A case study on a retired yokozuna wrestler
Sumo wrestling is by no means an easy sport, and perhaps hardest of all is afterwards, when a wrestler decides to retire.
When a sumo wrestler decides to retire, a return to a normal lifestyle means a return to a normal weight — no easy feat when you’ve been trained to gain weight. While sumo wrestlers tend to be a different kind of obese when it comes to weight gain, as they are more muscular and have more subcutaneous fat than visceral fat, it’s a myth that their extra weight has no negative effects (Asahi). Retired sumo wrestlers who fail to lose weight often struggle with chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and are vulnerable to heart attacks and liver problems. In fact, they have a life expectancy of about 60 to 65, while the average in Japan for males is 81 years old (Japan Times).
On top of this, wrestlers who meet sumo’s top division tend to struggle more than most after they retire, as those in the top division weigh 160kg (350lb) on average, which is 24kg more than the average sumo wrestler (Japan Times).
But there’s a man who despite these challenges, overturned these beliefs about retired sumo wrestlers: Former yokozuna sumo champion, Takanohana Koji.
Yokozuna: Takanohana Koji
When Takanohana (real name Koji Hanada) was active, he didn’t just compete in the top ranks but he reached the highest rank in sumo, the yokozuna. He had won 22 tournament championships between 1992 and 2001, and was the youngest man to ever reach the top division, which he accomplished at age 17. At age 20, he was the youngest ever to reach the ozeki rank, which is the highest rank within the top division, just below yokozuna.
To be so successful at such a young age meant that he was thrown into this lifestyle right from the beginning. His father and older brother were also well-known sumo wrestlers, and his family and coaches encouraged putting on weight so he could maintain competitiveness. At his peak weight Takanohana was 160kg, or just over 350 pounds. He ended up retiring in 2003 due to injuries, but as soon as he retired he committed to slimming down to a healthy weight. Would you believe how much he weighed two years after leaving?
A mere 80 kg, or 176 pounds. Half his peak weight, and a physique he still maintains today.
Shicore: A sumo wrestler’s approach to weight loss
Today Takanohana is somewhat of a celebrity and while still serving as an alumni to the sumo wrestling world, he also spends a lot of his time teaching others to train to gain muscle, and eat to lose weight. He’s run a full marathon, released a book on his journey to weight loss and physical fitness, gives talks and fitness lessons, and today hosts online classes to help others adopt his methodology, or Shicore (if you are interested you can find Zoom class sign ups here, but instruction is in Japanese).
Shicore is a term derived from the words shiko (四股) and core (芯). When a sumo wrestler steps into a ring, he performs shiko, the act of stomping on soil. Shiko physically prepares the wrestler for the match, but is also spiritual in origin: stomping on soil is a Shinto ritual of dispelling evil energy from underneath the ground. It is the most basic of movements in sumo wrestling, and can be thought of as the foundation which all other movements are learned.
Shicore philosophy is about establishing this core: Takanohana teaches that a way of life that doesn’t have a solid core in oneself will undermine one’s capabilities in both spirit and health. By establishing the foundation and getting the basics right, this lets other components of our strength and wellbeing come to life.
How Shicore works
Shicore is generally categorized into two components, one being physical movement — a kind of exercise which models sumo wrestling movement and expression — and the other being food, a way of eating to create a healthy body that cultivates confidence and self-discipline. Today I’ll be introducing the latter.
His books breaks down eating well into three key ideas:
- Joy in eating
- 10 different dishes a day
I’ve written extensively about harahachi-bunme (which you can read about here in full detail here), but harahachi-bunme is about eating until you are 80% full. It’s a term which directly translates to “8/10ths your stomach”, and is an approach which highlights the importance of eating in a way where we neither stuff nor deprive ourselves of food.
Takanohana goes beyond and explains that this also means not being particular about getting three meals a day — it can be one big meal in the morning, or maybe four small meals throughout the day. On some days, it could be no eating at all. But he simplifies the matter in the end and emphasizes: To eat when you are hungry, that is all.
Joy in eating
Takanohana believes that to eat well, you also need to find joy in it. He encourages individuals to eat what they want, but to eat it slowly, and with soups, tea, or water. He doesn’t believe in fussing over calories, and is comfortable eating high-fat or high-carb foods, as long as he enjoys it within the framework of harahachi-bunme. As an additional note, he also mentions that he makes it a personal rule for himself to not eat past 9pm so he can accurately determine this point.
10 different dishes a day
The final idea is about getting 10 different dishes a day. Largely following an ichiju-sansai style of eating, his meals often consist of rice, soup, and a few side dishes or okazu, to accompany his meals.
He encourages individuals to eat okazu and soup first, and have the rice last. If the okazu are enough to fill you, he believes that there is no need to have rice with the meal. Again, he highlights how it’s less important to worry about high calories or high fat food, but much more important to focus on variety in color and food types.
He also shares the role of sumo wrestling food, or “chanko-nabe”, and how he has adopted this type of meal as a way to enjoy nutritionally balanced slow food (as opposed to fast food) without stressing over daily home cooking. It’s a type of hot pot, and is the main way sumo wrestlers eat while training. While in one context it’s used to gain weight, in moderation it’s a way to get a variety of meat, vegetables, and nutrient-rich soup broths to keep off dangerous visceral fat and maintain a healthy heart. He also talks about it as a way to bring people together at mealtime, so you’re not eating alone.
Directing your actions with ki (氣)
Within the context of these three ideas, he highlights the importance of will, awareness, motivation, and positive thinking to direct these actions. Specifically, he talks about ki or qi (氣), and to be mindful about incorporating this energy into your daily life. This means paying attention to the way you move and exercise every day, and to be mindful about the way you decide to eat to nourish your body. Losing weight and living well doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does need your attention.