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Ki. Chi. Life force. And elusive concept, it is sometimes given the analogy, "what makes up the red parts in your palm." In martial arts practice, we learn to harness this energy in our movements, direct it outwards to back our attacks and throws with vitality. It is the essence of us, the iron core of our spirits, the well from which we draw strength when our endurance runs low, feeding us with the will to continue when we feel we've got nothing left to give. It makes up our "ki-ai's,"--the battle cries that regulate our breathing and are the extensions of our strikes. Martial arts make us aware of our ki and how we can use it; we learn to hone it like an essential tool, shaping it as, over the years, we also whet our spirit and character.
The first time I saw weapons being demonstrated at my dojo, I was blown away. The class was sitting in line-up, and Sensei had out his bokken (wooden sword). One minute he stood in front of the class with a senior student, lecturing on how the paired practice should be performed. "Like this," he said, and then he launched into quick, precise moves with loud ki-ai's to enhance his thrusts. Clack-clack! The impact of wood on wood rang through the air, harmonizing with Sensei's battle cries like percussion to a thunder song, and in three moves, the student helping to demo was against the wall, forced backwards by the onslaught, barely timing it correctly to parry the blows. My jaw dropped open; riveted to my seat, I forgot to breathe. I had never worked with a weapon before. My Sensei is slight in frame, not much taller than me, and almost appears wizened with age. But the way he handled that wooden sword, with dexterity and utmost precision in his attacks, made me crave that skill and long to learn.
This morning, almost seven months later, I face my training partner with my jo. Concentrated, aware of his slightest movements of attack before I initiate my own defense, I seek to find harmony in our paired practice. I am more aware of lines--the center line connecting us, how we step off to the left to parry, meet down at the center again to strike, and step off to the right to set up another attack. I learn how foot and hip movements are used to exert maximum force with minimum effort. And our wooden weapons continue to sing their song through the sun-lit dojo.
Going home this morning, I begin to feel it--the callouses starting to form on my soft hands where I was gripping the weapon tight to put power behind each thrust. I bring my palms in front of my face and see the redness pool in a concentrated spot underneath the white of my flesh. Warmed from practice, strengthened by executing and taking wrist grabs, there is now more red than white swirling on the surface of my hands. I take the satisfaction of this feeling home with me, seeking still to find my ki, but knowing that I am that much closer.