One day a student saw his Sensei punching a wooden post that had been thrust into the ground. The student inquired: "Sensei, what is it you're punching?"
The student walked over and began striking the board gingerly. He had noticed months earlier that his instructor's hands were rough around the knuckles and that his punching power was far greater than his slight frame belied. Could this simple board be the key to his power? The student had to wonder.
"Now I want you to practice on this slowly and lightly at first. In time we'll increase the impact, but I must be certain you're technique is correct."
For a month the student struck the board deligently, feeling it bend and snap back into place. He was growing more comfortable all the time. Sadly his trip to visit his Sensei was brief and soon he flew back to his home town. Motivated and confident, the student set out to construct his own makiwara. His Sensei had given him a few tips on construction, so he felt ready.
Wandering the aisles of the local hardware store, the student noticed a similar looking board in both length and width. However, next to it was a sturdy and thick piece of oak. Certainly, the student concluded, that if the thin board had succesfully developed his Sensei's striking power that a thicker and more durable board would elicit even better results!
He bought the thick oak and planted it firmly in his backyard. Later, finding the outdoor makiwara a bit inconvenient, he decided to secure a thin foam pad to his concrete basement walls and strike that instead.
Unfortunately the student's Sensei never visited his home dojo and failed to inquire about the specifics of his makiwara practice. Perhaps such an intervention could have helped avoid the severe damage and arthritis the student would experience in later years.
More is a Tempting Proposition
The previous story is entirely fictional, however it might as well be true considering the amount of martial artists who have suffered in a similar way. Makiwara training is not inherently dangerous and can be executed safely. However, it is easily abused for the sake of quicker or more significant short term results.
The fictional student saw what his instructor had done and came to a natural conclusion that if he were to do more/harder/longer he would experience better results. This is a tempting mindset but can be very dangerous.
The classical martial arts were developed over decades (sometimes centuries) of careful analysis and adjustment. As times changed so did the specific needs of practitioners, so the arts continued to grow and evolve. Good classical arts, ones that helped practitioners defend themselves without damaging them in the process, eventually developed. Unfortunately, no matter how far back in time you look, the struggle of patience vs results and ego has always existed and tugged on exponents.
More Examples of More
Excessive makiwara training isn't the only way we as practitioners can upset proper training balance. Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A teacher decides to enlogate stances so as to develop the leg muscles of students. The next generation decides that if long stances are good, even longer stances must be better. So long in fact that perhaps each student's belt should touch the ground when settling into stance.
- A student notices a fine flow that his teacher executes during freestyle practice. The student decides that flowing technique is clearly the best and sets out to eliminate all hard, impactful and linear technique.
- A practitioner attends a seminar with a known vital point fighting expert. Amazed by the effectiveness of the vital point techniques, he shifts his entire study and marketing efforts to the propogation of vital points. He decides that there must be even more to it and creates a tangled web of fact and fiction surrounding the "energy" of the arts.
- A skilled kata exponent discovers the existence of tuite and the reailty that kata can contain more than just striking. She then decides that the true application of each kata is an elaborate series of joint locks and grappling maneuvers and focuses purely on these ideas.
- After a few years of study a student realizes that his teacher has studied both a hard Japanese art and a modern style of boxing. He decides that since cross training two styles is beneficial he would study five styles, combine them, and name his own art.
These are fictional situations like the story told above, but some of them may sound familiar and ring true to your experience.
Awareness as the Solution
The trick to managing "more" is realizing that it can exist in your school and in between your ears. It has the power to affect any of us (myself included). When coming up through the ranks of Okinawa Kenpo, I was inundated with a wide variety of empty hand and kobudo kata. At certain points I distinctly remember focusing on the next set of kata I needed for testing to the exclusion of all other matters. In order to progress through kyu ranks and acquire the more "advanced" kata I fell victim to "more".
Eventually I realized what I was doing and was able to pull myself out of that collector's cycle. Even now I frequently ask myself: Where is my focus? Have I become too obsessed with a single aspect of training?
More vs Specialization
An important distinction is that "more" is not the same thing as training deligently or finding a specialty. For example, if a teacher were to decide that body conditioning was important to her and thus her students, it's logical and understandable for her to incorporate frequent conditioning drills. But if she obsesses over drills and methods that sacrifice mobility, technique, and even personal health all for the sake of increasing body hardness then she would have committed an error of disharmony in training.
When observing your art and your methods of training it's important to consider both diminishing returns and off-balance practice methods. Sometimes in your established art you'll come to notice things that help you early on but eventually become a hinderance. At those times you can explore ways to improve your technique without forgetting the value those initial methods brought.
A teacher's job is even harder, as the temptation to change things can be strong. Well meaning instructors often wish to increase the speed of student development or cut to the "no nonsense, nitty gritty harcore stuff" that took them years to figure out. Of course, they are unwittingly discarding things of high value that can ultimately result in not just a well balanced martial artist, but a deligent and humble person as well.
Good classical training is diverse and not readily understood at a glance. It challenges each student to obey faithfully and keep the system true to its roots while at the same time thinking independently and finding balance. Such a mental and physical struggle as in one of the most subtle yet lasting benefits of the old ways.
Recently a reader inquired about the matter of kiai. For those who may not be familiar with the term, kiai is most frequently described as a "spirit shout" used in hard martial arts during moments of impact. Kiai is frequently used in kata as well as sparring, basics, ippon kumite, etc.
The crux of the question was as follows (paraphrasing):
"Can you comment on why some kata performances have kiai at the end of every movement? Is it appropriate to kiai that much, and if not how do you know how much to do it? Are there any tricks to sustaining your throat through that much yelling?"
The easy, judgmental answer would be to say "no,no, noooo. don't use kiai on every move. Only a few per kata! Too much kiai-ing is wrong!". But that hardly answers the question. After all, why NOT go nuts with it? If kiai juices you up, wouldn't you want to use it as much as possible?
Let's dig a little deeper!
What is Kiai?
To discuss this matter we have to fix the common interpretation of the word "kiai". Kiai is not necessarily a spirit shout. When broken down, the term "ki" refers to the internal spirit or inherent energy of a person. The term "ai" can indicate harmonizing or focusing, depending on the context.
As Forrest Morgan pointed out in his book "Living the Martial Way", kiai and aiki are two concepts closely related and frequently blended, not unlike a balanced yin and yang. Aiki (as in Aikido) is the practice of harmonizing with an opponent's force and redirecting it. Kiai is an expression of personal force directed into an opponent, disrupting their rhythm. You can see how the two concepts are symbiotically useful (but let's focus on kiai for awhile).
one of the most explicit ways to disrupt your opponent is by overloading their senses via a surprise burst of stimuli. In order to generate that kind of overload, the body's destructive energies can be brought together in an instantaneous moment of exertion. The eyes, ears, emotions, and pain receptors of the opponent can be aggressively overwhelmed. An intense shout, the most noticeable aspect of kiai, is an integral part of that process.
How To Execute a Kiai Shout
Bill Hayes Sensei tells a story of training on the beach with his instructor Shimabukuro Eizo. During that training a storm approached, and instead of packing up and heading home Shimabukuro Sensei had them continue their kata. Just as the students were getting ready to bail out they heard a sonic boom rip through the howling wind, jarring everyone around. When they looked back to see it's origin they found Shimabukuro Sensei laughing. Try as they might, they couldn't replicate their instructor's power in cutting through the maelstrom of the storm.
When listening to kiai, it's important to note that not all are created equal. Any human can scream in anger, not everyone can use kiai. A good kiai is like an auditory gun shot, fueled by intent. The length is brief but delivered quickly and intensely. The emotional fuel is not anger, fury, frustration, or rage (at least not primarily); instead, it is a focused intent to maim or kill. The other emotions may swirl momentarily as byproducts of the intensity.
As with most things in the martial arts, there is no shortcut to a great kiai. Here are some basics to get you started if you still aren't sure about the process:
- Create a solid posture. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward while keeping the spine aligned. Allow your body to relax and sink into the hara (the lower abdomen).
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine yourself breathing from the bottom of your lungs. You should feel the belly moving in and out instead of the upper chest.
- When ready, push the air out of the bottom of the lungs vigorously. To do this, rely on the abdominal contraction that slightly tilts your pelvis forward.
- Create a vocalization using mostly the back of the throat. A proper kiai will inevitably come out as some sort of vowel sound, but you can guide how it sounds according to what feels natural. It's important to note that you needn't hit a hard "k" at the beginning of a kiai, as you are not actually saying "kiai" during the shout.
- Give yourself permission to be loud. You needn't scream your face off, but there is a barrier of timidity that needs to be broken through. A polite and mannerly kiai doesn't get the job done, so if you've been raised to keep quiet and not make a fuss you'll need to work through that mental block.
- Sculpt your vocalization into a pulse. The kiai is not a sustained scream, but more of an impact tool in it's own right. The hara fires the kiai up and out while the mouth directs it at the target.
More Than Just Screaming
The spirit shout itself is only one aspect of kiai. In order to use it to the fullest extent you have to involve your entire being, including the eyes, posture, and spirit.
There's a story surrounding Matsumura Bushi during one of his famous exploits. It's stated that Matsumura's reputation often preceeded him, even amongst the lower classes on Okinawa. As such, a local craftsman was quite surprised and pleased when Matsumura entered his shop to have some minor work done. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, the craftsman revealed himself as a karateka and promptly asked Matsumura for a lesson. After refusing, Matsumura was challenged to a match by the bold and impatient karateka. Eventually Matsumura acquiesed and agreed to meet the man the next morning.
Just as the sun was rising both men faced each other. At first the craftsman was confident due to his strength, size, and skill. However, as he approached Matsumura to begin the match he noticed something unusual. Matsumura stood naturally with an unflinching gaze. His posture was statuesque, his mouth pursed as if saying something while saying nothing, and his eyes fierce as an eagle. The craftsman felt ill to his stomach and had to sit down. When ready, the karateka tried again to begin an assault but was once again accosted by Matsumura's presence. Just as the craftsman steadied himself for a final attempt, Matsumura let loose a spirit shout akin to a lightning bolt strike and the man was brought to an utter standstill, forfeiting the match and asking for forgiveness.
The exact details of this story are unprovable, but the concepts are quite interesting. What happened here was nothing particularly mystical – Matsumura utilized applied psychology to overwhelm his opponent. Humans have an innate ability to detect threats and impending doom. Matsumura's skill level and confidence were refined to such a fine degree that he was able to instill in his opponent extreme sensations of dread. His kiai disrupted the opponent before a punch was thrown***.
How Much Shouting is Too Much?
As we've established, kiai manifests in subtly different ways, especially during kata performance. The focus and disruptive capabilities of kiai may be present throughout an entire kata, or it may fade in and out depending on what the performer is visualizing.
In order to explore the question of kiai frequency from all angles, here are some reasons why extended kiai might be useful:
- Repeated screaming could put a person into "hulk mode", overwhelming all comers.
- Making noise during a self defense altercation could draw attention and elicit assistance.
- Excessive kiai could make opponents fearful that the victim is crazy, abandoning their attack and running away.
- If every strike in karate is meant to be done as a "killing blow" then every strike would deserve a kiai.
The matter of drawing attention to oneself is certainly true. Screaming and struggling is a very legitimate self defense tactic especially in crowded areas. On the other hand, I wouldn't rely on an attacker concerning themselves about a victim being crazy. It may actually inspire them to do damage more quickly in order to quiet the scene.
The idea of "hulking out" is a perpetuated misunderstanding of how adrenaline works. It's true that ramping up an adrenal dump can increase strength and pain tolerance, but it also drastically reduces cognition and small motor skills. Furthermore, during a conflict, the opponent experiences a similar adrenal dump. Too much "hulk" without any sort of control will not only eliminate fine motor techniques but can also overwhelm gross motor techniques ingrained in muscle memory. The other problem with a scream induced frenzy is the amount of time available before exhaustion. Sometimes individuals get a false sense of security from the dojo. Being able to spar for 45 minutes does not mean a person can last 45 minutes in a street encounter. Even Police Officers experience extreme fatigue in a matter of seconds or minutes when faced with the real struggle of violence. Imagine now if that precious energy was wasted on excessive kiai shouting.
The concept of "killing blows" in karate is a popular one. The phrase "Ikken Hisatsu", "One Punch, One Kill" is frequently used and suggests that full force should be put behind every technique with total committment. This concept is a carryover from Japanese Kenjutsu and the idea of "Ichigo Ichie", "One time, One Meeting". The Samurai were extremely refined swordsmen and the katana was a weapon of immediate effectiveness. The slightest hesitation or uncertainty in a duel spelled certain destruction. The fist of the hard style karateka is designed to be deadly in the same manner. However, when matching the Ikken Hisatsu mindset with the realities of physical combat it's important to rely on the subtleties of kiai usage instead of raw vocalization. Intensity of purpose can be transmitted via facial expression, hard breath, a glare of the eyes, and spirit pressure. Matsumura demonstrated it best. Had he been screaming and having fits as his opponent approached the depth of his kiai might not have been as effective and he would have been exhausted quickly in the fight.
Ultimately, too much shouting goes against practicality for real combat. Consider the element of surprise. The kiai should form a sharp blast against the opponent's senses especially when combined with dehabilitating tuite or striking, never giving the opponent a chance to recover. In the matter of multiple opponents, a blasting kiai used sparcely is just as valuable. A sudden auditory impulse might stop all surrounding aggressors, much like Shimabukuro Eizo's kiai froze his students in place. Kiai may work multiple times in a conflict but if overused it will simply become white noise.
How Many Kiai Per Kata?
Most instructors will indicate a few pre-designed spots where they believe kiai belong. These spots are most often strikes that feel conclusive. As such, many kata feature 1-5 kiai.
Here's a great example from one of my favorite kata practitioners, Shimabukuro Zenpo:
I never doubted his intensity, did you? Not to mention, his throat should be in fine shape even after a full day of training kata.
A Part of the Bigger Puzzle
Throughout this article we've focused on kiai to the exclusion of other concepts. It almost feels as if kiai is the only tool available for spirit transmission, but the truth is quite to the contrary. Kiai is half of a whole with aiki. Furthermore, other concepts such as kime, zanshin, mushin, kokoro, and more add to the collective expression of the classical artist during life protection. Many deeper concepts overlap at times, but are also distinct avenues worthy of study.
Just in case you're still not clear on the matter of kiai among the pantheon of martial skills, I'd like to let Bruce Lee sum it up for me:
***This story should not be confused with other claims of using kiai to knock people out without touching them. The idea of using vocal sounds or visual colors to create knockouts is unproven at best.
Secrecy is a long standing tradition in the martial arts. When you analyze how most arts developed, it's easy to understand why.
Take kenjutsu (sword arts) of the Samurai for example. A kenjutsu headmaster was in charge of training his disciples with the deadliest skills he could. Those men would then take their techniques to the battlefield and fight for their daimyo. Unfortunately, during the Warring States Period, backstabbing and side switching was so common it was almost unremarkable. The daimyo changed allegiances depending on what elevated their status or saved them from annihilation. They also intermarried among clans, which shifted the power of alliances. The Samurai were often doomed to follow along, even fighting against clans they once considered allies.
These switches could happen in a hurry, even in the middle of a war. The outcome of one of the most famous battles in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, was significantly influenced by a few properly persuaded commanders right before the battle took place.
Imagine now if a skilled kenjutsu instructor was wide open with his teachings, sharing all he knew with anyone who came to him. How soon would that information be used against him?
This secretive behavior persisted even after the Samurai were less needed on the battlefield. Sword schools transitioned from focus on large battles to more individual development. It was at this time musha shugyo became more popular. Roaming Samurai desired to test their skills against headmasters and make a name for themselves. If a headmaster was loose with his knowledge and word of his tactics got out, it could mean an early demise.
Karate and kobudo also posses a history of secrecy. After the invasion of the Satsuma warriors, quite a bit of tode and kobujutsu training was conducted away from prying eyes. The Satsuma had roving metsuke (armed informants) who would be all too happy too report or outright extinguish suspicious behavior.
It wasn't just threat of death that kept the lips of instructor's tightly sealed. Both Japan and Okinawa developed under Confucian philosophy. In Confucianism, there is little tolerance for questioning of those in higher stations of respect than oneself. Further, it is expected of seniors to maintain a certain level of aloofness above those below them. The result was a lot of show with little tell.
Our modern era has it's own excuses for secrecy. Luckily the amount of "roving fighters" has gone down (but not disappeared thanks to the everpresence of ego), so it's not a particular need for tactical secrecy that keeps teachers quiet. More often than not, it is a need to retain students. If a modern teacher with limited skillset teaches everything they know, then students will inevitably grow tired of the training. Some may have the natural ability to surpass the teacher and go beyond their lessons, but then the instructor may become concerned about the student opening a school nearby and taking students away (or just becoming better, which hurts the ego). One safe bet to keep students interested and at a comparatively low skill level is to institute varying degrees of witholdance and secrecy.
The Wayward Student
There's one reason for concealment that we haven't discussed, and it's perhaps the most important. Whether in the early days of karate or today in a modern dojo, the possibility of "wayward students" exists. Despite a teacher's experience and intuition, some people are capable of hiding what's in their hearts. On the surface a student might seem dedicated and cautious and honorable, but deep down they could be manipulative and devious. Some of the most important martial artists in recorded history have fallen prey to charasmatic "disciples" who have siphoned power and influence from them.
One or two of these deep burns is enough to make any teacher pack his/her belt away for awhile.
Aside from the political aspects, teaching a wayward student the most debilitating, deadly, and effective aspects of an art is not only regrettable but dangerous to society as a whole.
Truly, wouldn't it be safer just to teach the bare basics and not risk it?
Giving the Bleeding Edge
The task of finding an honorable student and helping them to higher levels is a monumental task. After getting to a certain point, the instinct and tradition of letting things "coast" is very strong. After all, it's been done that way for generations.
However, in this modern era, it is appropriate (and even vital) for teachers to draw students to the edge of their own understanding***.
Today, it is very unlikely that martial artists of the same school will ever appear on opposite sides of a battlefield. Nor is it likely they will face other martial artists who have received inside information about their tactics. Instead, students are probably going to encounter street violence. Technique foresight is not an issue; the training will work or not work based on quality, not on secrecy.
Therefore, it is the duty of an instructor to give all they can in order to help students protect themselves and their loved ones. After years of getting to know each pupil the instructor can make an educated decision about sharing deeper knowledge in the hopes the student will carry on the desired "way".
Teaching to the very edge of skill level is also critical for an instructor's growth. "Toping out" in regards to skill and knowledge while strategically keeping students at a lower level is a very effective way to never grow. If, however, a teacher actively pulls students up as far as he/she can, the teacher will then be challenged to improve even more in order to continue sharing and helping the students.
Personally speaking, a lot of new ideas and developments in my own training begin as feelings. I sense that something is coming within reach and manifesting into potential improvement. However, it isn't until I attempt to verbalize and demonstrate what I'm thinking that it takes ahold in my own skillset and becomes available to me in a more complete way.
This very blog post is part of that process. If I don't truly understand it, then I can't help others understand it. So in order for me to understand it, you have to understand it.
See, now you know all my secrets! (or do you??).
***(please keep in mind I write this as an instructor with limited understanding and experience. Kyoshi and Hanshi level practitioners may possess a different perspective given their experience, but I do currently believe this advice applies forever in one's training).