Shukokai) doing Seienchin in ceremonial dress; Goju's Yagi sensei, (Meibukan founder & senior student of Chojun Miyagi); Motobu Choki performing Naifnachin.
Photo 7: In comparison, left is a classic WKF competitor at international level performing shikodachi.
Firstly, let me start by saying I am all for getting students low in a stance to work the legs & get a handle on a low center of gravity. However, I have heard so many torunament judges critiquing a stance position; or belt test panel members, claiming something should be a certain way to "maintain the traditions standard". Hence this article is to spark some thought on the nature of "horse" stances and what is actually tradition. As a side note, a similar article exists on this website re WKF rules and the back edge of the foot in reverse punch/kata (click here...).
While the implementation of shiko & naifanchin stances do condition the legs, its origins lie in grappling and position/height relative to an opponent. Obviously, different bunkai will have different stance height requirements and the height of the stance is additionally dependent on the height of one’s opponent. Modern karate (post world war II) has made the stance very low to produce what is often considered best “form”, but such heights often result in a weakened stance and may over exaggerate how low someone needs to drop to perform certain bunkai. When I began living in the USA in the early 1990s, I was intrigued at a couple of Okinawan seminars when shikodachi stance strength was tested visiting Okinawan's as almost all participants were too low. My first insight into this was through visiting Okinawan Sensei Oshiro. The older sensei who correct shikodachi they feel are too low also cite decreased mobility in addition to a weakened stance.
As a related but more advanced topic, competition karate also expect a technique in shikodachi to be executed at a fixed height e.g. the opening 3 moves of seienchin (including both the transitions between shikodachi stances and the "kake uke" performed within a given stance position). This is not necessarily true when one looks at certain Okinawa practitioners, particularly those of higher Dan ranks who may have begun to free themselves from the basic approach/form and become far more focused on the inner feel of a technique after decades of repetition (typically above 5th dan). An example video link is below which shows an oscillating belt height in shikodachi (circa 1990) and documents some of Goju Meibukan's training (it also includes an interview of Yagi Meitoku, a senior student of Chojun Miyagi and the person who received Miyagi's belt after his death). See the 4min 15sec time frame of the kata seienchin at:
Another video, this time of a well known Okinawan practitioner changing height between shikodachi positions can be found in Chinen Sensei (a Goju Jundokan practitioner) while performing the kata seipai. See video in the Chinen sensei article page at the 6min 10sec timeframe...
Video 2: This 2nd short video clip shows an up & down body weight flow while in a fixed shikodachi poition in the kata seienchin (similar to that seen in the above video link to the Meibukan style). While this is something I do in my own training of the kata it is not something I teach to students below 5th Dan (a lifelong study of the art of karate gives people decades to move from one approach to another, only after somewhat getting a handle on basics). For more thought around patience in the progression of one's approach to kata/kihon as a Dan rank see article...
Photo 8: Myself competing in the Australian shito-ryu championships (The MabuniCup, Melbourne circa 1989). The stance depth I used in those days is not a depth I advocate in my seienchin training anymore (see Seinchin - the Book, ISBN 978-1-4092-3733-4).
Photo 9: While dropping one's weight/height for a kata motion may have a very simple application intent (and there is nothing wrong with simple!), other uses of shikodachi or naifanchindachi may be multi-pronged. For example, pictured is myself implementing one bunkai option of shikodachi in seienchin where the weight drop is being use to simultaneously:
- avoid a heat butt
- release the hands from a grab
- corrupt my opponents left leg via my knee impact to their leg
- shoulder impact my opponents solar plexus (very opponent height dependent)
Further detail on the full implementation of this bunkai can be found on Page 110 of the 2nd Edition of "Seienchin - the Book", ISBN 978-1-4092-3733-4).
With all the above said, I do expect students under 4th dan to assume relatively low shiko/naifanchin stances (but still with a slight "temple roof" like angle to the thighs). I also do not suggest karate-ka perform an oscilating weight change (e.g. above video) while performing techniques within a skihodachi position, unless above 4th dan. I also feel instructors at grading panels and tournaments should be careful saying that a person's shikodachi is too high. I say this as if one is trying to pass on the traditional form of karate as the founders pictured above represented, there is somewhat of a mismatch expecting karate-ka today to do something different. What is most important is that a student can explain the bunkai associated with a particular stance height at a given position in a kata (probably the best resource on this website for variant uses of shikodachi can be found in the Seienchin download text...).
Finally, just some snapshots of other modern day shito-ryu masters in shikodachi (i.e. those who are/were one generation behind the Mabuni, Motobu, Miyagi generation) allowing a view of shin angle and thigh (femur) angle & stance height.
Tani sensei Sotokawa sensei, 8th dan Hayashi sensei Demura sensei Sells Hanshi, 8th Dan
(founder Shukokai) (3rd dan received under Mabuni) (founder of Hayashi-Ha) (founder Genbukai) (Mabuni Family line issued)
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