The Kiai, Part I

by Stephen LaBounty (2007-09-25)

Ah, breathing. I try and do it every day, actually several times a day. I've done it for sixty years and for the most part have enjoyed it.

In my years of training and teaching, I have seen a form of vibrant breathing called "kiai" used, misused, misunderstood and actually maligned. But without it the practitioner is compromising a large part, maybe up to one-half, of his/her power, focus, strength and endurance. So this month let me share with you a study of the Kiai that I became aware of in the 1970's.

The word "kiai" is composed of two words "Ki" energy, and "Ai" union, so then kiai means the union of energy. From there interpretations abound on kiai. My interpretation is that of the late Zen Master and Archer Deshimaru Taisen, who refers to it as " cry, one instant containing all space-time, the whole cosmos"

When I first heard this I scratched my head and I remember saying to myself that I had thought it was just a yell. In Judo, we were never really instructed on the meaning, we just did it. Kenpo too, it was glossed over even though every human being especially athletes, understand the concept of adding power through breath.

My Shiatsu teacher Fujimori Sensei would tell us that for her to teach breathing properly she would have to take her clothes off so we could see the effect of proper breathing. She didn't but used another male student to demonstrate. Basically it goes like this.

First, there is a short natural inhalation to the level of the solar plexus (go ahead try it as you read). Then a long inhalation that pushes your intestines below your navel. From there a slow, controlled exhalation from the lower body (tanden) that lasts for 3 or 4 seconds. After some practice you will sustain a longer exhalation and be able to hold your breath longer, ala, the pearl divers in Japan. After reading this, and if you are trying to get the technique, you will feel a relaxation and brief serenity. It's true, the model in the class had dropped his shoulders noticeably.

But how is this applied to a fighting situation? This is nice for stress relief, but how do I harness the power to increase the effectiveness of my strikes, throws, etc?

First: you must practice the technique above daily. In your car on the way to work, at the dojo as you begin your warm-ups, prior to a stressful encounter, interviewing for a job, waiting for loan from the bank, worrying about the kids, any life experience that will cause you to stop and think of this technique. Doing this, your body and mind become more "automatic" with the proper breathing.

Second: do the longest form that you know, at about 50% speed. During the times you need to take a breath, take it deeper than normal. Don't allow yourself to "chest breathe"; make yourself "belly breathe". If you ever get the chance to see an infant sleeping in their crib, watch them breathe. You will see their belly inflating, deflating as they "belly breathe".

Third: remember that the kiai you use now in your training is probably a strong breath out, but a weak breath in. It is here that you can be defeated in battle. The time to attack is when the enemy is breathing in. So, your 'in' breath must be strong and forceful. Keep in mind that the end of inhalation is the most vulnerable time. If I can hit you with anything at the time, I can distract your intentions, disrupt your body rhythms, and capture your spirit.

Go ahead! Try it. What do you have to lose? No one will laugh at you, well except the cynical, but I'm working on them....