In martial arts, the term kiai commonly refers to a short exhalation (not necessarily as a yell) before or during a strike or technique. In bujutsu, (Japanese arts of war), it is usually linked to an inner gathering of energy released in a single explosive focus of will. Students of Japanese martial arts such as aikido, karate, kendo or judo (or related arts such as taiko drumming) do not use, but rather allow, one’s Ki (spelled chi or sometime qi in the Chinese traditions – meaning life-force) to emanate from their center, or hara while executing a technique. The art of kiai has a number of different forms, often collectively referred to as Kiaijutsu.
The ki in kiai refers to the energy or life-force that animates all living beings. In most Eastern Martial traditions and their foundational spiritual practices is it believed to be the essential force that determines health and vitality. It is also viewed as a resource that can be nurtured, built and even stored within the body for later use. The ai part of the word kiai means to meet, harmonize, join or fuse. So the kiai is the expression of our energy, ki, usually through a shout, with the intent to meet, ai, the opponent’s spiritual energy, the ki thus having an effect on him or her. This explanation is admittedly a bit simplistic. Entire books have been written on kiaijutsu. For our purposes here, this will suffice.
The proper use of kiaijutsu involves concentrating on the use of one’s ki, or life-force, more than it does the shouting aspect. A sound may be just the audible manifestation of good kiai (aligned body structure, focused intent, and good breathing). Kiai can also be a silent coordination of breath with focus and action. Students who are learning the art of kiaijitsu are generally taught to always use a powerful and unrestrained single-syllable sound to help focus and sharpen their kiai. The silent kiai is considered to be an advanced technique, more suitable to the master martial artist.
A relaxed and powerful exhalation can add power to movement. Although newer students of kiaijitsu are usually encouraged to use core body tension to prepare for a kiai, sort of like the way a baseball pitcher winds up to throw a powerful pitch. Once one has accomplished consistent power and focus using tension to prepare the kiai, moving on to learning to execute a powerful kiai from a relaxed state may be the next step.
The sound from a well-executed kiai is said to arise from the hara (Japanese) or dantien (Chinese). It involves the abdominal muscles and diaphragm and should not be sounded merely from the throat.
As well as the above, the kiai can be used to:
- prime oneself for combat, by “amping up.”
- protect the upper body from a strike by providing an escape route for exhaled air.
- protect the lower body by rapidly contracting the transverse abdominals and other core muscles, shielding the internal organs.
- provide solid abdominal support for striking techniques.
- startle and demoralize inexperienced or shy adversaries — especially at close quarters, especially if previously unobserved.
Here is a classical aikido throw being practiced by two masters.
When we look at this photo and “feel” the energy of these two masters we can practically hear the kiai that both release in this move.
One of the most important effects of executing a strong kiai is to supercharge the immune system. For anyone dealing with a challenging, long-term illness, learning the art of kiai and executing them on a daily basis can be a marvelously effective way to assist the immune system in dealing with the illness.
To make this measure even more powerful and effective, consider learning to throw a classic karate punch at the same time that you do your kiai. Both skills will take some practice, but the results will more than justify any time and effort invested.
To learn these skills, assuming you are not already an accomplished martial artist, you will need a qualified teacher or instructor. Try to find one who is versed and grounded in the spiritual aspects of martial arts. Make sure they understand your purpose in learning these skills.
If you are new to working with this type of energy it may be helpful to also begin learning the basics of QiGong, which is all about energy and energy flow and balance. QiGong also helps to balance the body’s energy, release harmful blockages and further enhance the power of the immune system. So there is great synergy between these two measures: kiai and QiGong.
So what does all this have to do with keeping the doctor away? Simple, when you prepare your body, mind and spirit for combat using this time-honored martial arts technique you supercharge your immune system. For many years I have relied on this as one of the primary ways to boost my own immune system. And I have taught it to just about every client I have worked with who has had a challenge to their immune systems, from clients with HIV to cancer, as well as a number of other illnesses where a strong immune system is crucial.
It can even be very useful and beneficial for strengthening your “emotional immune system”. These days many of us are becoming more aware of the degree to which we are negatively impacted, and perhaps even made physically ill, by exposure to toxic emotions and the individuals who spread them. By using the kiai technique to strengthen our physical immune systems we also strengthen our “emotional immune systems”, and consequently are much better protected against this potential source of damage.
And if those aren’t enough reasons to learn to kiai, here are yet two more: It’s lots of fun. It feels great!
Here are a couple of tips that your instructor will likely share with you. But I want to emphasize them:
1. Begin without using much force and focus on centering, correct breathing and good form. Form is crucial to achieving real power.
2. Pay careful attention to what you are doing and how it feels. If you do, initially you will notice that some of your strength and power is being used to actually hold back. A great goal is to learn to decrease the degree to which you hold back, while increasing the degree to which you give yourself over to the full exercise. If you practice daily and pay careful attention you will soon be able to execute both the kiai and the punch without restraint. And that is when it will be able to truly maximize the power of your immune system.
3. Practice this every day.
4. Make sure you warm up and loosen up your muscles before you try punching. The forces you are dealing with are powerful and if your muscles are too tight you could injure yourself.
5. Make sure you are free from distractions while practicing. Do your best to be mindful.
6. Keep it simple and keep your form. There is no need to get fancy. You are not trying out for a part in a Hollywood martial arts movie! You are just trying to get well and/or stay well. The most basic kiai and punching techniques are perfect for that purpose, as long as they are done properly.
7. Just a few minutes every day can make a huge difference in the outcome of your battle with illness. Properly executed, a set of 6 good punches with full kiais can make the difference.
To your great health!