I’ve noticed in my time that different people have very different attitudes when it comes to the subject of Kiai. Some people like to talk about the concepts of spirit and focus, some people like to talk about the idea of channeling aggression, some people just see it as a good way to breathe properly, and some people dismiss the idea altogether. Well, since this is my site you’re about to hear my views!
First things first; to those few of you who don’t already know, Kiai is the name of the shout you give when executing technique. The word is composed of the kanji ‘ki’, meaning spirit or will, and ‘ai’ meaning to unite. It is therefore a shout that unites one’s action with one’s spirit or will. So far, so simple. Unfortunately, as with most things, people like to complicate things that really ought to be simple (almost as much as they like over-simplifying things that are actually complex!). Now I’m going to gloss over all the nonsense you read about killing birds with a shout (who would want to do that anyway?) and get straight down to why Kiai is a useful thing for your training.
The shout is there for three main reasons, and the first two of these are psychological. Shouting as you strike is a way of psyching yourself up and giving vent to the controlled (key word) aggression that you need to be able to tap in to. Mindset is a vital part of your training and Kiai is a great way of building that all-important fighting spirit. I’ve found that many people, and it’s very common in non-sporting martial arts, struggle to get into ‘the zone’ when they train because it’s hard to forget that you’re training with your friends and that (mostly) you don’t want to batter and kill and rend and scream and tear and… well, you get the idea. Kiai is a good way to build the focused, controlled aggression that will develop your fighting spirit.
Now I’ve heard it said that you either naturally have fighting spirit or you don’t. This is nonsense. When I started training I was a young man who was extremely nervous of any kind of violence and this was evident in the way that I trained. Just to be clear; I’m not Rambo now by any stretch of the imagination, but by virtue of good teachers and good practice I am now far more ‘up for it’ than I ever thought I’d be, and a part of that good practice was Kiai. My old Shotokan teacher had a saying that; ‘practice doesn’t make perfect, good practice makes perfect, and technique must take second place to spirit.’ I’m not saying for one second that if you shout a lot you’ll become Toshiro Mifune overnight but there are far worse places to start (things like sparring and pressure testing are important too but that’s a whole other article on its own!).
The second psychological reason is for the effect it has on your opponent. The fact is that most people don’t like being shouted at, and when a man who thought you were an easy target not only finds you ready to fight back but also has you screaming in his face, he takes note. Most people start fights expecting to win, and the more you show that you’re not going to let them (or at least that you’ll make the bastard work for it!) the better. Once an attacker’s confidence in victory is gone, you’re halfway to winning yourself (the old adage that the man who thinks he will lose a fight has already lost it). Once again I’m going to end the point on a disclaimer for the pedants; not everyone is intimidated by being shouted at, but since a lot of people are and those who aren’t won’t care either way, why ignore a potential advantage?
My third reason is a simple practical reason for Kiai in your training; it forces you to breathe properly. A really good way to get winded is by holding your breath in as you strike, doubly so if some enterprising soul shovels you in the ribs as your punch extends. Exhaling on a strike is hugely important and you physically can’t get that bit wrong if you’re shouting at the same time. Breathe out and engage that core!
Now I’m sure some people think that they’ll feel self-conscious or silly for shouting in training. Firstly; these people haven’t had a Karate master Kiai in their face while lunging at them. If they had, they would know it is not silly (naturally when it happens to be I react with complete inner calm and a textbook-standard defence… honest). Secondly; if you’re a shy person then martial arts should be helping you to gain confidence in yourself, and this is a great way to do that. By shouting louder and fiercer than anyone else you feel like you are owning the room, and it promotes a healthy competition between training partners as well. As to feeling silly, I quote a wise old TKD instructor who lectured us on this very subject back in my foolish youth; ‘you’re a room full of grownups dressed in identical white pyjamas – do you really think that shouting will make you look any sillier?’
I’m sure you know by now that I’ll happily bang on about this sort of thing for another few pages but as an experiment with the concept of shorter blog posts I’m pretty much tying it off here. To sum up; Kiai has some physical pros but in psychological terms it is chock full of potential, both in application and in developing a good attitude in your regular training. And remember – what you shout doesn’t matter, so long as how you shout it is suitably fearsome! (Unless you’re shouting the actual word ‘kiai’. Don’t do that – it just sounds rubbish!)