What does kiai mean and why must I keep yelling it during karate class? Learn how the power of kiai makes a difference not just in the dojo, but outside of it too.
Why are karate students always yelling, anyway?
All that “yelling” is actually called “kiai” (pronounced like “key-eye”).
First, let’s break down the word itself.
Kiai is written in Japanese as 気 (ki) 合(ai).
Ki can be defined as energy or breath. Ai means to gather, harmonise, or converge. Put the characters together, you can think of kiai – very literally – as a harmonisation of energy or breath.
Now that we have the dictionary definition out of the way, let’s look at how martial artists describe it.
1. Kiai is the Use of Life Force
In his book “The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do”, Master Shoshin Nagamine wrote: “Kiai literally means “spirit convergence” or “energy concentration”, taking advantage of sound to fuse the maximum efficient force that can be exerted. When using kiai, one is using the utmost life force.”
While it does sound a bit Jedi, traditional karateka believe very deeply in ki’s role to focus our mind on the actions we are doing. Check out this online Quora discussion about kiai and the theories behind it.
If we can focus all our energy on a punch and kick, we can better concentrate the force of our attack on our target. This makes us more focused fighters.
2. Kiai is the Release of Energy
In his blog post Karate by Jesse, Jesse Enkamp (Karate by Jesse)ˆ describes kiai as a way to channel your energy and release it in one shout.
“Thus, when you scream kiai, you are not only “screaming”, but more importantly compressing and delivering an instant release of your stored energy.”
It’s actually a good practice to kiai well during your basics, or kihon.
As you kiai, you are breathing in and out in synchronisation with your muscles’ movements. Breathing well fuels the movement of energy and oxygen to parts of your body that really need them.
In short, doing a kiai well actually keeps you from getting tired too quickly during classes. Nifty, eh?
3. Kiai is ….A Grading Component? (Seriously though.)
In fact, kiai is a key component of grading in Ashihara Karate school.
Why do we rank this ability to project your voice on a par with your ability to kick or punch, or manage multiple opponents during a sabaki round?
Because being in karate class isn’t only about perfecting your hook punches, mawashi-geri, or makikome-nage.
Giving a spirited kiai is one way students project confidence to others.
How does this translate to the real world?
Say you are being pushed around by a bully in class or at work. In most circumstances, we don’t need to resort right away to violence to resolve the matter. In fact, the most common-sense response is to speak up.
In school, that can mean speaking up against the bully, or talking to a teacher or someone in authority for help. At work or elsewhere, it means having the confidence to be heard, and to stand your ground.
How do you do a kiai then?
There are as many ways to kiai as there are videos available on YouTube. But a kiai is definitely not an extra loud version of “Osu!” (We’ll get to ‘Osu’ in another post).
Think of it as the shout you make when trying to get someone across a crowded room to look at you.
1. Breathe in through your nose
2. Imagine the air is gathered in your diaphragm (or belly) instead of your lungs
3. Look forward (if you are facing the front of the class), or at your sparring partner.
4. As you yell, imagine the air coming from your diaphragm instead of from your lungs (chest)
(Note: Do make sure not to annoy your neighbours too much with your kiai practice.)
Jesse Enkamp (Karate by Jesse)