Like many things in the martial arts, the origins of the Naihanchi Kata are a bit murky. It seems likely, though not proven, that the Naihanchi Kata was originally a Chinese form that was somehow introduced to practitioners in Okinawa. There the form underwent some evolution and was eventually included in the curriculum taught by Gichin Funakoshi and others. The form seems to have been widely practiced in Okinawa since many different styles include it as part of their fundamental teachings.
The form is also often called “Tekki” and this is the name used by Shotokan Karate. There are some stylized differences between Naihanchi and Tekki Kata taught by various martial arts systems, but in the main, these Kata are all remarkably similar. It can be quite instructive to watch videos of different styles performing these Kata. It is also instructive to explore Bunkai for the various versions of these Kata.
The name of these forms is often translated to mean something like “Iron Horse Form”, “Horse Rider’s Form”, “Calvary Battle Form”, etc. There is no way to be certain what the name Naihanchi means as it was only written phonetically in Japanese, without any associated meaning. So names like “Iron Horse Form” are merely guesses as to the original meaning of the form’s name. So, we won’t provide the Kata with a westernized name. We will simply refer to it as Naihanchi Kata.
Naihanchi is commonly performed using a Kiba Dachi. Some styles use Naihanchi Dachi, but this seems to be a recent innovation. Videos from the early 20th century usually show the form done in a fairly shallow Kiba Dachi. We use Sochin Dachi as our primary stance for these Kata because we do not focus our blocks and strikes to angle one. Instead, we focus our movements to angles five and seven, making the Sochin Dachi a more appropriate stance. You will notice very little difference between one person doing the Kata in Kiba Dachi and another doing the Kata in Sochin Dachi. The only real difference is where you believe your opponent is located.
These Kata are often used to perfect speed and power, relying on legs and torso to aid in blocks and strikes. As a Tensoku Ryu practitioner, you will want to incorporate these outcomes in your movements while also ensuring all of your blocks and strikes are kept within your center triangle and delivered to an appropriate octagon angle.
There are three versions of this Kata, which may have been dissected from a once longer single version. These Kata contain somewhat unusual movements that often seem strange and difficult at first. As with everything, practice makes perfect.
One thing all three of the Naihanchi Kata have in common is that movement and stance transitions occur along Octagon angles three and four. When performing each of these Kata you will essentially be moving sideways. This leads many to suggest these Kata were designed to introduce combat strategies for situations where your back is against a wall or some other physical obstacle. It is also often suggested that these Kata train you to defend yourself in a narrow corridor or other constricted space. You would be wise to consider these circumstances as well as other possible situations in which the movements in these Kata may be beneficial.
If you watch videos of other practitioners doing this Kata series you will notice that rather than using a reinforced block or strike they place the non-striking or non-blocking hand below the elbow of the primary hand. This is often intended to function as a guard, though the Bunkai for this arm position can vary significantly from one style to another. Usually, we will employ a reinforced block or strike in this situation because we feel it helps to facilitate better structural alignment, provides an improved focus on centering, and offers increased power. Of course, this is at the loss of whatever guarding support the arm may have provided when placed below the elbow. The martial arts are full of tradeoffs.
Not all martial arts styles do all three of these Kata (and of course, may not do these Kata at all). Some styles only do Naihanchi Shodan and never learn nor practice the Nidan and Sandan versions. They feel the essence and instructional wisdom of these Kata are fully demonstrated in the first version, making the Nidan and Sandan versions less instructive. They feel their instructional time is better spent on other conceptual material. We think it is important to maintain the entire set and to appreciate the unique lessons provided by each of the Kata.
Practitioners of most styles that perform these Kata return their inactive hand to a set position. In keeping with our fundamental principles, we always strive to establish an effective guard position with this hand instead. There may be instances where subsequent movements would benefit from a hand in a non-guard position. Experiment to see when and if this is useful in these Kata. When performing these Kata in open tournaments not sponsored by Tensoku Ryu affiliates you will want to use the set position as this will be more widely accepted as the normal method for hand placement.
The Naihanchi Kata include several movement sequences that are common to all three Kata. One such movement is the Nami Gaeshi Uke or “Returning Wave Block”. This is an inward hooking movement using the bottom of the foot to pull an opponent’s leg inward. Look for it and other common repeating sequences throughout the Naihanchi series.
These forms offer a rich resource for potential Bunkai. After you have become quite familiar with a form spend some time thinking about (or exploring online) various Bunkai that might apply to each movement sequence. You will be surprised at the many interesting ways that any given sequence can be utilized. Researching Bunkai for these forms can be very instructive.
As with all forms, work on performing each Kata at varying speeds. Perform each form very slowly at times while striving for rapid sequential movements at other times. You may notice that different Bunkai may be useful only if different timing is utilized. Vary the timing in each movement sequence to envision how different timing might benefit differing circumstances. There is a lot to consider in these three Kata.
Spend a good deal of time understanding how each movement in these Kata affects the opponent. If necessary, work with a Uke on different parts of the Kata so you understand how each movement might impact the structure, alignment, and orientation of the opponent. Then see how subsequent movements in the Kata may take advantage of these changes in the opponent’s position. There are no specific set definitions for how an opponent will be affected, but with practice, you will quickly come to appreciate how you can flow seamlessly from one movement to another even when the opponent moves in different or unexpected ways.
We encourage you to watch videos of other practitioners doing these Kata. Look for the following:
- What movements are similar?
- What movements are different?
- What stances are used?
- What strikes and blocks are used?
- How long are they open to attack during the Kata?
- What are the non-active hands doing?
- What Bunkai might explain their movements?
- How and when are they using the thorax and hips?
We hope you enjoy these intricate and insightful Kata.