“Kiai in Aikido: Explanations and Explorations” by Eric J. Webber
An integral part in any martial arts training is the concerted focus of the mind, body, and spirit of the practitioner. In aikido, both uke and nage must remain very focused in their roles and actions in order to have the fullest and most beneficial (as well as safe) practice. Both intention and attention are very important to proper training (see Ledyard, 2004; Webber, 2006). An important aspect in attention and intention is remaining focused at the task at hand. The question could then be asked, what helps one remain focused during training? Mere concentration might be an answer, but are there other factors that may contribute? It is suggested here that kiai practice during aikido training is beneficial for focused practice, and proves to be beneficial for both uke and nage.
Kiai: An Explanation
The term kiai is a combination of two kanji: “ki” and “ai.” Ki is one’s life force or energy (e.g. Gleason, 1995; Kim and Back, 1989; Ratti and Westbrook, 1999). According to Dave Lowry, ki is like “plastic energy, invisible except through its effects. …ki refers to an organic force that may take a myriad of forms” (1995, p. 43). Ai is a Japanese term for harmony and integration (e.g. Westbrook and Ratti, 1970). Put the two together and they denote a harmonizing of one’s energy and intent to put his or her life force into action. Kiai is the most efficient use of potential energy (Tegner, 1966).
The physical manifestation of the kiai generally comes about as a sharp shout and subsequent release of energy. “Kiai was generally the name given to that specific method of combat based on the employment of the voice as a weapon” (Ratti and Westbrook, 1999, p. 370). In practice, there are two phases of the kiai: the buildup and the release. The first phase is a concentration of power, whereby there is a conscious readying for action, both mentally and physically. The second phase is when the essential action is completed in a sharp exhalation of the breath (Tegner, 1966). However, the kiai does not always necessitate a loud vocalization, or any vocalization at all. “The exhalation may be done with a loud yell, silently…, or with a modified sound” (Tegner, 1966, p. 34).
What sounds are made may depend on the martial artist employing the kiai. As one harmonizes his or her ki, the personality of that person becomes evident. William Gleason states, “As such, all manifestations of nature, including the more subtle qualities of emotion, mind, and spirit, are products of ki” (1995, p.58). Thus, one can extend this to include personality. Therefore, there seems to be more to the kiai than just volume or tone: “…at it’s highest levels it did not even depend primarily upon volume – the quality of the sound produced by focusing the entire personality upon a single target being the main feature of the kiai” (Ratti and Westbrook, 1999, p. 372). According to certain traditions, the wind of one’s soul overwhelms the opponent (Kim and Back, 1989). Thus, the specific vocal sound and the quality of that sound will depend heavily on the personality of the aikidoka emitting the kiai.
However, this does not free the aikidoka to make just any sound that comes to mind or fits the fancy, as some sounds will evoke more harmony, energy or power than others. Sounds specific to the Eastern traditions, specifically the kototama of the Shinto traditions, will generate different feelings as they hold different meanings (Gleason, 1995). There are specific sounds that will translate better than others into martial exhalations. Depending on the nature of the power or action needed, different sounds may be employed.
According to Gleason (1995), the vowel sound “E” (pronounced long “A,” as in wave) is indicative of judgment and courage. It is “fire ki,” and is used for “dispersing energy” (Gleason, p.61). Thus, this sound would be appropriate for cutting through another’s ki. The vowel sound “A” (pronounced short “A,” as in father) is indicative of “infinite expansion” (Gleason, p.60). This sound would be appropriate for completing a throw. The vowel sound “I” (pronounce long “E,” as in east) generates the “power of verticality” (Gleason, p.60). The beginning of a strike, particularly shomen or yokomen, would exhibit this. As well, the rising energy of ikkyo may exhibit the “I” kiai.
This is by far not an exhaustive list. Other sounds, or combinations of sounds may be exhibited, as well. Commonly heard are the vocalizations “ye,” “ya,” “so,” and “tow,” among others. A combination of the above mentioned sounds may yield great power and focus. With a rise, swing and cut of a strike, one might use the kiai “I-E-Tow,” (pronounced long E, long A, tow) when striking yokomen. “Ye-Sa” is also frequently heard when striking, and “ye-tow” when throwing. Again, specific vocalizations will depend on the personality of the aikidoka and the action employed.
Kiai: An Exploration
Yet the question still remains what relationship the kiai has with the attention and intention of the aikidoka, what benefits it provides, and on what levels. In aikido, despite the differentiating roles of nage and uke, the kiai can provide benefit to both practices.
For uke, it is obvious that a proper kiai will build up the will and intent in the hara, focus the attention, and then unleash the power at a focused moment in the attack. A major training issue for uke is anticipation of the subsequent throw, which results in a loss of focus and concentration in the attack. This attack is then not completely focused and true, and thus is not completely honest. Honest ukemi means providing an accurately aimed strike or grab within the limits of uke’s and nage’s control, with 100% focused attention and intention (Ledyard, 2004; Webber, 2006). A kiai will focus uke’s ki completely through the attack, thus greatly assisting to make it honest. An interesting effect on uke is when there is no time to anticipate the impending throw, the ukemi becomes much more challenging. As one lets the mind slip into the near future, and starts planning for the fall that will come in a moment, ukemi is (too) well-coordinated and becomes relatively easy. However, once one starts to attack completely through the movement, and does not anticipate the upcoming throw, then the ukemi becomes a bigger challenge because there is no reactionary preparation. Uke must rely on being very sensitive to the movements of nage in order to have the proper timing and to take good ukemi (Ledyard, 2004; Webber, 2006). Thus, a well-placed and -timed kiai can help uke maintain the focus and movement of the attack completely through, preventing a lapse in concentration that usually results from trying to anticipate the impending throw.
A further advantage to uke using kiai is the effect it has on nage. Uke can practice striking with the ability to disrupt his or her partner’s center and concentration. Like nage’s atemi, the kiai/attack can be used to disrupt nage’s center for another attack to occur. Thus, kiai during attack can be like two attacks happening simultaneously. Uke’s use of kiai is good for nage as well, as it provides nage an opportunity to practice either not losing center and concentration, or regaining them as quickly as possible once they are lost to the kiai.
As mentioned above, kiai can be very beneficial for nage, as well. A kiai at the moment of atemi can be very helpful in disrupting uke’s center and concentration, thereby making the attack much more manageable. A kiai in itself may be considered an atemi, should it be aimed, timed, and applied correctly. A sharp shout may disrupt uke’s movement and concentration more efficiently and with less conflict than a well placed strike. However, a kiai combined with a physical atemi is a very powerful tool that nage wields. The two combined can completely nullify an attack that might otherwise be impossibly difficult to work with.
Nage may also find a great benefit in using a kiai when projecting a partner. In blending with the movements of uke, nage can start to build the energy for kiai in the hara. During the moments when uke is being led off balance by nage, the kiai may begin to become audible. At the point of projection, nage may unleash an audible kiai to assist in harmonizing his or her mind, body, and spirit, and channel the energy necessary to complete the technique and bring the encounter to closure. As noted above, the actual sound used may depend on the personality of nage. However, it should be noted that the sound used may also depend on the nature of the projection, and how nage is relating to uke at that point. A sharp, cutting motion used in the projection may necessitate a cutting kiai, such as fire ki of “E” (Gleason, 1995). A longer, rounder, fuller projection may necessitate a longer, fuller vowel sound that imitates the movement and meaning of that projection. As well, a long blend and lead in the technique may require a long buildup of kiai energy, thus indicated and accompanied by a long buildup of sound, such as the expansion of “A,” or the unifying power of “I” (Gleason, 1995).
The practice of kiai can greatly enhance one’s martial ability and awareness, and can be beneficially applied to aikido practice. Kiai may not seem to be a regular feature of most aikido classes, though it certainly would seem to have its place there at times. It is recommended that kiai be practiced at controlled intervals so as not to distract from other elements of practice during classes. Kiai are not always appropriate for the technique, situation, or people involved in the aiki relationship. However, it would seem remiss to neglect this important aspect of martial arts training together. Thus it would seem prudent to incorporate kiai in one’s ukemi and nage practice, paying attention to the effects, benefits, and problems that it presents, and processing these areas of understanding with others.
- Gleason, W. (1995). The spiritual foundations of aikido. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
- Kim, D., and Back, A. (1989). Martial mediations: Philosophy and the essence the martial arts. Akron, OH: The International Council on Martial Arts Education Press.
- Ledyard, G. (2004). The nature of ukemi. http://www.aikiweb.com/columns/gledyard/2004_10.html
- Lowry, D. (1995). Sword and brush: The spirit of the martial arts. Boston: Shambala Publications.
- Tegner, B. ( 1966). Bruce Tegner’s complete book of karate. NY: Bantam Books.
- Ratti, O., and Westbrook, A. (1999). Secrets of the samurai. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.
- Webber, E. (2006). Attention and intention in ukemi practice: An aiki perspective. http://www.aikido-westreading.org/
- Westbrook, A. and Ratti, O. (1970). Aikido and the dynamic sphere. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Books.