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All the empty handed kata I practice have specific places where the student is supposed to kiai. Practically speaking, kiai means to yell, but the larger idea is to focus and project energy, strengthen the body, and startle the attacker. The kanji for kiai are the same as in Ai-ki-do but in reversed order. Ki means energy and ai means to coordinate.

A student visited me once. At the correct place in Naihanchi Shodan, he yelled out "kiai!" I mean that be actually yelled the word "kiai." I thought it was a bit humerous and it turned out that his sensei had learned the kata from a book and had taken the command to "kiai" literally.

There are different types of kiai. When we yell (as in the two kiai in Naihanchi Shodan), we say something like "a" (like the letter "A"), "to", "yo", "ho", or any number of sounds. The sound does not matter. However, it is important to keep the mouth closed or nearly so. Yelling with the mouth wide open is an invitation to injury. You could bite your tongue, your jaws could crash together, your teeth could break, or someone could poke a weapon (such as a bo) into your mouth.

It is funny when you see a Karate celebrity on the cover of a magazine, obviously delivering a loud kiai with his or her mouth wide open. It is a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Every time he drew his Japanese sword you could hear the sound of metal ("swing"), just like a western sword. Japanese swords simply don't make that sound. Ideally, the draw is silent. The sound was almost certainly an added sound effect. A kiai is not a sound effect. It is a sound and energy technique.

When you kiai loudly, you should project it to the far side of the dojo (the opposite wall). It should have a piercing character. In fact, Sensei Morio Higaonna told me that the word for kiai in Hogen in yagi which literally means "voice arrow."

But not all kiai are loud. A kiai can be silent. The body will compress but no sound can be heard. Or the kiai can be more like a hissing sound during which time the air is squeezed from the lungs. We do this a lot in the Kishaba Juku form of Shorin-Ryu. The compression coincides with the use of the koshi and the creation and transfer of power.

Squeezing out the air during a technique is exceptionally important. A person who does not do so looks a bit like a half filled jug of water sloshing around. A person who holds in his breath is also more susceptible to injury, both from strain (the blood pressure will rise) and the possibility of explosive release (assisted by a well placed and timed punch).

Why do kata have one, two or even several specifically placed kiai? It think that it simply for kiai practice and theatrics. You could kiai all the time, none of the time, or selectively. In my dojo, we often do not kiai (yell). It really does not matter as long as the student knows how and when to do so.

In tournaments, a kiai might be very impressive. A student could even flunk a test in some dojo if he or she failed to kiai at the right place. Some dojo teach kata in an extremely rigid manner -- the idea being that all students must be able to do the same kata in exactly the same way, including the kiai.

When I studied Aikido under Sensei Sadao Yoshioka, he occassionally spoke about Kiai Jutsu, the used of kiai as a weapon. He said that his first sensei, Yukiso Yamamoto, was one of only a handful of students who learned this in Japan. Yamamoto Sensei was a Ju Jutsu/Judo instructor before converting to Aikido when Sensei Koichi Tohei visited Hawaii.

I am not sure where I learned this, but I was taught to visualize drawing in all of the energy (ki) of the Universe behind you and projecting it in a narrow beam in front of you. The energy was supposed to project from your eyes, as well as via your voice.

Except for startling someone, I never saw a kiai have a physical effect absent physical contact. I suppose it is possible, but I doubt that it would be as reliable as a simple punch. I believe that the benefits of kiai are purely physical.

I did hear stories, however, of my Aikido Sensei killing a gekko (small lizard) with a kiai. He may have also killed or stunned a cat. But I did not see this. I know that I almost killed my aunt when I was a child. She was walking down some steps in front of her house and I was hiding in the bushes. When she got close I jumped out and yelled! I was told that I almost gave her a heart attack. I was not a Karate student at that time.

Kiai can also refer to one's strength. We say that a person with a strong kiai is capable of doing anything. But we must also interact with the world around us. Thus Aikido Sensei Gary Omori told me that he was always taught "First kiai, then maai." Maai refers to your interaction or spacing.

Even though it can be an almost trivial aspect of kata, the kiai is actually a very interesting practice in the martial arts. In Karate, I think that the Hogen term "yagi" best captures the feeling I get during a kiai. I wish that there was also a kiai term for "breath squeeze out."

Perhaps we could call Karate... Kiaite or even Yagidi (Voice, Arrow, Hand). Hmmm. I like that better than "Empty Hand."


Charles C. Goodin