My dog has a favorite chase toy. It’s a furry squirrel doll that squeaks. I put it on a string and yank it on the ground in front of her, squeeze it in my fist so it squeaks, and twirl it around me. My dog goes crazy over it. The squeaks arouse the predator instinct in her and she just goes insanely happy chasing it, chomping on it with her teeth, and trying to shake it and tear it limb from limb whenever she’s able to catch it.
So the other night I was trying to get my students to kiai; to “shout,” during their kata and I didn’t hear a lion’s roar. I heard a squeaky toy squeal. Not good. Rather than disturbing the attacker’s focus with their kiai, I told my club members that their kiai would encourage an attacker’s animalistic, predatory instincts. That’s the total opposite of what a kiai is supposed to do.
In Japanese, kakegoe is a generic “shout” or loud yell. A kiai, however, is a special kind of yell (if it’s a yell at all…more on this later). You can begin to decipher what a kiai is by analyzing its Chinese characters. The word kiai is made of two characters: Ki, or “spirit” or “inner strength”; the ki of aikido; and –ai, which is from the verb “to meet, to come together, to gather.” So the kiai is not just acoustic; it is when everything comes together in one unified action: mind, body, spirit, breath. If done well, the forceful exhalation of breath is timed to coincide with the apex of physical exertion, technical execution, focus and timing.
If your center of gravity is lowered, if the energy feels like it is coming from the lower spiritual center called the seika tanden (a few inches below the navel and in about two inches or so), then you are “centered” and are able to exert a great deal of unified, coordinated action through your body. This unified action is expressed by a forceful exhalation of breath through the kiai. If the yell comes from the full diaphragm, the entire lung capacity of your body, it should sound full-bodied and deep, like the roar of a lion. That’s the theory, at least.
If, however, your kiai sounds like a squeaky toy, then there’s a whole mess of things just wrong. Squeaky toy kiai happens when the breathing is constricted. Like when I go to the dentist and the first drill starts whirring…I squeal in fear. I’m not taking deep breaths, not using my entire diaphragm to fill up my lungs and exhale. The shoulders are bunching up to help you breathe, not your diaphragm.
Compare it to when your shoulders are relaxed, and it feels like you are breathing “from the stomach.” Then you are using the entire chest diaphragm to breathe, using your full capacity, and controlling your musculature properly, without constricting your arm movements by tightening up your shoulders.
Tightness in the shoulders will constrict the breathing and lungs. That will lead to a tight, squeaky yell. That’s why I could immediately tell my students weren’t breathing correctly and their movements were coming from their shoulders, not from their hips and legs.
Thousands of years of evolution have led predator animals to recognize the difference in a prey animal’s vocalizations. If my dog stalks a toy and it squeaks, oh boy, she thinks it’s a scared little furry creature and she will pounce on it. Consider the difference between a dog itching for a fight to protect its territory and a dog that is scared and yelping, running away with its tail between its legs. They will have totally different vocalizations.
The same goes for the human animal. That’s why in martial arts, kiai are not meant to be squeals of fear, which are high-pitched with tightly constricted vocal chords. They are meant to be like the roar of a lion or tiger, not the squeal of a squeaky toy.
Granted, people with different body types will have different vocal ranges. Women as a whole may have a higher pitched kiai than men. But within those parameters, any kiai should sound like it’s coming from the lower seika tanden, not from the upper third of one’s lungs, whatever the pitch. A little Chihuahua will have a higher pitched bark than a German Shephard, of course, but you can tell when either of them are really angry and ready to bite your ankle compared to when they are whimpering. It’s a whole different tone and timbre.
Different ryu will have different vowels and vocalizations for kiai. In general, however, most kiai will have a beginning, middle and end, and will nominally be made of just one vowel. For example, a very common kiai is “Ei!” Even if done quickly, if you take it apart, you should notice a short introductory moment when the “eee-“ is starting up. Then there’s the middle, which is the apex of the kiai, the loudest “EEE!” and finally, as you close off your yell, the ending “-i.” Open, start to yell, full yell, then start to close, and end of yell. If you slowed it down, it would sound almost like “eee-Yay-eee..”
The kiai should NOT trail off, or dribble off into nothingness. It should have a definite end. As one former teacher of mine used to say, “You have to ‘eat’ your own kiai.’”
So the kiai shouldn’t be a “Yahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” and then you slowly dwindle away into obscurity like someone falling off a tall cliff.
Neither, however, should it be a too-short yelp. Like screaming “Yip!” quickly. That’s not a full-bodied, good vintage kiai.
In the past, I’ve attended some karate tournaments where I’ve heard all sorts of really odd kiai. The two-syllable ones are the most problematic. “Ei-sah!” “Yow-sah!” “Eee-yasa!” (Okay, that last was three syllables, but I’ve heard that too.) The worst one I heard was someone literally screaming “Ki-ai” for his kiai. Or, rather, he was yelling “Kee-yah!” What’s next? “Boo-yah!” “Boom-chaka-laka!”??? You might as well start yelling the famous Three Stooges kiai, “Whoop-whoopwhoopwhoopwhoop!”
Obviously, these are not very good kiai because they are not one, singular syllable that is extended over the climax of the action; it’s two or more and you thereby end up dividing the strength of the sound among two or more syllables, quite possibly weakening your singular movement as well.
Most practitioners are used to the kiai that accompany a climactic movement, as in the performance of a karate kata. You reach the apex of your exertion in a physical movement and kiai at the same time. But there are other kinds of kiai. There is a zanshin no kiai (a finalizing kiai that is done apart from any outward movement), and there is even a silent kiai that is discussed in such systems as aikido and iaido. There are multiple kiai that accompany two complementary actions done one after another. There are different kiai according to intent and time of execution during an encounter. My own ryu divides kiai up into an “initial” kiai, an “ongoing” kiai and the zanshin no kiai. The vocalizations are different, and signify different kinds of body movement, with different psychological impacts on the attacker.
The zanshin no kiai may be found in some koryu as a “finishing” kiai to totally destroy the spiritual and psychic strength of the opponent at the end of a kata and is separate and apart from a particular move or technique. The silent kiai in aikido and iaido is the concept that you don’t necessarily need to yell in order to have kiai; the unification of one’s mind, body, spirit and breath is the kiai itself.
The best exercise for kiai is to simply do one’s kata properly, with the proper kiai in the proper location. You can also practice kiai alone by sitting and trying to kiai, focusing your attention on how you sound. You can do this in a group, too, with a teacher leading and the students attempting to imitate the teacher’s kiai per the ryu’s style. The main objective is not so much how loud you can kiai; it’s to strive for proper tenor and tone of the kiai. It should be low and seem from the seika tanden, not from the shoulders or upper lungs.
This may seem esoteric, but it’s really a basic fact in martial arts that a strong kiai not only unifies one’s own mind, body, spirt and technique, but it also helps in unnerving and defeating one’s opponent. If a kiai can do that, then it has already served its purpose well. People will grunt, shout and yell naturally in all sorts of physical exertions that require total mind-body focus, such as blocking in football, hitting a baseball, and so on. It’s not really all that far from roots in practical body physiology.
On an esoteric level, mikkyo Buddhism and Shinto believed in the mystical powers of certain sounds. In mikkyo, these are called mantra, the most famous being the “Om” chanted during some Buddhist meditation sessions. Esoteric Shinto had the notion of kotodama, words of mystical power, based on the ancient Japanese language. Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, was a believer of the effectiveness of kotodama. I suspect that the more esoteric notions of kiai in martial arts were drawn from and influenced by such religious and spiritual ideas. Even Western religions considered certain words, such as the name of God, to be of great, unnatural power. However, I would caution that simply pulling out a pop culture book on mikkyo Buddhism and then attempting to stick some kind of mysterious mumbo jumbo on your martial arts practice is probably not a good idea. The connection is either there or it’s not in your tradition. And it’s best to leave it at that.
E.J. Harrison, writing at the turn of the 20th Century of his experiences in Japan, claimed to have met a master of kiaijutsu, someone who specialized just in the technique of kiai. The master gave a demonstration by stepping out to his garden and emitting a kiai in the direction of the shrubbery. Birds fell from a tree, unconscious. Then the master performed another kiai and the birds awoke, shook themselves out of their stupor, and flew away.
I’m not sure if that’s a true story or not, and I’ve really never met such a kiaijutsu master myself, but I did experience one incident that led me to believe that we shouldn’t totally discount such tales.
Once, a student senior to me was teaching a friend and me in a secluded forest, and he started to talk about using the kiai as a weapon in and of itself. Because we were in an isolated part of a public forest reserve, he gave me an example of the really powerful kiai he had been working on. He turned away from us and let loose a kiai at a stand of trees some twenty to thirty yards away. Even with the yell directed away from us, I felt like my eardrums were nearly pierced, and the birds in the trees bolted up into flight as if they had been attacked by a huge tree-climbing mountain lion pouncing on the branches they had been sitting on. My eardrums rang for quite a few seconds afterwards.
“Well, you don’t have to do this all the time in practice, but that’s how it should sound if you use it for real,” he said. “If somebody means to do you harm, you could let loose this kiai in front of his face and really stop him because it would surprise the person. If it only stops the person momentarily, at least it will help you to do a counter or run away.”
My sempai’s kiai was truly like that of a roar of a tiger or lion. And it sure wasn’t a squeaky toy sound.