Like many students when they first start learning a martial art I felt rather self-conscious about performing a kiai. It sounds pretty odd when you first hear it and almost feels a bit pretentious. I was just glad we weren't expected to shout 'Ah So' which was the shout I associated with karate as a kid! But of course I didn't understand what the kiai was about then and with time I got used to it and it didn't sound so strange.
What are you supposed to shout when you kiai? Again most beginners (me included, initially) just shout the word 'kiai'. If you think about it, that's like shouting the word 'SHOUT' if someone asks you to shout. You don't do you? You're more likely to shout 'AAARRRGGGGHHH'. So obviously we are not intended to shout the word 'kiai'. I started to realise that this was a bit ridiculous when I was in the junior colour belts. So I listened to what other people in the class were shouting and it ranged from short barely audible grunts to short sharp 'AA' or 'EE' sounds to long loud 'YAAA' or 'AARRGG' sounds!
So what makes a good kiai? Well, according to what I have read an effective kiai should come from deep down in the chest and should involve the use of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. It should not be merely a yell which arises only from the throat. It should involve a sharp exhalation of air and can be accompanied with or without sound. The kiai can be silent, it depends whether you decide to pass all that air through your vocal cords or not. I do not think silent kiais would be acceptable in my class, we are generally encouraged to shout them out. Apparently, if you are making an audible kiai it should consist only of one syllable and should be short and loud. 'I', 'Hi', and 'EE' are considered appropriate. So what do I shout now? I decided to just drop the 'Ki' and shout 'Ai'. It works for me!
Why do we kiai anyway? I already had some idea of what a kiai was for before I started karate because my sons were attending a childrens' jujitsu class and I occasionally used to stop and watch. The sensei would have the children stand in rows and shout kiais in unison as loud as they could, then he would do a competition to see who could kiai the loudest. They loved it! He also told them that it would make their parents very proud if they were to go into their bedroom at 6.00 in the morning and wake them up with a loud kiai! Fortunately my sons had the sense not to try that one. But more importantly he told them the kiai was to 'frighten the enemy and tense the stomach muscles'.
That's a reasonable explanation but not a complete one. Those two facts are true but also by exhaling and emptying the lungs you render yourself less vulnerable to being winded by an attack to the abdomen and tensing the abdominal muscles provides you with greater core stability that enables you to add greater power to your own strikes. I think this last point is definitely true, my punches against the pad are much harder if I kiai when delivering them.
Then there are people who take the kiai to a whole new level. The Kiai-jutsukas regard the kiai as a weapon in its own right. They believe the kiai is the release of ki (chi, qi) or energy and a well executed kiai can knock a man clean off his feet. Well the 'ki' in kiai is referring to energy and the 'ai' means to meet, join, harmonise or fuse. For some, this translates as 'a projection of sound fused with energy or spirit'. Well, in the following video there is a very impressive kiai master demonstrating the power of the kiai. I'm particularly impressed with his ability to make the temple bell ring just with his kiai!
So what do you shout when you kiai? Do you believe in the power of the kiai?
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