Ki (“spirit / feeling / psyche / energy”) is a primal feeling of aliveness; the sensation of synergy; the Nietzschean Will to Power -- the aetherial, 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, because of an Asian cultural nuance where it is considered unspeakably rude not to answer a question -- even if it meant providing wild 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, which allowed for uncertainty to propagates onto future generations.
- Flowery, poetic languages. Since nothing could be addressed specifically, concrete discussion was impeded.
Although ki is wonderful, ki is also a fairly mundane thing -- the coordination one’s mental focus with efficient biomechanics, which results in an 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 a technique, 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 mimicking men’s guttural shouts, these are the forced products of improper breathing, which 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 loss of fine motor skills. Adrenaline impedes fighting ability; it is an enemy. The sensation of ki must be released in a magnificent shout before it becomes intense enough to seize you up, just like bleeding a steam line to prevent a boiler explosion.
- A kiai can startle (and therefore, stun) unsuspecting opponents. A kiai should pierce an opponent, like a baby crying.
- A strong kiai creates an outward appearance of courage and determination, especially to the uninitiated who cannot imagine themselves as a karateka. This can both intimidate the sinister and inspire the weak. The latter is the more vital, since the people who need martial arts training the most are those who are too timid to enter a dōjō. Making the timid jealous of your strengths can compel them to develop their own, and the courage they perceived will gradually become a part of them. True strength is giving others what they need to become strong.
The Unbendable Arm is an exercise which allows students to experience the sensation of ki, and it 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.
Then, open your hand, and relax your arm without it going limp. Imagine that water is flowing through your arm and out through your fingertips, like a firehose. Reach outward, and imagine that you can reach further, like when reaching for the TV remote when you are 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. While tensing all muscles feels strong, it causes the body to work against itself, like driving with the parking break engaged. The “relaxed tension” of the Unbendable Arm technique stops the body from fighting itself, and reveals your physical potential. Practice the Unbendable Arm until you can replicate that feeling at will, then implement the Unbendable Arm into all of your techniques. When done correctly, a technique which fully utilizes the Unbendable Arm feels effortless, and seems weak. However, it will be incredibly fast, and the energy of a punch increases quadratically with increasing velocity.
[video of Unbendable Arm Demonstraion]