Monday, 18 July 2011

Kiai – something you hear or see ?

Isn’t it strange how you think you know what something is only to realise years later that your understanding was a little superficial? There’s always more layers to everything isn’t there?

Kiai is a case in point. Back in April 2009 I wrote a post called Power of the kiai in which I quoted a definition of kiai as 'a projection of sound fused with energy or spirit'. Other people define it as a ‘spirit shout’. Back then I just thought kiai was all about the shouting, a sharp exhalation of breath to tense the muscles and make your punches harder.

I understand kiai a little differently now. It isn’t a ‘thing’ that we do, i.e we don’t do a kiai as we punch; it isn’t merely a stylistic affectation for good effect. It is a part of us, something that we develop through hard training. We demonstrate kiai in the way we execute our techniques irrespective of whether we make a noise or not. Kiai is something that we see when we watch a student (if they have it) and not just something that we hear.

Many people will make a lot of noise but have no kiai, others will train silently but you will be left in no doubt that they have kiai in bucket loads. Kiai is also something you will feel in yourself when you have it.

So what am I talking about now?

According to Iain Abernethy in his book Bunkai-Jutsu, kiai is “…the convergence of all your energies at a single instant that ensure your goal is attainted….It is often accompanied by a loud noise, but simply shouting is not kiai.” He compares kiai to a loud explosion: “An explosion will make a loud noise, but a loud noise is not an explosion.”

The noise of kiai is simply the result of the outburst of energy as you deliver power to your target. It isn’t contrived. The important thing is the explosion of power to the target not the noise, though a scary noise might be useful too.

Kiai is something that starts off internal and becomes external as you execute a move. It is an outpouring of focus and concentration, grit and determination and a will to be perfect and precise. It’s as if you’ve charged up a battery inside of you and it’s discharging at full power. 

I bet you’ve felt it: you’re practising a kata or standing in front of a punching pad/bag; you know an explosive burst is needed; you breathe in through the nose in preparation; you feel energised; then, wham – you execute that explosive movement with a sharp exhalation. You were blind to everything except the target; no other thoughts were in your mind; you wanted it to be the best most perfect move you’ve ever done – you had kiai…you were an explosion.

How do you develop kiai? According to Forrest Morgan in ‘Living the Martial Way’, you need to do five things: “find kokoro; practice haragei; develop kokyu chikara; apply kime and practice kata with utmost seriousness.”

Kokoro means ‘heart’, ‘mind’ or ‘essence’.  It’s often interpreted as never accepting defeat, finding that indomitable spirit within – having the grit and determination to succeed.  It’s about putting ‘heart and soul’ into your training.

Haragei. Hara = centre, gei = cultivation of, so haragei is the “cultivation of the centre of the self”. In other words, it is developing a proper awareness of where your centre of gravity is (2-3 inches below your navel) and knowing how to use it to good effect. To generate good technique you need to be rooted but agile. To generate kiai you need good technique. All techniques in karate require you to be aware of your hara.

Kokyu chikara means ‘breath power’. It’s about coordinating your breathing with the preparation and execution of techniques to maximise power.

Kime is about focus; physical, mental and spiritual focus. You focus your mind, body and intent on achieving your objective. You remain in the moment, you block out all other thoughts; you identify your target and aim precisely at it, focusing all your energy at one point.

So, to develop kiai we must put ‘heart and soul’ into our techniques, understand how to use the hara effectively, coordinate our breathing correctly and focus completely on our objective.

How do we train to develop kiai? Well, most people, including me, will say kata, kata, kata! Through a serious practice of kata we can learn to understand and develop the necessary attributes that lead to kiai. Warning! It takes year of training to achieve kiai..

Next time you are watching students train look for their kiai as well as listen….

Has your understanding of something changed as you've progressed through your training?

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John Vesia said...

Nice post, I think you covered all the bases. I'd just like to add that kiai should be used sporadically. Timing is everything, and a good kiai can shake an opponent up. In Isshinryu we're expected to use two kiai per kata. What's the criteria for Shukokai?

Sparring is another thing. Too much can be downright annoying (fake). You'll see that in karate tournaments sometimes, as if the players are trying to sway the judges, like, "look, I'm scoring a point now -- kiai!!." And have you ever seen a kendo match? A lot of kiai. Seems like a bit much to me, but I think that's just part of the kendo tradition.

Charles James said...

Excellent post Sue!

Felicia said...

Nice post, Sue. And to answer your question, the best example of my understanding changing as the training has progressed that I can think of is bunkai. For many katas, a particular technique was just a block, strike or kick as I learned them, but as time has gone by I see so much more - especially in the katas I've done the longest (the first underbelt/kyu katas I learned). Every technique is not about power and speed - which was not something I understood at first. I also suspect that how I understand things now will change still as my training progresses :-)

But I agree with you about kiai - it's much, much more than a noise. It's evident in how a practitioner moves through kata and kihon, how they approach the mat, even. Sometimes, it's as subtly powerful an a look, too, I think.

Charles James said...

Something you hear or see? If you see everything clearly and actively; if you hear actively and clearly; is this Kiai?

John Coles said...

Good post Sue. It's refreshing to see thoughtful and researched observations concerning the martial arts. I'm currently writing an article for a magazine in which I refer to the martial arts as bastions of anti-intellectualism.

It'd be interesting to see if any serious studies have been done on kiai. Or, given martial arts are not generally respected by mainstream society, if any studies have been done on the 'grunting' associated with tennis. I'd suggested they have a great deal in common.

One of the female instructors at my school taught women's self defence and was renown for her kiai. She demonstrated it at a private girl's school once and the teenage girl apparentl burst into tears periodically during the day as a result of the effect of her kiai. I have been on the recieiving end of it many a time, and I can tell you it felt like a physical force.

Sue C said...

John V, yes timing is definitely the key to maximising the effect of kiai. We don't have a set number of kiai per kata but it generally varies from between 1 and 3.

In our sparring competitions you can only score if you kiai so, yes, it is used to try and sway the judges -just one of those strange artifacts that have developed in sports karate I suppose but they're not real kiai - just a noise to alert the judges that you think you've scored!

Charles, possibly, yes! Though what I meant was that if you watch a person who has kiai it should be visible in the way they move as well as audible. I was taking a third person perspective whereas I think you are taking a first person perspective, yes?

Felicia, bunkai! Yes that's definitely another example of where one's understanding changes over time - a life time's study I think!

John C, 'bastions of anti-intellectualism', heavy stuff! Sounds interesting though - is it going on your blog too?

I agree: grunting is to tennis as kiai is to karate :-) Those top tennis players display kiai in bucket loads, whether they grunt or not.

Journeyman said...

I enjoyed your post. A proper kiai does unite body and spirit, connecting all the parts of your technique and you mental state.

From another angle, a loud kiai has a great application in the area of street self defense. A loud kiai, alone or with a technique, can easily startle your attacker or cause them to flinch, which may provide an opportunity to escape.

Sue C said...

Journeyman, I think little girls instinctively know that screaming is a good thing, I think we must be hard wired to do it :-) Hopefully, if a time comes when we REALLY need to scream we won't freeze!

Ninja Schools said...

Love this post!

Sue C said...

Thanks Ninja!

Ninja Techniques said...

Did the website change? I like the layout!

Sue C said...

Yes I changed it about 6 weeks ago after I did my black belt grading. I thought it needed a fresh new look. Glad you like it!

Charles James said...

Sue, you state, "if you watch a person who has kiai it should be visible in the way they move as well as audible."

I rather feel that one with "kiai" as you pose is not readily visible in their movement. It is something you sense. The sense says something interesting and impressive is there. I just can't readily see it.

What say you?

Sue C said...

Charles, may be, but would I sense it if I wasn't looking for it?

Anonymous said...

In boxing and kickboxing you sort of hiss (sharply blowing out the air) as you punch or kick: this is done to a) conserve air, b) keep you breathing and c) focus your energy and strength on the target. I suspect it's no different in karate although I must say I don't really understand this mythical mumbo-jumbo attached to it (ki is not a scientific concept) or the purely theoretical analyzing of concepts that should be quite clear in practice.

@John Vestia: if I'm not mistaken in kendo you're supposed to announce the target you're going to strike in order to be awarded a point so it's not just tradition to yell.

Sue C said...

Anon, It sounds like you practice the rudiments of kiai in your kickboxing. I don't know what mumbo jumbo you are talking about, I'm not aware of any.

Hiit said...

Great post, I like the photo:)

Sue C said...

Hiit, thanks and thanks for calling by...


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