Zanshin: A State Of Mind?

How often have you heard your Sensei bark out, “Zanshin!” at the end of a kata or during kumite? What does it mean and how does it affect your karate?


Zanshin is a term used in Japanese martial arts. It refers to a state of awareness, of relaxed alertness. A literal translation of zanshin is "remaining mind". In several martial arts it refers more narrowly to the body's posture after a technique is executed. More accurately though it should be taken to meaning remaining mentally alert.


Zanshin can be seen as a paradox within itself since for it combines the fiercest possible warrior spirit with absolute peace of mind and the calmness that it brings. This should be demonstrated when performing kata, outwardly physically strong whilst displaying excellent fighting spirit yet inside completely calm.


Zanshin should arise in the beginning of practice as you inhale your first breath. This would be the moment a threat is perceived and should sustain itself through the execution of the technique. At the end of the technique, it is of critical importance to retain Zanshin. Do not drop this state of mind with the conclusion of the technique. In a difficult street situation this is a most vulnerable state, when one may falsely perceive conflict to be over with the conclusion of a technique or movement when you believe you have 'won'. In samurai culture, the most vulnerable position is when the sword is being sheathed after a technique has ended. It is here that they may found themselves caught off guard. So it is here that Zanshin had to be most evident. It is a concept that is most effectively experienced rather than explained. It is important to understand that this most aggressive spirit does not contain negative emotion such as anger, nor should it. Anger can be loss of mental and physical control and it can also lead to loss of concentration. This will lead to losing in competition but more importantly losing the upper hand in a self defence scenario.


One of Funakoshi Gichin’s precepts of karate says when you leave home remember there are a million enemies. Bearing the possibility of being attacked is the first state of zanshin, of being aware. Whilst performing kata, one of Kancho Kanazawa’s ten elements of kata is zanshin, remaining on guard, staying mentally focussed whilst returning back to yoi.


But how does or how should zanshin, affect our everyday lives? When going out remain alert using all of your senses. Teenagers (and others) who wear a hoodie which limits their peripheral vision are limiting their chances of dealing with any threatening situation as are those who have a phone or musical device plugged in their ears. How can one see or hear all that is around them in such a circumstance? Do not become paranoid but be aware of all that is around you and of any potential threat or conflict. Use animal instinct. Watch, look and listen to the people around you and remain mentally alert. If a situation feels wrong or threatening - get out of there; only a fool will hang around to see what kicks off.


When entering a restaurant, bar or any other public building remember the way you came in and be aware of where other exits are. Play a 'game' with yourself: what would I do if that guy over there kicked off? Or what if we had to evacuate in an emergency? To run away is a good thing but don’t just run away from danger. Think more of running to a place of safety. It would be sheer madness to run away from a knife-marauding idiot straight under a double decker bus! This too is zanshin.

Watch, look and listen to what is going on around you remaining mentally alert. Retain your zanshin at all times. Make staying alert and safe, a lifetime habit for you and those around you and your loved ones. Zansin should become a habitual continuous state of mind.