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).
Throughout our day we stream commentary on everything we see and do, telling ourselves stories. These stories can range from conscious rants to subtle considerations as we attempt to make decisions. Certain practices, like martial arts and meditation, can help temper that amount of self chatter…but nevertheless, it's persistently there. It has to be.
Our self filters dictate our ability to function in polite society and learn from our surroundings. If we didn't have this capacity for reflection we would be stuck in a permanent state of mental immaturity.
Understanding how we sway ourselves can be highly informative (if we know how to assess it).
Reaffirmation vs Reassurance
Decision making comes with an interesting byproduct: explanation. Sometimes we attempt to justify our behavior using contextual information, reasoning, or lying. Other times we choose to behave in a way that conforms to how we see ourselves. More often than not, each decision results in a different kind of self speak, two of which are reaffirmation and reassurance.
To illustrate these concepts and their differences, I'd like to introduce a character named Ryoko. Follow some of Ryoko's everyday activities and see if you can detect how she reacts to her own decisions.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries. She reassured herself that she had earned it with her hard days work, and that she didn't feel like cooking that night. Really, it couldn't be avoided.
Coming out of the restaurant she noticed a cart from a neighboring grocery store rolling toward a nearby car. Unfortunately her hands were full and all she could do was cringe as it made contact against the paint. She reassured herself that there was nothing she could do in time.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours.
Between the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko reassured herself that she would probably be useless anyway in training and that her time would be better spent at home.
It was a long day at work and Ryoko was dead tired. She had been straining to reach a deadline, and just barely completed the project before her office shut down for the evening. On the drive home she noticed a distinct grumbling in her belly. Since it was only a few minutes from her house, Ryoko decided to stop at a local fast food chain and pick up a quick burger and fries.
Upon arrival she remembered that there was a grocery store next door, and that she could grab salad and fruit from inside. Doing so reaffirmed that she was indeed a healthy person, conscious of the old saying that "you get out what you put in".
Coming out of the grocery store she noticed a cart rolling toward a nearby car. Despite her hands being full she ran over quickly and stopped the cart with her foot. Ryoko always believed in random acts of kindness, and stopping the cart reaffirmed her desire to be someone who didn't need external thanks for helping.
The next day Ryoko went back to work. As much effort as she had put in the day before, it simply wasn't good enough for her boss who demanded a wide range of changes to her current project. Ryoko found herself sapped of energy and enthusiasm.
Coming home that evening her arms were weighed down by paperwork and corrections needed. Sure, she could get them done by the new deadline…but the thought hardly excited her. Even worse, it was a dojo night and she needed to get back on the road in two hours. Despite the threatening paperwork and her growing headache, Ryoko slapped her hands on the table and refused to listen to her own excuses. She ate, got changed, and made it into the dojo. It wasn't her best performance that night, but getting to class energized her and reaffirmed that she was a dedicated person.
Not Right and Wrong
At first it might seem like the stories above illustrate a simplistic state of right and wrong. Doing nice things is right, being lazy is wrong, etc etc. The truth of the matter is not so clear cut.
When speaking of "right and wrong" in the traditional sense, we are acknowledging the generally accepted human perception of proper and improper behavior. While slathered in gray area, for the most part we've come to a societal collective on critical matters of "good" vs "bad" (hence the penal system).
What Ryoko is going through is much more personal than that. She is facing day-to-day choices that reflect both the context of her situation and her own expectations of herself. Therefore, when she does something that sparks doubt in her mind, she has to reassure herself that it's ok (even if it's not). When she does something that feels right and in tune with who she wants to be, she instinctively reaffirms her path.
The slightest change in detail to the stories above could result in different decision making. Furthermore, following the "Reaffirmation" decision path won't always guarantee positive results (what if Ryoko missed her deadline due to her dojo time?).
Reaffirming Your Way
Like any higher calling, following the martial way can be extremely tricky. Getting lost and sidetracked is habitual and is simply part of the exploration. However, by using the idea of reaffirmation vs reassurance you can FEEL when you are leaving your path consistently. It's not always possible to intellectualize this sort of thing; some of it is pure gut instinct.
Therefore, it is advisable to continue studying and finding individuals whom you admire. Using that, you can build a sense of what you perceive your "way" to be. From there, you can act as much as possible in a manner that allows you to reaffirm the path you had set out on. It won't be a smooth ride the whole time, but you can push forward with belief in yourself.