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
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.