View Full Version : Kiai -- Precision & Abandon

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Erick Mead
08-02-2009, 09:17 PM
We had this discussion in class a few months back about kiai. It took on two basic themes -- the combination of precision and abandon. I pointed out that the application of Kiai is not a moan or a wail or a mindless screech but a very tight, precise vocalization -- but, very importantly without any predetermined limit in its intensity. Kiai combines a high precision of action and intent, with a sense of complete abandon in the face of peaceful and social constraints on intensity.

I pointed out that people have many barriers in social settings. Martial art by its nature does not respect those barriers -- and may ultimately deeply violate them in need. This is not to say that we cease to respect people -- we simply do so without necessarily observing those boundaries. Some people miss the point that in disposing of one set of constraints we are not disposing of the idea of constraint -- but our constraint takes on a different complexion within a martial context

I also pointed out that people have personal barriers of things they would not normally be comfortable doing or being seen doing.. Martial art does not accommodate itself to our personal barriers or comforts. This is not to say that it aims to shock or discomfort -- but we simply do not concern ourselves if our proper goals may transgress those barriers, and we find guides for action in place of barriers against action -- and if not a substitute for comfort, then at least a degree of contented familiarity with hardship.

Kiai is training in that sense of abandonment of limitations or barriers to action in a precise and directed way. Most people are uncomfortable screaming in public. Most people feel constraint in doing so. Kiai allows a student to learn to operate outside those boundaries, and without those social constraints -- and to find other more fundamental guides to proper action in the natural circumstance of conflict.

I wonder what other approaches or issues anyone else has used in teaching and discussing the role of Kiai in training.

08-03-2009, 11:57 AM
Yeah, my first aikido class felt humiliating... I got over it-- you have to, you have to stop caring or holding your personal dignities with such importance. I sometimes question what the use of personal dignities are for. Is it an honest sense of self respect and sustain? Or is it petty pride? I think people confuse the two.
Respect and sustain takes joy in being and doing-- Pride takes joy in being better and doing more. I think people confuse the two. There is no sorrow in failure when you love what you do because you love doing it-- there is sorrow in doing a thing when failure bursts your sense of self image to yourself and your peers.

It's been a hard lesson for me at least.

08-03-2009, 12:36 PM
In our dojo it is explained that the Kiai is useful mostly because it is a unifier of movement and BREATH. Mostly, we want an exhalation of breath while executing a technique, or while reaching the climax of the ukemi (eg. upon hitting the mat in a breakfall).

In esoteric terms, i guess we can say that the harmony of ki and breath--the Ki Ai, is important because at that moment extension of ki will be at its most powerful and one wants this while executing a throw, fall, etc. Based on this i think that the exhalation of breath is the priority.

Thus, we are told that if one does not feel comfortable giving a loud Kiai, that an audible exhalation of breath is sufficient and does the same job.

Can we say that the sound gives further benefit?
if so, what?


Erick Mead
08-03-2009, 03:17 PM
Can we say that the sound gives further benefit?
if so, what? And so the Japanese don't get ALL the credit --- speaking for my Southern and Celtic forebears, (a bit of the Creek wrong side of a blanket somewhere) they possessed a powerful tantric battle secret, known to those born to it -- or disclosed only to the worthy ;) -- I would say, among other things -- this:


Civil War mystery may be solved by modern technology.

(PRWEB) June 28, 2005 -- The famous rebel yell, long known to have an unnerving effect on Union soldiers in the American Civil War, has just been examined by the History Publishing Company. Using as its core base, the only known yell by a living Confederate soldier recorded early in the Twentieth Century. History Publishing Company, through the use of sound technology, has emulated the sound of a company of soldiers charging a Union line.

This is Mr Bracken's YouTube piece with some of the historical background narrated, the individual yell ( @ 2:32 - 3:00) and the mixed version simulating a company of men doing the the same. The rendition of a company charging in this manner through some mixing magic is quite .... well -- you judge for yourself. ( @3:02 - 3:50):


The history of the recording before that point is interesting. Mind you, Mr. Alexander, the Confederate veteran, was 90 when he was recorded in the 1930s, not the sharpeyed, sh*t-kicking, shootfire young'un he was when he larnt'it.

The effect was startling, said Don Bracken, Senior Editor of History Publishing and Civil War author (Times of the Civil War, ISBN 1-4208-0694-7). It wasn't a frightening sound in the nightmarish or fiendish sense. It was an audible sensation of being overwhelmed. It was like having a sonic tidal wave approach you. What might have unnerved the Union soldiers who reportedly fled from it was a sense of helplessness."

The rebel yell has long been a source of curiosity to students of the Civil War. It was a recognized fact that seasoned Union veterans would become unnerved by it. When we came across the recorded yell made in the early Twentieth Century, of an actual Confederate veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, we knew we had to take it a step further," said Don Bracken."Technology has made it possible to do that."

The individual version in the short sharp segments is virtually indistinguishable from proper kiai. And when I say tantric secret -- I am not really kidding -- Union soldiers who faced this in hot earnest described:

"... a peculiar corkscrew sensation that went up your spine when you heard it" along with a claim that "if you claim you heard it and weren't scared that means you never heard it".

"Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens--such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted."

-Colonel Keller Anderson of Kentucky's Orphan Brigade

08-03-2009, 03:40 PM
In my dojo you don't hear any vocal kiai's. In my old style, we had to kiai every time we attacked, every time we were attacked, every time we were thrown, every time we rolled or practiced falls, every move of our kata, etc.

I do believe that a kiai should be natural and unforced. I find that you can easily tell if someone is forcing it out or if it is just part of them. Now, my breathing habits I learned from kiaing have stuck with me, but mine are now more like silent exhalations instead. :)

08-03-2009, 04:37 PM
There’re two types of kiai, the first one described above occurs during peak intensity of a strike or throw’s power application. It’s the most common type in aikido dojos and it’s usually used unnecessarily and excessively both in quality and quantity. The other type is the soft kiai which comes after a strike or throw’s termination. When the energy is reflected off the final asymptote and passes back through to nage’s ground, it automatically expels air out of the lungs in a compressed manner.

Both types are mutually exclusive, either one precludes the other in a single technique. The loud ‘martial’ kiai in many cases is an energy leak, which is otherwise conserved in the more powerful effects of the soft kiai. I never saw O Sensei use the soft one but aikido obviously doesn’t need much physical power and the loud one turns out to be gentler on uke.

Susan Dalton
08-04-2009, 07:04 AM
Hi Eric,
Although we practice kiai in rowing exercises at the beginning of class, we don't usually kiai during techniques in our dojo; however, I went through a period where I did. If someone much bigger and stronger came at me fast, it just seemed to happen. And somehow it helped me MOVE and keep my posture. I don't know; maybe it shut my mind up for a few seconds and let my body react. Now I don't normally do it, and I don't know why that happened either.

Erick Mead
08-04-2009, 08:05 AM
Hi Eric,
Although we practice kiai in rowing exercises at the beginning of class, we don't usually kiai during techniques in our dojo; however, I went through a period where I did. If someone much bigger and stronger came at me fast, it just seemed to happen. And somehow it helped me MOVE and keep my posture. I don't know; maybe it shut my mind up for a few seconds and let my body react. Now I don't normally do it, and I don't know why that happened either.
SusanWe do that as well. And we do it to ensure familiarity and comfort in performing vocal kiai, but never insist that it be used or not be used in a given setting. All the same, it is important to train in doing it, both for its primary uses, and for its collateral effect in sensitizing the internal rhythm and shape of movements.

I wonder what anyone thinks of the more projective "blood-curdling" aspects of its uses -- East or West.

Janet Rosen
08-04-2009, 09:43 AM
I have mostly trained in places that don't kiai much. Some yrs ago I was visiting a (friendly) dojo and we were asked to kiai but non-specific - anything that made sense to us - so as I didn't know anything traditional or proper to do, as a good ex-NewYorker I extended my arm fully and let out a full throated TAXI!!!! - brought down the house :-)

Adam Huss
08-30-2009, 08:06 PM
Dave Lowry has a really good article on Kiai. You should try to check it out if you get the chance. Actually, I would recommend much of his writing, if you have interest in a traditionalist perspective on budo training.

08-30-2009, 09:32 PM
Adam, I have one of his books. I would like to geth his others as well. Good reads. :)