27. Kiai: Is your kiai like a lion’s roar or a squeaky toy?

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.


13 thoughts on “27. Kiai: Is your kiai like a lion’s roar or a squeaky toy?

  1. Hi Wayne, another keeper, for sure. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned from my teachers and practice.

    Kiai is misunderstood by many. Kiai isn’t always an audible sound. Kiai can be done both on the exhalation of breath and the intake of air. Kiai must be a culmination of intent, physical attributes, understanding, and proper usage of target/distance/timing. Kiai can be soft or hard, blunt or piercing, sticky or cutting… many different qualities. Kiai can be done with a look also. Kiai can also be construed as the total package of your internal/external energy/intent. Aiki is that kiai meeting/merging with the aite (other person) with the intent to take sente (initiative).

    Lots of words, most of them small but carrying huge meaning.

    1. Nice little comment, Chuck. Yes, kiai can be silent as well. “Inhalation” as a kiai is something I haven’t heard, though. Interesting concept. But it makes sense, since one has to both inhale AND exhale, and properly in terms of the right kind of breathing.

  2. In my school, we use the term “hassei” (vocalization), since as Chuck notes “kiai” covers things beyond just vocal sounds. In general we only do hassei for Empi-no-Tachi, as can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOE7_DkY-fA#t=01m10s and in the first or last kata of a demonstration of Yagyu Seigo-ryu, as seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FidaytQWvvE#t=12m30s

    After my teacher suggested I try hassei in my batto, I let fly one day while demonstrating for him. I hadn’t practiced before hand, had no idea what it would sound like, but intended to just go all out, with as full and heavy a sound as I could muster. When it came out, it shocked me. I’d never thought a sound like that could come from me. If asked immediately afterward to recreate it, I don’t think I could have. So then I finished some other kata, and settled down to hear Sensei’s advice. He said, “You’re trying hassei, which is good. There is much you can learn from it. But next time, don’t hold back.”

  3. Interestingly, control of the vocal chords is a fine motor skill. One of the first things to go with stress is fine motor control. Those able to process stress better (through dint of training, personality, and/or both) will maintain fine motor control – and perhaps a more convincing kiai to an enemy.

    One only has to compare/contrast some LEOs on “hot” calls with high pitched, unintelligible screams into a radio -even with people running AWAY from them – with those who sound to have the same level of stress as if they were ordering breakfast… until voice commands are given!!

    In terms of overall kiai – I think it is a critical area begging more attention from modern LE. Studies of cop killers have shown that among the many deciding factors that people that seriously injure or kill police take into account when they decide to go against an officer is “officer presence.” It is fascinating watching some of the interviews of these people: officer A, whom they did assault, was someone they clearly knew they could take just by watching them, both in terms of their habits and in terms of their overall presence. When the suspects contrast this at time with Officer B, whom they did NOT assault, they use terms like “that officer meant BUSINESS, I knew I couldn’t handle him…”It is both a level of professionalism, and I think a certain internal strength (no, not THAT kind of internal strength…) – outwardly directed – that comes into play.

    1. Kit, I’ll say it again, but I’m grateful for your comments coming from the POV of law enforcement training. That kind of training is definitely different from training in traditional martial arts on a non-professional basis (“civilian” training), but you bring some really interesting contrasts/differences/similarities that resonate deeply.

      Proper kiai is part of a whole mind/body/spirit package indeed. It seems for me, the students who have the hardest time with their kiai sounding right also have poor body alignment, movement and balance. Everything is out of kilter, and the kiai is just an indicator of their problems. Likewise, I think it’s possible that criminals have a kind of “animal” sense of who to prey upon, seeking out what they think are easier marks in a given situation.

      While not as dramatic, I see that animal sense in dog training. Sometimes I encounter psycho dogs that nothing will deter and I steer clear of them. They’re beyond “sensing”; they’re just nuts from being abused and neglected. But most of the time when I’m walking my dog, if a too-aggressive dog comes up, I step up to it instead of cowering and backing off, look at it in the eye like I “mean business,” put up a hand in a “stop” motion and tell it to move away. Most of the time it works. Especially because I truly think to myself that even if it bites me, I am going to kick that dog’s ass, and break its legs and neck if it tries to attack my own dog. It usually doesn’t boil down to that, though. I walk straight up with a confident stride, trying as Cesar Millan says, to “be the leader,” and most other dogs with masters seem to approach us in a friendly, exploratory way. In dog obedience classes, I see the situation even more clearly. Dogs are animals that in many ways are more attuned to the gut level feelings of their surroundings. In many ways, they are a reflection of their owners’ aggressiveness, fears, confidence, insecurities, emotions, without the blinders of sophistry. Dogs with certain problems have masters who have issues. And my own dog has issues, I’ll admit, because of the way my wife and I coddle her.

      Most of the time, my own dog tends to be more interested in other people, not their dogs. She will sniff the other dog and then go right up to get attention from its master. Yappy, jumpy dogs annoy her. Barky, aggressive dogs bother her. But one day we were on the Makapu’u Lighthouse hike and along came another couple with a really big Labrador Retriever. My wife was a bit afraid that the big dog might go after our own dog, but I sensed no trouble so I didn’t break stride, and the other couple walked alongside us. I talked story a bit with the couple. We stopped for water at a clearing. The other couple stopped too. Their dog sat down. Unusually, after her usual introductions to the other couple, our dog sat right down next to the big dog. It was as if she sensed that this big dog was calm, controlled and empowered. I can’t say how she sensed it. Maybe it was subtle observation of doggie body language, or scent, or something. My wife and I were flabbergasted. She never did that before. The two dogs sat there, staring out at the ocean. The other couple got up to finish the hike before us. Our dog started to strain at the leash and so we got up as well, and she trotted, leading us to catch up with the other couple so she could fall into pace right next to the big dog. I apologized to the other couple. “She usually doesn’t do stuff like this!” I said.

      When I thought about it afterwards, I thought maybe our dog just sensed the “vibes” given off by that big dog, and she felt that big dog was a natural leader: older, calmer, protective and wiser. It wasn’t anything the dog DID overtly, it was the dog’s presence. So she naturally felt compelled to follow that dog. I think that’s like when an old, grizzly sensei, old timer, or veteran officer walks into a room. Some of them have this natural leadership “vibe” that compels us lesser mortals to listen and follow them because we feel confident that they know what they are doing, compared to some untested, overconfident, unstable newbie.

      So much of civilian self defense training is technique based, which is OK. But as you noted, does that change one’s entire “aura” or “vibes” (I hate to get too New Agey, but this is a short cut for all sorts of ways to sense a person’s character) so that you seem less like “easy pickings” and more like a whole mess of problems if you were to be tangled with? Is there enough training in awareness to avoid situations before they escalate? Lots of food for thought.


  4. I do think the aims/goals/intent of training is different now, but the area I find most fascinating is the convergence of the lessons that might be there for modern times from the teachings of old, when it was directly about dealing with these kinds of things. I think we could stand to revisit some of these things to make officers and soldiers more effective.

    Agreed, criminals are very good at reading and sensing ki, I think from the interpersonal aspect it is less training and more experience, and having it confirmed, and then learning to trust your instincts and learning to project “it” based on all those things together.

    I do believe that learning to organize one’s body and mind well for response is where technical training does come into play – mainly in terms of developing confidence in ones ability and skill to deal with a particular tactical situation. If you are all discomposed because you fear you lack the technical ability to deal with a threat, that will have repercussions, since it is all tied together.

  5. Kit, I think a major goal of koryu training was in developing that sense of confidence through skills building and repetition, among other things. Not that it would always succeed in survival, but that it would instill a certain amount of confidence that one could address a situation with some measure of “honor.” Donn Draeger used to say that the warriors’ mentality was basically pretty fatalistic when it came to going to war; with all one’s training, you only stand one out of three chances of surviving. The odds are: your opponent kills you. Both of you die (ai-uchi). You kill the opponent. Faced with those odds, a bugeisha only reluctantly would go into battle, and it would have to be for very, very good reasons. Bellicosity was not appropriate, in those terms, although of course history shows that even in Japan, few leaders lived up to this kind of circumspection.

  6. Usually the leaders aren’t the ones taking the risks….

    And I think it is exactly for these reasons that there is a role in modern training for the rationale of the classical warrior. Is koryu the appropriate vehicle? Outside of specialists, no, I don’t think so – too much time, too foreign a culture, too archaic a weapons base (mind you jujutsu/short weapons have more to offer technically, as we have discussed).

    Finding a way to understand and transfer those lessons for the modern context is worthwhile, though, for reasons touched upon by the International Hoplology Society, for example, or in this article on Jo that was posted at E-Budo:


    It is far, far better than the claptrap we endure instead, from well-intentioned but ignorant intellectuals:


    1. Kit, I’ll have to agree about the “kindness” article. At least here, most police officers are pretty well versed in handling people they’re taking in, much better than in years past. The problem mainly is in dealing with people who are just violent and bat-shit crazy. No amount of kindness will help. Case in point:

      Yesterday around 8:30 p.m., a football coach at the high school where I used to teach was leaving campus. He stopped right outside the school gates at a stop light. The street is only a few yards from the U. of Hawaii campus. Up walks a guy from his left side. Without any provocation, the attacker starts yelling, “You the guy! You the guy!”, pulls out a butterfly knife, and tries to stab him through the truck’s open window. The coach slid away, slammed open the door, and jumped on the attacker. The coach, incidentally, moonlighted as a restraining techniques instructor for the local police department. He shoved the attacker’s head into a wheel well. A pastor from a church nearby and another coach helped to disarm and pin down the attacker. No one was injured save for a few nicks from the knife, not even requiring stitches. Turns out the attacker had a history of arrests for violent behavior, public drunkenness and drug abuse. The coach’s comments were that it was a good thing it happened to him, and not some co-ed walking home or a mom with kids in her car. Then, the outcome would have been a lot sadder.

      I don’t think any amount of “kindness” would deter someone like that. Proper protocols and psychological management of tense situations do alleviate problems in many cases, but in terms of truly violence-prone people, it’s better to be skilled and prepared.

      I agree on the koryu comment, too.


  7. Exactly. The kinds of people that kill police are exactly these. In fact, the FBI has well established that officers that have been killed tend to be very friendly, believe they can “read” people and establish rapport better, and tend to cut corners and not follow procedures.

    So kindness, in some ways, can kill…

    This is not meant to say that for routine contacts and low level arrests that a little kindness won’t help. Or that in some controlled instances it may make a difference.

    But that is mixing apples and oranges. The nature of the conflict is different.

    A detached professionalism in demeanor, higher levels of physical training (instilling greater confidence) and decisive follow through on legally justified force is exactly what is needed, and where an approach that embraces a protective warrior ethos may have crossover relevance.

    Thanks for these conversations, Wayne!

  8. Thanks, too, Kit.

    I used to know several friends and teachers in a karate club who were law enforcement officers, and I trained at a judo club in a police station, so even though I was a “radical” anti-establishment student in my youth, I held no police officers as “pigs” stereotypes. I used to hear stories about how rough their jobs were, and at the end of the day, they were like everybody else: they wanted to do their jobs and go home to their families. Yes, there are lemons in the bunch, doubtless, but as you noted, professionalism, higher levels of training, and decisive follow-through and proper mental attitude will indeed help to dissipate those kinds of “bad cops.” In fact, that’s a recipe for professional quality in any job.

    I suspect that a great deal of the koryu training outside of the technical and physical were meant to instill that sense of esprit de corps, warrior elitism, and mental attitudes, especially among the mid to upper levels of the warrior class ,who had the time and means to train. Although often neglected even within many koryu schools, the philosophical teachings are interesting in what they tried to preserve, at least in my opinion. Well, that’s another blog!

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