Monday, July 24, 2006

How important can a kiai be?

I've been looking at how my performance during training is affected by my kiai. I've played with the sound coming out of me bringing it a little lower, or higher, holding it longer, or making it sharper, calling out sooner. I found that it changes the feel of my technique, and how my body moves. Therefore, if my kiai is weak and slow, I can almost guarantee that my technique is going to match it. It is like the body echoes the kiai.

It seems almost fateful that I came across an article written in about Kiai by Sensei Christopher Caile. The whole article is fascinating, but the part that I enjoyed the most was this story that he shared about Sosai Masutatsu Oyama:

"The year was 1961. I was in Japan studying karate with Kancho Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushinkai karate. After practice one evening Oyama and I made our way along a dirt street on the outskirts of Tokyo. We were heading toward a Korean restaurant, a favorite of his where we often ate. It was getting dark and as we approached the restaurant in our path were several young men jostling and pushing each other. Suddenly the group seemed to lurch toward us. Oyama stopped and then uttered a short, powerful sound, something between a grunt and a soft shout. The youths froze. All action stopped, their bodies seemingly frozen, movement suspended as if energy had been sucked out of their limbs. It seemed like an eternity, but it must have been only a second when the youths regained a little composure and turned. They met the wall of Oyama's powerful look, thick eyebrows framing piercing eyes. Immediately they melted aside, then quickly disappeared down the street. No doubt Oyama's powerful presence also had an effect; he was, a powerful looking, tank like man with a thick neck and massive chest accentuated with shoulders so wide they seemed out of proportion. Not a word had been said. "What was that?" I asked dumbfounded. "Ahh, nothing," Oyama replied in broken English as he resumed walking toward the restaurant. This was my first introduction to the power of kiai. I had of course seen people kiai in class, we all did this during exercises, but nothing with the power and impact that Oyama had emitted. That night I returned home around 10 pm still thinking about the incident. I was living with a group of martial artists hosted in an old Meiji period house atop a hill in a suburb of Tokyo called Ichigiya. The house was run by Donn Draeger. Donn was home and I went upstairs to talk. I described Oyama's kiai to him and we began to talk about the subject. Donn, it turned out had a powerful kiai himself and soon we were trading kiais, Donn coaching me on keeping my air passage straight and using by lower abdomen. Our alternate "Yaaaahs" reverberated through the building prompting at least one "shut up" "

I know that I've felt that weak-knee'd effect more than once when faced with the right kind of kiai coming from my opponent. The kiai doesn't have to be loud to get that effect either.... it just has to have the right level of sound or feeling (?) Now.. my goal is to develop that kind of tone to be able to more effectively use my kiai.

It seems that most beginners to the arts seem reluctant to kiai, and there are many times that I've seen people leave out the kiai in their kata, or while they are training. I believe that they are missing a very important part of their training by not developing this aspect of their art. The health benefits of breathing in deeply to the bottom of our lungs, and then expelling the air are astronomical.

A) Screaming is the ultimate vocal work out. Muscle tone is lost as we age, kiai-ing helps condition, train, and strengthen the vocal cords (when done properly) Soft spoken people will lose more and more of their vocal range if they do not exercise their vocal cords.

B) Letting out a good scream is a great stress reliever. One cannot just up and scream in the middle of their workplace.. but to yell out loud in the dojo is not only acceptable.. it is encouraged.

C) Toxins that are trapped in the bottom of our lungs are expelled by the deep breathing, and accompanying kiai. When stressed we tend to breath more shallow, and short.. Kiai-ing as we train reminds our body to breath deeply.

D) The lymph fluid of our bodies are moved only by two actions; deep breathing using the diaphragm, and muscle contraction. A good kiai does both. Moving the lymph fluid helps clean our system of waste products.

With all of these positive benefits, I think that I will continue to work on my kiai to bring it into a higher level.


Ruth said...

I trained for some time with someone who had a very powerful kiai. As his opponent, I felt slightly weakened by the spirit of it. It was, somehow, more than loud! He was not my sensei, but he taught from time to time. He would demonstrate to beginners how the kiai, by itself, could "disarm" an attacker.

I continue to work at perfecting my kiai.

[Mat] said...


it took me three years to actually let out a "good" kiai. It just happened. At first, I was affraid to kiai. Shy, maybe. Because when I heard one, my attention went there immediately. It disturbed me to hear one. And I felt like I'd have that effect on someone.

After reading more on the Kiai, I now understand why we Kiai. I put attention on it and each time I'm asked to put one out, I put it ALL out. I know it sounds like a growl when I mean it. My gf says I look scary as hell while doing it, but then again, a tiny spider scares her so it's not a good reference. :)

Maybe I sound like a kitten trying to scare a mountain, I have no idea.

Great story. I wish I hear one like that as I've never felt one that litterally "shook" me. Up to now, they've only contributed to make me smile. As the kiai's I've been confronted with were mostly demonstrative. Not searching for effectiveness. But I still have much to learn.

Good luck on searching that kiai. I don't remember who said it, but I think it was Bruce Lee.
"before I knew the art, a punch was just a punch"
Know that one?
When I studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch.
When I understood the art, a punch was only a punch.

I still haven't grasped the full meaning of that quote, but I tend to think that sometimes through searching, we over-complicate things that ought to be simple.

It's my way of looking at stuff I don't get the first time. Mat, you're over-doing it. OK, I'll just relax. It doesn't always work, but it helps.

Mizu no kokoro, they'd say.

But then again, what do I know?
Good luck :)

supergroup7 said...

Yes Ruth.. I've noticed that a kiai doesn't just have to be loud to be effective.. there has to be a certain tone to it. I can't put my finger on exactly what the tone needs to be.. but I recognize it when I hear it.

supergroup7 said...

A real honest to goodness kiai made by someone with experience just jolts through you like a shock wave, Mat. I've heard them pretty frequently from various people. I've found that usually these kind of kiai come out of people with more than 20 years of karate experience. They just know how to make your knees water with just the sound of the kiai. There is a feeling of "oh my gosh!" that passes through you at the sound of their kiai, and your body jumps involuntarilly. It doesn't have to be loud, I remember hearing a low quiet growl-like sound from my first Sensei that brought the same reaction from me.

Have you ever "felt" that kind of awareness of intent from a dog's growl or bark? Most of the time the tone of their sounds are warning.. and then it changes into something else, and your body recognizes it, and you feel "OH OH!" all over you? That's sort of the kind of shock that came over me when I hear those strong kiai.

But perhaps it's the philosophy of Chito Ryu that pulls chi inwards rather than exploding it outwards that makes the kiai sound/ react differently.

What does "Mizu no kokoro" mean?

I thought the word "Mizu" meant "water", or "blue".

Becky said...

Excellent post. Just after I started training, a friend told me a good reason to develop an effective kiai:

"If you can't kill him outright, at least you can scare him to death!"

I also was shy about kiai-ing in class at first. But after about a month, sensei told me, "It's time to get over being shy."

In those days, he was not as lenient as he is now. We have pruple and brown belts who still won't kiai in class. He doesn't say anything to them.

lizzie said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog Supergroup. I replied back in my post.

supergroup7 said...

You know what, Becky, I can now understand why a Sensei would have different expectations with the various students of his/her dojo. I think it's because the Sensei chooses to individualize the instruction to meet each student's level of desire. Some students wish to experience the fullness of dojo training, and some are there just to get a good work out, others are there to try it out and see if karate suits them. A good teacher looks at the student's motivation, skill, and focus, and adapts the instruction to meet their needs.

I gather from your comments that your Sensei sees a serious dedicated student in you. That's quite a compliment.

supergroup7 said...

Dear Lizzie, I left you a comment on that lovely posting.

Thank you for the honor of having my very own spot in your weblog.. Wow!

Becky said...

I do agree with you to an extent in that the sensei should customize training to the student as much as possible, particularly if the student has a physical or emotional disability. However, I think there is a limit to how much he should let things slide. Being lenient with white and yellow belts is one thing, but by the time a student is purple or brown belt, it is a completely different story. Higher ranks should have more expected of them, and they should be able to deliver more.

At least, that's how I feel about it.

lizzie said...

Supergroup, you deserved to have your own post because you wrote me a very long comment. I feel honored that you comment and read my blog.

Colin Wee said...

Once upon a time ago I was sparring with a friend. He was a beginner to the martial arts, but tall (over 6 foot as opposed to my 5'7"), athletic and had good reflexes. So he could get out of harm's way and move around really quickly. Fighting him was frustrating. I couldn't get anything in at all. After about 5 minutes I said I was going to give it a few more goes and stop. All of a sudden he feinted and I was able to gap close and grab onto a sleeve. I rushed in, grabbed onto his shoulder length hair, brought him to the ground, and put a choke on him. He didn't tap out, so after a little while I let go and stood up. He just laid there, red faced and gasping. I asked him how come he didn't tap out, to that he answered that my legs were around his arms and he couldn't move.

The next time I saw him, he had cut his hair short, military style, ... evidently feeling stupid for having had his hair grabbed.

And the very next time I sparred him he was shocking. He was scared out of his wits. his normal smooth-moving and graceful moves were now replaced by stuccato panicky micro-moves.

So I did an experiment. I stood stock still and prepared myself not to move for when he attacked - basically to let him strike me whereever he wanted without intending to block it at all.

He then chose to do a front kick, whereupon I used a kiai in the midst of his attack. You would not have expected it! As you could see his kick coming, the kiai seemed to stop his strike and made him wobble on the spot! It was as if someone had hit his whole body with a big stick. He almost fell where he stood, and stumbled backwards away from me.

I stopped the sparring session then and there.

Unfortunately I had not the opportunity to build up his confidence nor resolve this experience of his.


supergroup7 said...

" Higher ranks should have more expected of them, and they should be able to deliver more.

At least, that's how I feel about it."

I agree with you, Becky. There is more time, energy, and sweat invested into a higher belt, so therefore more should be expected of them. I have greater expectations of my 12 year old than I do of my 7 year old. They both have to pull their weight, but the older one is expected to be more responsible, and alert.

supergroup7 said...

" He almost fell where he stood, and stumbled backwards away from me."

Maybe he was anticipating a hard strike with the kiai, and when it didn't come, he went into "tilt"... the world didn't make sense anymore.

I know that I did a similar kind of thing with a good friend of mine. We were sparring, and I wondered what would happen if I just kiai'd without moving. Well.. my friend sent out more than one block in a row to my kiai.. then he was shocked to find that I had not even moved... and he and I laughed at the whole situation.