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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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Some post grading challenges...

Before I took my shodan grading I wrote a post called ‘Six things I’m looking forward to post black belt…’  I thought that if I knew exactly what my aims were post black belt then I could hopefully avoid the dreaded ‘black belt blues’. Well, so far so good. No signs of depression or loss of enthusiasm yet!

I thought I’d let you know what I’ve been up to in the last month and whether I’m making any headway with my aims…

1.       Being liberated from grading. That feels soooo….good! I’ve not even looked at the 2nd dan syllabus yet – no point. It’s just fun to turn up to training and see what happens that session – no expectations, no hoping we are going to focus on something I particularly need to do. It’s just about training in the moment. I’m learning a new kata, Sepai, which is quite interesting but I have at least two years to learn it (along with 2 other kata I need to learn). I’ll probably research the history for Sepai soon to add to my other kata histories.

2.       Consolidating the basics.  The basics are never far away are they? We haven’t spent a lot of time on basic kihon in the senior class in the last month but in the junior class where I assist with teaching then, yes, I’m consolidating the basics! But more on teaching later…

3.       Learning to spell! To me this is about putting things together more, thinking outside the box a little and developing a greater sense of strategy in a self-defence situation. This is not something we have particularly touched on in class recently other than we have been exploring a few ‘street’ type defences in the last couple of weeks. However, I don’t believe that all learning should take place in class so I have been reading and thinking about self-defence at home. Like I’ve mentioned before I think it is important to understand the nature of violence in society and add some context to your self-defence training. I’m currently reading ‘Facing Violence – preparing for the unexpected’ by Rory Millar and this is making me think a lot, so expect some blog posts on this theme soon!

4.       Learning some ‘off’ syllabus stuff. Well the street defence stuff we’ve been doing is certainly off syllabus. It’s very different to the kind of self-defence things we do that are part of the syllabus. We’ve also been doing a little bit of aikido – some defences against knife attacks. I have to admit I find some of the aikido techniques very complicated but that may just be because I’m new to it. I think karate is much simpler and straight forward – that’s got to be an advantage in self-defence.

      I’ve also returned to my kobudo classes which have taken a back seat in recent months. It’s nice to get back to swinging the tonfa again and I was surprised at how much of the syllabus I could remember, though my ability to manipulate the tonfa has somewhat deteriorated at the moment!

5.       Spending more time dissecting and understanding the kata and bunkai. Apart from starting to learn Sepai and running through all the kata I know as a sort of workout we haven’t looked at kata application in the last month so no progress made here at the moment.

6.       Spend more time teaching. This is where most of my energy is being focused at the moment. I’m keen to do the assistant instructors qualification so my instructor and I have increased the pace a bit with teaching. I now quite regularly start the junior class off with a formal seiza bow and warm-up and have taken the majority of the students for 20 – 30 minute sessions of kihon or kumite training.

I’ve also assisted my instructor with some ‘taster’ sessions at a local primary school during their ‘sports week’ recently. This was an all day affair where we gave 7 separate half-hour karate sessions to the different year groups. This was really fun, though exhausting, and the pupils (and teachers) joined in enthusiastically. I’d be quite happy to do this kind of teaching again.

Keeping busy and looking for new challenges seems to be a recipe for preventing the black belt blues. My next challenge is on Saturday as I help out at a kyu grading session as the ‘caller’ i.e the person who does the counting, makes sure everyone knows what they are doing and (for very  junior grades) gives the odd demonstration of the technique. This will be a test of how well I know the junior syllabus! I’ll let you know how it goes…..

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Friday, 1 July 2011

Humility - finding a balance...

The concept of humility is talked about a lot in martial arts circles. It is a sign of advancement that as you progress on your journey you become increasingly more humble. For many people humility is a natural part of their character, they have always shown humility towards others, whatever path they have chosen in life. For others, humility is learned the hard way – they are humbled by their experiences of life. A few remain blinkered all their lives and never come to understand the strength of humility.

But what exactly is humility? Here’s a dictionary definition: “The quality or state of being humble in spirit. Freedom from pride or arrogance. Humble: Modest or meek in spirit, manner or appearance, not proud or haughty. Absence of vanity.”

That all sounds reasonable but at the moment it’s just words. How do you actually show humility? How do you know when you’ve stepped outside the boundaries of humility? If we step over the upper boundary of humility then we may be guilty of ‘showing off’, ‘boasting’, being arrogant or displaying ‘pride’. However, if we stoop below humility’s lower boundary then we may be guilty of false modesty, obsequiousness or sycophancy. How do you find your balance point in terms of how you behave and is it the same for all of us?

For example, am I being arrogant by writing an article on humility? What gives me the right to tell you what being humble means? It has been suggested to me that I was not demonstrating sufficient humility when I posted an article about my shodan grading, that I was showing off. I was a little surprised by this viewpoint, particularly as my blogs are titled ‘My journey to black belt’ and ‘Countdown to shodan’.  Wouldn’t it have been a little strange not to tell you of the outcome of my grading in the circumstances? I didn’t expect you to be impressed – many of you have had a black belt for years. However, I thought some of you might be interested having read my blog for two years, that’s all.

Anyway, this comment troubled me quite a lot and has prompted me to look at the concept of humility in more depth, hence this article. Back to the question: Am I being arrogant by writing an article on humility? Well, having thought a lot about the subject recently and researched it, it seemed a suitable topic to share with you in the hope that it will generate some useful discussion.  I’m not pretending to have all the answers; what follows is merely my opinion....

…so IMHO:

Here’s a quote about humility that I like: Humility is to make a right estimate of one's self.” Charles H. Spurgeon (19th century English preacher)

I like this quote because it suggests that the root of humility is to know oneself, to have insight and to be true to oneself – it’s about honesty and truthfulness. I believe that one shouldn’t overestimate what you know or can do, that would be pride or arrogance. But one shouldn’t underestimate what one knows or can do either, particularly if that underestimation is a deliberate attempt to make one appear more humble – this is false modesty. It is important to find your own balance point and your own boundaries of humility. 

Here is a Christian/Catholic warning about false humility: “  “True humility" is distinctly different from "false humility," which consists of deprecating one's own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others.”

Don’t you think there is something slightly creepy about the person who puts on the cloak of humility in order to be held up by others as a paragon of virtue? Especially if their behaviour is a complete change to their usual personality.  There is something subversive about this behaviour when you see it.  

Here’s an interesting fact from Wikipedia: The term "humility" comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", "from the earth", or "low", since it derives in turns from humus (earth).

The word ‘grounded’ leaps out of the page for me.  Humility, for me, is about being grounded in reality or having your feet on the ground. It’s about knowing your limits and living within them. It’s not about being sanctimonious or holier than thou. Most of us are not training to be monks. But what if your limits are high, your achievements vast or your knowledge great? How do you continue to display humility whilst still being true to yourself?

Time for another quote: “To have a thing is little, if you're not allowed to show it, to know a thing, is nothing unless others know you know it.”  Charles Neaves.

There are people amongst us, within and without the martial arts world, who are extremely talented, hardworking and high achieving. And we know about them – they don’t hide away under a cloak of false humility but neither do they jump up and down saying ‘look at me, I’m great’. They are willing to share their success with others by passing on their knowledge and skills so that we can learn and benefit from their achievements. They know their ‘humility balance point’; it is higher than the average Joe’s but never the less it is appropriate.  It would be arrogant of me to write a book about how to do martial arts as I do not have sufficient experience but it is not arrogant for someone of 30 years successful experience to do so. They can still display humility but their balance point is just higher than mine.

Here’s another interesting fact: A five year research study into what factors turn a company from ‘good’ to ‘truly great’ found that the single most important factor was a CEO who showed the dual traits of personal humility and professional will. The author of that paper, Jim Collins, said: “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare-and unstoppable.”

Jim Collins refers to these people as ‘Level 5 leaders’ and describes the ‘Yin and Yang of level 5’. What is interesting about these people is that whilst at the same time as demonstrating personal humility ( never boasting, shunning public adulation, being quiet and calm, relying on ‘inspired standards’ rather than charisma to motivate others, channelling ambition into the company rather than themselves and never blaming others or bad luck for poor results), they also showed a high level of professional will (settling for nothing less than the highest standards for the company, an unwavering resolve to do whatever is needed to get results and apportion credit for success to others). They were ambitious, go-getting , talented, driven people but this was not at odds with demonstrating sincere humility – they still knew their boundaries and acted from within them. In fact, it was their humility that drove their success because they focused all their energy outside of themselves – focusing on the needs of the company and their staff, rather than on their own egos.

Interesting isn’t it?

So are good martial arts leaders like this – demonstrating a natural humility whilst ambitiously driving the standards of martial arts up in their clubs?  Aren’t the best ones those who are at ease with themselves, willing to share their knowledge and skills with others whilst still pushing at their own boundaries.

In conclusion then, what is humility? For me humility is about knowing who you are – your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. It’s about understanding your own boundaries of acceptable behaviour and living within them. One should never overstate or understate who they are and what they can do.  Humility does not mean that one should subjugate ones ambitions or never express joy at ones achievements. However one should realise that one cannot achieve success in a vacuum and should apportion credit to those around us for their success.

Here’s one final quote that I like: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows” Helen Neilson.

What does humility mean to you?

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