Thread: What is Ki?
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Old 02-04-2010, 06:33 PM   #10
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Re: What is Ki?

by J. Akiyama

Home > Language > "Ki" Phrases
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

So, what does "ki" mean in "aikido," anyway? There's been a lot of discussion and even some heated arguments over this Japanese term.

In essence, the character ki means:

* spirit, mind, soul, heart
* intention
* bent, interest
* mood, feeling
* temper, disposition, nature
* care, attention
* air, atmosphere
* flavor
* odor
* energy, essence, air, indications
* symptoms
* taste
* touch, dash, shade, trace
* spark, flash
* suspicion

However, I think that there is some good in taking a look at how we, the Japanese people, use the term in everyday life. I think that a lot of people attribute a whole lot of esoteric meaning behind words that aren't all that esoteric; this is the reason why I chose very common Japanese words to illustrate how we use this term in our everyday life. After all, isn't that what we hope to do in the first place in aikido -- use "ai" and "ki" in our everyday lives?

Here are some contexts in which the word "ki" and some of its derivations are used in everyday Japanese.

Japanese Phrase Kanji Literal Translation Definition
Gen ki "source/foundation of ki." one's health
Byou ki "ill ki." to be sick
Ten ki "heavenly ki." the weather
Ki ga tatsu "the ki stands upright." to get angry
Ki wo tsukeru "to put on (or to have) ki" to be careful; to be attentive
Ki ga kiku "the ki is used a lot" to be empathetic
Ki ga susumanai "the ki does not go forward." to not want to do something
Ki ga sumu "the ki is finished or used up." to feel fulfilled
Ki ga tsuku "to have "ki" put onto you." to notice
Ki ga tsuyoi "the ki is strong." to be headstrong
Ki ga yowai "the ki is weak." to be like a coward
Ki ga tooku naru "the ki goes far away." to become lightheaded
Ki ga nai "to have no ki" to have no interest in something
Ki ga nukeru "the ki becomes missing." to lose hope
Ki ga mijikai "the ki is short." to be short tempered
Ki ni sawaru "something touches the ki." to find something irritating
Ki ni naru "to become ki" to have something nagging or on one's mind
Ki wo kubaru "to pass out ki (to people)" to attend to other people's wishes


from a Blog by Mario McKenna (

What is Ki?

Not that I am that old, but when I was a young karateka I concentrated on developing good, solid technique. Let's face it, the spiritual side of karate wasn't going to interest a teenager and I was hardly an exception. Sure I did my obligatory ‘mokuso', but that was as far as it went. I was much more interested in punching the makiwara, than sitting in seiza. This all didn't change that much until I entered university and came into contact with other budo groups, mostly Kendo, Judo and Aikido. Out of those three I was most struck by the Aikidoka. Sitting and talking to them gave me a whole new perspective on budo, what I labelled the "flower-child" mentality. They constantly talked about things that I considered quite esoteric, "harmonising with your opponent", "being one with the universe" and of course "ki". We discussed things and compared ideas, but compared to the Aikidoka, I suppose I had a "hammerhead" mentality because I didn't have much use for those concepts. "How were those things going to help my smash my opponent into nothing?", I thought. No real practical application, so not much use to me. At least that was how I thought. The Aikido guys would just sigh and say that I just didn't get it. After my encounter with the Aikidoka, I started to bring up the topic of "ki" with my teacher, Kinjo Sensei, a very down-to-earth Okinawan gentleman. He stated quite frankly that his teacher had never discussed the concept of "ki" with him, but he intuitively felt that it existed. "But how do you know it exits?", I asked him, "You just feel it", he would answer. Now, having been educated in a Western school setting where emphasis was placed on logical, rational and analytical thinking, this answer didn't help me very much. In fact, it just added to my confusion. Practice and I'll feel it? What exactly am I supposed to feel? The concept of "ki" again dropped to the wayside.

After I moved here to Japan where I stayed for eight years, I came into contact with all manner of budo, religion, mediation, the esoteric the mundane and the just plain weird. However, through all these encounters, the concept of "ki" started to make a little more sense. Why? Because it was everywhere. You couldn't swing a dead cat in Japan with out encountering the concept of "ki". Let me explain. "Ki" was originally written as a "vapour" and "rice", implying some sort of ethereal energy being released by an object or organism. In fact the concept of "ki" is so prevalent in the Japanese language that it is an integral part of many words and idioms. For example, genki (vigor; energy), kibun (feelings), kien (high spirits), kiomo (gloom), kikaru (light-heartedness), and the list goes on ad-nauseam. What we can see in these examples then, is that at a basic level, "ki" has quite a lot to do with the human emotional state. Now you might be saying, "what has this got to do with budo?" Everything! A budoka who cannot control his or her emotions, will never be able to apply any technique or respond appropriately when he or she absolutely needs to. Raw emotion quickly undermines and destroys any technique, no matter how much training the person has had. So, "ki" reflects our emotional state and a controlled emotional state is essential for a budoka. So how should "ki" be seen or defined from a budoka point of view.

Well, to give you an idea of "ki"'s importance and its implications, let's look at the following definition of "ki" by the late Walter Todd sensei conducted by Meik Skoss ( In my opinion this is one of the best, no-nonsense definitions of "ki" I have read. Yes, I wanted to demystify aikido and make it simple so that anybody could understand it, at least on a lower level. Just like when they talk about ki--I have my own interpretation of what ki is--but when I ask aiki people to explain to me what ki is, 99% of them give me the old, "Well, you're just not ready to understand it. You'll understand it when you're ready." Well I say that's a cop-out. If you really understood it you could explain it. Here you are trying to teach ki and you don't even understand it. At least when I teach I can explain what ki is. I have my own little definition of ki, which is, "Ki is the spirit of the movement, from movement to movement, seeking that which is pleasurable." And most teachers would not agree because of one word: pleasurable. They say, "You're making it sound exotic or erotic or something." No. It's the feeling of the movement, going from movement to movement, seeking that which is pleasurable. So when we're working out and you catch me on a really beautiful throw, it feels good, doesn't it? Like a little "body orgasm." And those are the things that keep us in the martial arts. When the body does a good movement it feels good! And that feeling at that moment is ki at its best manifestation. Ueshiba... Tohei, they both said you're supposed to feel good when you're training. They never said you gotta get in there and kill yourself when you train. Who wants to do that and end up crippled?! That's ridiculous.

Looking at Todd sensei's definition we can see the idea and importance of a highly energised and pleasurable emotional state. For myself, after reading this, things started to make a little more sense. Especially if you compare it to studies investigating peak performance or collegially referred to as "flow". According to Goleman (1995, pp. 103) flow refers to, …a state of self-forgetfulness, the opposite of rumination and worry: instead of being lost in nervous preoccupation and worry, people in flow are so absorbed in the task at hand that they lose all self-consciousness, dropping the small preoccupations -- health, bills, even doing well -- of daily life. In this sense, movements in flow are egoless. Paradoxically, people in flow exhibit a masterly control of what they are doing, their responses perfectly attuned to the changing demands of the task. And though people perform at their peek while in flow, they are unconcerned with how they are doing, with thoughts of success or failure -- the sheer pleasure of the act itself is what motivates them.

Taken together, this would suggest that "ki" is not such an elusive concept after all. It is very much in line with the Western concept of "flow" or "peak performance". It would suggest a very real construct, one accessible to all of us, a highly energised but relaxed mental state capable of producing efficient and accurate results. Who wouldn't want to have this state of mind? The problem is developing it. So, how do we cultivate "ki" and achieve its benefits? Noted martial arts historian and Okinawan karate and kobudo teacher Murakami Katsumi gives us a hint when he replied to the following question during an interview (McKenna, 1999).

Interviewer: You have studied many different forms of martial arts. Is there any one in particular that you are fond of? Murakami: No there isn't any one in particular that I like. They are all unique. It's not like I feel, "oh it's Monday so I should practice Tai Chi Chuan" or "it's Thursday so I have to practice Shorin-ryu". Personally, no matter how hard I practice or how well I perform a technique, I never think, "oh, I'm never going to perfect this technique", that is not the focus of my training. What is important is that in each moment I am focused on that technique, I lose myself in it and enter into a state of mushin [literally "no mind"]. This type of training is a form of Zen training, more specifically the Soto Zen [ the school of Zen Buddhism founded by Dogen Zenji]. Zen Buddhism teaches that the truth [of your existence] can only come from yourself. And can only be achieved through forgetting your own self [ego]. In order to forget your own self you must have a singular concentration on the moment which requires you to remove all other distractions or obstacles. When you can achieve mushin you have removed all distractions and have perfect concentration and are able to see the truth for what it is. You have forgotten yourself. In Karate, Kobudo or Chinese Kempo, when you practice your goal should be the same; achieving that singular concentration and forgetting yourself. The Kata and movements found in Budo are Zen. Their common denominator is the elimination of the self. When you can achieve this state of forgetting yourself, it is an absolutely wonderful feeling.

Murakami sensei's answer to cultivating and benefiting from "ki" is a simple one, to focus the mind by singularly concentrating on the task at hand. Again, Western scientific research corroborates Murakami sensei's belief that argues that a sharp focused attention to the activity or task at hand is essential to entering "flow" or getting your "ki" moving (Goleman, 1995). But this is not as easy as it seems and requires quite a lot of discipline to get passed that initial hurdle. The mind has a tendency to wander and become distracted easily. If you don't believe me, try the following rudimentary exercise used in Zen.

In a quiet location, sit opposite a wall in a comfortable position either cross-legged or in seiza (you can use a zabuton or cushion). Keep your back perfectly straight and focus your gaze towards the wall, slightly downward. Your eyes should be relaxed, but not closed! Now, slowly breathe in through the nose to a count of one and slowly exhale through the nose to a count of one. Try to complete this cycle 20 times. Easy you say? Just wait. You must not have ANY distractions. If your mind starts to think about something else besides the rhythm and the counting of breaths, go back to zero and start again. If you get to five or six and start thinking, "Gee this is easy", go back to zero! You are absolutely allowed no extraneous thoughts. When I first learned this simple exercise, I thought I had a fairly good concentration level. Boy was I wrong. I spent most of the day going back to zero because my mind kept distracting me! I'd get to 19 and think, "I'm almost finished!", then I'd realise my mind is wandering again. Damn! Back to zero!

Once you can do this simple exercise, try doing it while you practice kata. You will be surprised at the results as "ki" or "flow" creates its own feedback loop and produces a state devoid of emotional baggage, save the pleasure it generates. References Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books. McKenna, M. (1999). An Interview with Murakami Katsumi: The Heart of Ryukyu's Martial Ways. Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 8(4). Skoss, M. (2000). Walter Todd: An Interview.


Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events not of words. Trust movement. --Alfred Adler
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