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Old 07-03-2012, 10:15 AM   #7
Dojo: Aiki Kurabu
Location: Elizabethtown, PA
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 1,110
Re: Ki to the Highway

Matthew Story wrote: View Post
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
- Confucius, Analects

A few days ago, someone on Facebook's Aikido group had the gall to make a post saying that ki power does not exist. The responses that followed this assertion were condescending and not particularly friendly. I'll post the first three here:
  • "Then why are you here?" (3 Likes)
  • "If you do not believe in the existence of ki power, you have not understood the real power of aikido... all techniques depend on ki power: without that, there is only physical strength." (5 Likes)
  • "ki is everywhere, a vital force; the spirit of aikido; if you don't trust in this, you're lost" (1 Like)
I decided not to come to this guy's defense because I think he was being unnecessarily confrontational. But my opinion on this matter is a very strong one: there is no such thing as ki, and we in the martial arts should stop using the word ki (and its Chinese counterpart, chi) altogether.

There, I said it. Everyone take a breath.

Now I'll move on.

There are a lot of problems with the concept of ki, the foremost being that no two people can agree on what ki actually is. In my few short years in aikido, I've heard more definitions of ki than I could possibly count, ranging from things as mundane as "momentum" and "intention" to such wild ideas as "spiritual energy" and "the power of the universe". There are, in short, as many definitions of ki as there are people talking about it.

Some people embrace this amorphousness, deciding that ki is like God or the Dao: something that defies definition and can only be experienced for oneself. The problem with this is that ki, unlike God or the Dao, is supposed to be something we can cultivate and manipulate to produce measurable effects in the physical world (I suppose there are a few, like Pat Robertson, who believe they can do the same with God, but let's not get into that here). The moment we start dealing with clearly-defined physical realities, we give up the luxury of being able to chalk things up to mysterious, inexplicable forces. If something works in a concrete, measurable way, we ought to be able to explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

And by the way, we can explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

I have worked with some amazing people during my time in aikido and they have shown me some amazing things. But I've never seen any of them, including even the great Hiroshi Ikeda, do something that couldn't be explained by physics. No doubt, things like the "unbendable arm" must have looked supernatural to people who lacked a modern understanding of biomechanics, but we know better now. The second Facebook comment above notwithstanding, we no longer need ki to explain how good technique can overcome sheer physical strength. Royce Gracie proved that many times over in the early days of the UFC.

So, nobody can agree on what ki is and there is nothing in the martial arts that requires ki as an explanation. That ought to be evidence enough that ki is nonsense, but there is something much worse than nonsense.

Those of you who read my April post "We're the Problem" will remember a video of Jim Green, a karate instructor who is in the business of teaching children to take falls when he throws his ki at them. No doubt some see this as harmless silliness and consider confronting it with the truth more trouble than it's worth. But consider the case of Yanagi Ryuken.

Ryuken's name has become synonymous in the martial arts community with the worst martial arts delusions. His story was introduced to me by neuroscientist and secularist writer Sam Harris, whose recent interest in self-defense and Brazilian jiu-jitsu has resulted in some very interesting writing on the martial arts. Harris, as one might expect, is keenly interested in the debunking of unscientific martial arts myths. He presentes Ryuken as an example of what happens when masters and their methods go untested and unquestioned.

Ryuken is a master of no-touch throws: rather than striking or grabbing his opponents, he repels them with his ki. Here's a video of him in action with some of his students.


And here's a video of what happened when he challenged a martial artist from another school.


The website where I found this video said that Ryuken ended up with several broken teeth and cuts all over his mouth and nose. Delusion, in the case of the martial arts, isn't just funny; it's sometimes very dangerous.

None of what I've written so far addresses the more pragmatic users of the word ki: the ones who believe (correctly, I think) that what used to be called ki is in fact a combination of breathing, biomechanics, and visualization, and who assert (incorrectly, I think) that there's nothing wrong with continuing to use the word so long as we understand that there's nothing mystical or supernatural about it. I used to be in this crowd myself, but I think this stance was a bit hypocritical of me.

I am a real jerk about words. When we start deciding that words can mean whatever we want them to mean, words begin to lose their meaning altogether. We already have words for breathing, biomechanics, and visualization. Adding ki to that mix only obfuscates things.

For instance, when an instructor tells me to extend my ki outward as I throw, what he means is that if I think outward rather than downward my muscles will follow suit and my throw will go where it is supposed to go. He is telling me to visualize. I got similar advice from my singing coach in college, and he didn't need any mysterious foreign words for it. The best aikido instructors I've ever had just skip the ki middleman and say, "Think out, not down." It gets the same results and makes a lot more sense to most of us.

So to recap:
  • There is no agreed-upon definition of ki.
  • None of the martial arts phenomena attributed to ki need more explaining than can be provided by simple physics.
  • Belief in ki leads some people into ridiculous and dangerous delusions.
  • Use of the word ki complicates and obfuscates things that could be better explained with simple English (or German, or Portuguese, or Hindi, or whatever).
In closing, I must, as always, remind people that I'm no authority on anything. I am not even three years into my martial arts journey, and have no business telling a sandan how to run her class. She can use whatever words she wants. But I, for the reasons above, will never use the word ki in reference to any part of my martial arts training, and will have a little difficulty taking those people seriously who do.
Granted, there are a lot of wacky ideas about ki/chi out there (the 99%) but as Mark mentioned, there is the 1% out there as well and you would really be doing yourself a disservice to ignore it altogether. About 35 years ago I came back to the states after studying Ki Society Aikido over in Guam and I was a firm believer in ki as taught by Tohei at that time. However, I ran firmly into the Western agnostic mindset of ki as you describe in you post. So being a young naive person, I thought they were all right and I was wrong so I discarded what I was taught and went off searching for the real thing that caused those techniques to feel like magic - after all, if it had nothing to do with ki, it had to be something. Well, 35 years later I have came full circle when I met this guy up in Massachusetts who told me to use my intent to extend energy out in a certain direction and all I did was extend ki as taught by Tohei and he said, yes, that is it - I realized I essentially wasted 35 years ignoring something I could have been developing better simply because most Western minds could not grasp an Eastern mindset on certain concepts and principles.

Today, I look at ki/chi like the Chinese: " heart leads mind, mind leads intent, intent leads ki/chi, and ki/chi leads body." After all, a million Chinese could not all be wrong for thousands of years - If you look at the above as a process, even your viewpoint of thought and visualization fits into that model.

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