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Ki-Ai 気合 Spirit

Giving a fierce yell while kicking or punching is one of the most well-known, and most imitated, parts of the martial arts. You can’t have a low budget martial arts film without a high pitched scream accompanying each technique. There are, of course, a lot of good reasons to be making noise in a fight and in the training hall, but understanding the purpose behind this ki-ai concept can take us from just yelling, to making a powerful statement with our voice and spirit.

The tenth of our twelve keys is:


“Strong command shout to take charge – “Stop it!” or “No! Hold it!” or “Hey!” or “Easy!” – with every defensive action”
-An-shu Stephen K. Hayes, To-Shin Do Official Curriculum

This key is about projecting our spirit and intention out into the world. We’re making a statement that we won’t be the small, insignificant person the aggressor wants us to be! Practicing using our voice is the first step toward this. We make noise so that we don’t hold our breath and pull our energy and spirit back inside. Holding our breath is a natural reaction to stress but it:

  • reduces the power of strikes
  • creates more tension
  • slows movement
  • keeps us small in times when we don’t need to be.

We also might need noise to call attention to what is happening in order to get help. The sudden explosion of noise might startle or distract an opponent that expected a more passive target. In any case, our sounds make our intent clear. We won’t be a passive victim.

But what sounds and how we use them are important. For legal self-defense, if for no other reason, we want to be sure the right words, the right sounds, are being projected. Ever have a time when you were upset, said something, and as soon as you said it … wished you could pull those words back into your mouth? Saying the wrong thing under pressure can start a fight, or can make witnesses think we were the aggressor. Or what we say to the police afterward, ‘can and will be used against us in a court of law’. Swearing and threatening violence might feel good, but life isn’t a movie and there are often legal consequences. So our To-Shin Do ki-ai uses words that help train us to say the right things under the pressure of a fight.

Another layer of this training is to make sure our sounds match our internal kamae. Or in other words, we are using the same tone and energy in our words and voice that we are feeling on the inside. If we are not projecting the correct energy, those around us can tell something isn’t right, that we are trying to act confident rather than actually feeling confident, for example. Try as an exercise saying something soothing to a training partner (“Everything will be okay”) but use a commanding tone of voice. Or try giving a command (“Stop it!”) but use a soothing tone of voice. Doesn’t sound right, does it? Wrong ki-ai or wrong kamae. Either way, if we don’t notice it, you can be sure the aggressor will!

Put the right spirit behind the words you use, and put this concept of ki-ai in every technique you train in, and you’ll have the tools needed to use your spirit and intention for controlling, or perhaps even preventing, a conflict.

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