The Kiai made an impression on me about 30+ years ago. I was 12 and had only trained for one measly year in Karate at the time and would not enter a dojo again until I was 30. It never left my memory though because it was, maybe, the most fascinating aspect of Karate for me.
The problem was when somebody asked what Kiai was, it was explained as a “Spirit-shout.”
“Ki”, meaning spirit.
“Ai” meaning shout.
And that was it.
Outside of performing Kiai on movements #9, #10 and #27 of Ni Ju Shichi Waza, it would never be talked about. Even 20 years later, and 20 Kata later, there was precious little to talk about.
The Ki/Chi Connection
Over the years, I have discovered the term Ki is the Japanese version of Chi. A Chinese locution used often in martial arts circles to describe “energy”; “life-force” or “aether”; but is most likely misunderstood because of a high incidence of misinterpretation of both language and culture.
Chi = Everything. Which is to say, during performance of Kiai, you are putting everything you are aware of into the technique. When practicing you always want your skill set at your fingertips, ready to go, but the Kiai is where you are supposed to fuse all of your mental, emotional and physical experiences with martial intent.
Now that sounds impressive but have we heard Kiai in any other way?
That’s right. Tennis.
Since the time of Tennis great Monica Seles in the early 1990’s, an increasing number of players from Maria Sharapova to Men’s player Dave Ferrer have used audible grunting sounds to increase their power on the courts.
The idea being is to exhale forcefully with a sound to create tension in the core of the body and deliver power in the stroke. Players have also testified to an increased awareness of rhythm and concentration. It helps gets them “in the zone.” It gives them focus and an improved mindset for competition.
To karateka, this description should be familiar sounding. In comparison, if a karateka performing Seisan is not focused on their Kata by the first Kiai point, I daresay they might never understand that Kata. (Hint: Seisan is old. Give it the respect it deserves.)
Where else can we find Kiai?
Wake the Neighbors!
Seriously, turn the volume up before clicking on the link. Otherwise, you’re going to lose what I’m talking about.
When I first heard Jim Morrison unleash this primal scream when I was 16, I immediately equated it with my earlier experiences in the dojo as a child because that was the only other time I’d heard anything that intense.
But, this had something else. It had the definitive intent to sow chaos in the minds of anyone who heard it.
At its most basic Morrison’s intent is to provoke a guttural reaction much like the fight, flight or freeze response but from an entire audience instead of just one person.
Whether it was to make parents afraid, cringe in horror at the breaking of nearly every singing “rule” or to inspire the audience to cut loose and have some fun, Morrison’s voice would trigger riots at concerts getting the Doors banned from numerous venues and even making The Who’s guitar-smashing antics appear contrived.
Including my initial Karate experience, those are three hard, visceral examples of Kiai. I’m sure there are many more. Imagine 70,000 Scottish barbarians converging on a legion of Roman soldiers. Do you think they’re going to be quiet?
Does Kiai have to be limited to just yelling, grunting, shrieking when virtually every other martial arts technique has multiple applications and uses in different scenarios and positions? We’ll plunge into that later.