Ki (“spirit / energy / psyche,” and pronounced "key") is a primal feeling of aliveness; the sensation of synergy; the Nietzschean Will to Power -- the ætherial, vital essence of life itself. Ki is also commonly referred to as c’hi, qi, or prana -- though mostly by energy healers, Traditional Chinese Physicians, and other charlatans.
While ki sounds like The Force™ from Star Wars, there is nothing mystic nor magical about the martial arts. There is no one who can shoot fireballs, cure diseases, deal no-touch knockouts, or do anything remotely supernatural or superhuman with their ki -- such claims are confidence tricks designed to exploit the naïve -- and we dare you to prove us wrong. Historically, “ki” was cited whenever teachers did not know or could not explain the real answer; there is an Asian cultural nuance where it is considered unspeakably rude not to answer a question -- even if it means providing speculations. This was especially true in marital arts circles because of:
- A lack of scientific methodology.
- Unquestioning conformity. Teachers taught, and students listened, with no questioning. This allowed uncertainty to propagate onto future generations.
- Flowery, poetic languages. Since nothing could be addressed specifically, concrete discussions were impeded.
Although ki is wonderful, ki is also a fairly mundane thing -- the coordination one’s mental focus with efficient biomechanics, which results in effortless, optimized fluid motion. This is achieved through kokyū, the coordination of breathing and body movement. In general, any time a technique directs your power (or your limbs) out away from you, you need to exhale, like in weightlifting. Likewise, you must quickly inhale while rechambering after completing a series of techniques.
The ways that ki manifests itself, and its practical applications, are discussed below.
Ki primarily manifests itself in two forms, kiai and aiki, which are discussed below:
Karateka are famous for their constant shouting. These kiai (literally: “energy-yell”) can naïvely be thought of as a means of converting willpower/Will-to-Power into physical strength. However, kiai only works for a split-second flash, so it must be timed to exactly coincide with the moment a technique contacts its target. Without this spirit-yell, a technique literally be soulless, in the sense of being weak, milquetoast, and cringeworthy. While willpower is not literally being converted into strength, it is an effective and extremely fun mnemonic. Please be cognizant of the mundane true nature of kiai performance.
A kiai is just an improved version of the instinctive grunt one makes when lifting something heavy. A kiai is a mnemonic and tool for coordinating breathing with body movement, which leads to an optimum technique; kokyū creates ki. Shouting prevents you from holding your breath during techniques, which is a common mistake. Timing your shout to end at the moment of impact forces you to exhale completely, and thus tense your muscles at the end of a technique, generating snap.
The secret to a powerful kiai is realizing that kiai is more like singing than shouting, because a kiai originates from the diaphragm, not the larynx. Shouting at high volumes makes you look silly, and quickly hurts your throat; a proper kiai does neither. Please note that because of their higher vocal range, women must kiai at least two octaves higher than men. While women can mimick men’s guttural shouts, these forced products of improper breathing result in weak techniques. A woman’s kiai should sound something like a “sorority screech,” a car with a loose serpentine belt, and/or the Bee Gees.
Kiai samples are provided below, but their penetrating effect can only be experienced in person.
In addition to ensuring kokyū, kiai offers other practical benefits:
- Kiai prevents ki overloads. Physical confrontations can trigger adrenaline rushes. While adrenaline greatly amplifies one’s physical abilities, it can also causes tension and a loss of fine motor skills. Adrenaline impedes fighting ability; adrenaline is an enemy. The sensation of ki must be released before it can become intense enough to seize you up and destroy, just like how bleeding steam lines prevents boiler explosion.
- A kiai can startle (and stun) unsuspecting opponents. A kiai should pierce an opponent.
- A strong kiai creates the outward appearance of courage and determination, especially to the uninitiated who cannot imagine themselves as a karateka. This can intimidate the sinister and inspire the weak. The latter is the more vital, since those who need martial arts training the most are those who are too timid to enter a dōjō. Making the timid jealous of your strength can compel them to develop their own.
The Unbendable Arm is an exercise which allows students to experience how the sensation of ki differs from the feeling of brute strength.
Begin by placing your wrist atop your partner’s shoulder. Clench your hand into a fist, lock your elbow, and tense every muscle in your arm. Have your partner press down on the inside of your elbow, to force you to bend your arm. Note how much energy you exert, and how long it takes for you to tire.
Repeat this with an open hand, and relax your arm without it going limp. Imagine water flowing through your arm and out of your fingertips, like a firehose. Reach outward, and imagine that you can reach further, like reaching for the TV remote when you're too tired to get up. Your biceps should be taut, but not tense -- again, like a firehose. Do not lock your elbow. Have your partner press down on the inside of your elbow, to force you to bend your arm. Note that you can last longer with less exertion.
Muscles work in antagonizing pairs; as one contracts, the other extends, like an engine's reciprocating pistons. While tensing all your muscles feels strong, it forces your body to work against itself, like driving with the parking break engaged. Practice the Unbendable Arm until you can replicate this "relaxed tension" at will, so you can implement it into all of your techniques. Techniques which fully utilize the Unbendable Arm feel effortless, and seem weak. However, it will be incredibly fast, and a techniques's energy increases quadratically with increasing velocity.
[video of Unbendable Arm Demonstraion]