Seiken is the “standard” way of making a fist in Karate. However, most karate practitioners consider it less relevant than it actually is. The way of rolling the hand to a fist has a huge effect on the power of a Tsuki and on the Ki flow within the body. Both are interconnected and also influence ones health. An analysis by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert
Karate is popularly associated with open hand techniques or knife hand strikes. However, the signature technique in modern Karate undoubtedly is the straight punch with a “regular” or “standard” fist called seiken (正拳) in Japanese. When Karate was introduced as a pre-military and physical education into the elementary and middle schools in Okinawa at the beginning of the 20th century by Itosu Anko (1831-1915), “dangerous” techniques were eliminated from the curriculum. The regular fore fist, the seiken, replaced, for instance, the one-knuckle-fists, stabbing with the fingers, and other open hand techniques.
Seiken: The Standard Way of Making a Fist
Seiken can also mean the “correct” fist. This shows that the karate community perceives it as the standard and orthodox way of forming a fist nowadays. One knuckle-fists or finger poking have a more hazardous effect than a seiken. They can penetrate far deeper into vital points and thus inflict more harm. These ways to strike are preserved in higher Kata (Chinte, Hangetsu, both Gojushiho a.o.), but not trained as basics anymore. The fist with the middle finger sticking out (Nakadaka ippon ken 中高一本拳) might have been the preferred fist of Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957) rather than the so called “Okinawan” fist (see discussion below).
The fore fist is one of the first things we learn, when we start with Karate-do. It is so basic that many long time practitioners hardly think of it anymore. But due to its basic nature it is important to close the fist in the correct way. In every textbook of Karate you might find instructions like the following.
The Thumb in Seiken and the “Okinawa” Fist
How far the thumb is bent depends on individual preferences and slight differences among styles: it should not stick out, but cover the index and middle finger. Covering one and a half finger seems to be most common. Some schools bend the thumb slightly outwards, which gives the fist a different tension. There is also a discussion pertaining to the “Okinawan” fist and if it would not have been the preferred way for Funakoshi Gichin to make a clenched hand. You can find the discussion in Iain Abernethey´s forum.
“This method of making a fist was widely used until about 30 years ago, but few karateka employ it today. It declined in popularity because, although the index and middle fingers form a tight ball, the little finger tends to be quite loose.”
Seiken and Ki
Let me take the seiken as an example to highlight some aspects in regard to traditional Chinese medicine. In acupuncture it is thought that a “life force” or “vital energy” (気Chines. qi, Jap. ki) circulates within the body in lines called meridians. Modern Western medicine relates the concept of Ki to “subtle energy” (Rosch 2009), which belongs to the research field of bioelectric medicine. The fingertips are the endpoints of meridians connecting them with inner organs. The little finger is connected to the small intestine and the heart, the index finger with the large intestine and the thumb with the lungs.
If these three fingers are vigorously rolled in and are closed strongly while executing a technique, it is said to have positive effects on ones inner organs and thus on ones health. Nakayama Takatsugu, a Karateka and physiotherapist, insists on the importance of strongly curling the three fingers mentioned above. Below is an illustration (Nakayama 2013: 80) from his book. The Japanese caption reads:
The “seiken” is almost synonymous with Karate and when at the moment of “kime” the thumb and the little finger are firmly clenched, the power will not dissipate (be particularly conscious of the little finger).
The two meridians which lead off from the tip of the little finger end at the shoulder blade and under the armpit. Both of these parts play an important role in focusing a straight punch and also connect the fist to the lower body. Furthermore the meridians run along the arm and have an effect on how the elbow is tensed. Everyone can self experiment with thrusting a punch with a loose little finger and with a firmly clenched one. The difference one feels, should be evident.
Seiken, Ki, and Tanden
The little fingers relation to the small intestine has one more implication: it connects a strong fist to the lower abdomen (臍下丹田seika tanden). This is where ki is accumulated and from where it can be sent out. The relation to the heart can also be figuratively understood. When one punches with ones “heart”, i. e. a strong intention and will, this will mobilize a strong ki.
Ki in Chinese Medicine: A Holistic Approach
Qi/ki (気) in traditional Chinese medicine is a psychosomatic holistic concept. In Western anatomy one tends to dissect and separate everything according to function, whereas in eastern thinking the interconnections and homeostasis of the whole body/mind/spirit is central. A mind/matter or soul/body-dualism is not dominant.
Thus ki has material and immaterial aspects. It is and flows in the bones, the marrow, the muscles, the blood and circulatory system, the lymphatic and the nervous system, the organs, glands, spine and brain and the meridians which connect everything. Ki pervades the totality of physical functions and the mind, which is the conductor in this orchestra. Ki is the regulator or monitor of a fluid balance and the harmonious interplay of all the above mentioned elements.
Ki must Flow
Health in the Chinese understanding means that qi/ki can flow freely and without blockages or occlusions. Latter occurrences lead to sickness and indisposition. Acupuncture, moxibustion, massages, gymnastics and meditation (visualization) were developed from time immemorial to guarantee an unimpeded ki-flow (Kohn 1989). The martial arts were practiced in this context. Good martial art practice is said to open the energy channels, eliminate blockages and harmonize the flow of ki. Ki can be mobilized, directed and circulated by conscious mental activity. The standard formulas are: “Where the thinking/mind (意 Jap. i, Chines. yi) is, there is ki.” “Guiding the ki with the thinking/mind”.
Inen: The Concentration of Ki
Another term widely used in internal martial arts (e.g. Taijiquan, Qigong) is inen 意念 (Matsuda 2013:176). As so often the characters in this term have various meanings and can hardly be translated by just one word: 意 I means “mind, heart, thought, idea, intention, care”; 念 nen means “idea, feeling, concern, attention, caution” and in a Buddhist context nen is used as the translation of the Sanskrit term smriti (Pali: sati), which means “mindfulness”. Inen 意念 thus signifies “consciousness, intention, attentiveness”. “Inen guides the ki” implies, that every mindful physical exercise leads the ki to flow into the parts of the body one concentrates on.
The Benefits of the Right Seiken
Therefore it is beneficial to concentrate on the taut closing of the fist when one focuses (kime) a technique (notably a punch), because this will stimulate a surge of ki. A simple move like clenching a fist can have multiple positive effects if executed with mindfulness and the knowledge of the impact it can have on the whole body/mind-system.
Everybody who works with impact training, be it the Makiwara, sandbag or pads, knows how important it is to close the fist properly and align it straightly with the wrist. Hence, a firm seiken is indispensable for practicing good Karate. It can be observed that due to the use of protective gear in Sports Karate, many athletes do not close their fists properly anymore. But in order to make full use of the potential of Karate, notably its effects on good health (ki-circulation), it is advisable to clench the fists strongly when focusing and then relax the grip. Eventually, Karate as a martial art belongs to the family of “boxing” or kenpo 拳法, which means in Chinese quanfa: Fist Method.
Kanazawa, Hirokazu: Black Belt Karate. The Intensive Course. Foreword by Masatoshi Nakayama. Transl. by Richard Berger. Tokyo, New York & London: Kodansha Intl. 2006.
Kohn, Livia (ed.) and Yoshinobu Sakade (coop.): Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies/The University of Michigan 1989 (Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies 61).
Matsuda Ryûchi: Shôrin Kenjutsu. Rakanken. Kihon kara sentô gijutsu made. Shinsôban. Tsuchiya shoten 2013.
Nakayama, Masatoshi: Dynamic Karate. Instruction by the Master. Transl. by Herman Kauz. Tokyo, New York & London: Kodansha Intl 1966.
Nakayama, Takatsugu: Dakara, Karate wa tsuyoi! Himeta pawâ o dasu, dentô no shintai gihô. BAB Japan 2013.
Rosch, Paul J.: Bioelectromagnetic and Subtle Energy Medicine. The Interface between Mind and Matter. In: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009.