Over the past few months, I’ve been actively trying to develop my kiai. When you first start doing kendo I think you find the concept of kiai quite pointless and also a little difficult to do. This is probably due to ingrained Britishness about these kind if things. It took me a while to realise how much kiai actually can improve your performance in all aspects of kendo.
Despite finding the majority of suburi easier than I used to (maybe not sonkyo or matawari) I’ve realised over time how a good kiai helps during those times when you start to feel it. I find it interesting now that although you are generally told at the start that your kiai is a demonstration of your spirit, kiai can also feed your spirit, building it up. A good shout brings about a change of mind, putting you in a mental state risen for battle. Try and lift something really heavy and you end up shouting. The kiai feeds the spirit which feeds the kiai. I guess it’s just a very base level of neuro linguistic programming.
I’ve also noticed that the majority of more experienced kendoka I have met had a very distinctive and piercing kiai, generally of a much higher pitch and volume that carries round the dojo. The majority of us newer guys have generally much deeper kiai that is more like a standard shout.
I’ve read as much as i can a recently and have been trying to put it into practice, but what exactly is a good kiai? What are you aiming towards? Very little seems to be devoted to the subject except some fairly basic explanations.
It’s falling into another one of the combination of 3’s that I always see in life (that’s another article). Ki-ken-tai being the obvious kendo related one. Sword and body are things you have quite a lot of explanation about, but ki seems to be very much something you have to understand for yourself and develop with minimal guidance. Oh look, it’s my favourite phrase again. ‘You have to find the truth for yourself.’
So now during warm up and suburi, I no longer consider the counting as just counting. It’s kiai warm up and training. During each section of the warm up, sensei calls itch-ni-san-shi and we respond with go-roku-shichi-hachi. I read that kiai should not be separate from breathing and now try to incorporate the kiai as just another aspect of breathing. Breath out during itch-ni, breath in during san-shi, the remaining four counts are kiai level and then any remaining air goes out on the itch-ni, the cycle repeats.
In doing this it gives more to the power of the breath, enabling it to begin to resonate in the body without feeling like I’m forcing it out. This is also helping to train my breathing in a defined way. I’ve often heard it said by various singers that powerful singing does not come from the throat, it comes form the bottom of your lungs. I’ve noticed that when I manage to properly produce decent airflow, I am naturally raising the pitch of my kiai and I can feel it vibrating through my head, specifically the parts just between my eyes and at the top of the nose on the inside. I’m taking this as a good sign.
Next during suburi I concentrate on the counting again, using the count at a kiai level, breathing in time with my cuts. It feels more effective and I think it’s a part you can forget about during suburi, part of the ki-ken-tai. By the time this is all finished, I think I’ve warmed up my voice as well as my body.
During each rotation in kihon, my reigi during each bow reaches kiai level.
When sensei asks a question the response is ‘Hai!’ at kiai level.
Now comes the part I am exploring now. What is a good kiai? What should its effect be on your opponent? What’s a good word or sound?
My sensei put it that it should be something that is yours, instinctive and a vocalisation that feels right. Standard training goes with ‘Ya’ and this is good start with, but quickly feels inadequate. It feels like the ‘a’ sound can drag out, softening your kiai, making it feel less penetrating as a good kiai is meant to be seme as well. Go up against a high level kendoka and their kiai will do that to you, it feels disturbing like the cry of your own child when they are obviously in distress (parents will know what I mean). It stirs something primal.
There is definitely something very distinct about kiai at this level, there is a sharper intent and it’s unexpected. I’ve also failed to find any really good examples of kiai on the internet. I’ve found one interesting video from Sumi Sensei and his kiai is seriously intimidating and if you go any deeper in terms of reading on the subject, it’s gets very metaphysical very quickly.
If you want a good example of what kiai should do, I suggest this. It’s the scene from Star Wars where Obi Wan scares the sand people away from Luke as he lies unconscious. I re-watched this the other day with my son and found it really interesting how much of japanese culture has been lifted into the film. Vader’s outfit, Jedi costume is very much like a kimono the use of sword like weapons when guns exist and are quite destructive. The point is that Obi Wan is using his own form of Kiai and it is so good that he doesn’t even have to fight the sand people. He sees off three armed individuals with only the power of his kiai. It’s unnerving, intimidating and powerful. Just ignore the blueray version.
So kiai is just an extension of your spirit within the trinity of ki-ken-tai, pitched against you opponents three. If you train all three, you can defeat all three. As for the actual sound and wording of a kiai, I have settled on ‘Ah-Sai’ at the moment and from time to time ‘Ah-ra-sai’. It came quite naturally and developed over time from a simple ‘Sai.’ I’m sure there is some level of scientific possibility as research must have been done into what kind of noises are most disturbing to the human ear and also what sounds can be produced by the human voice. According to this article the range of sounds that are most distressing to the human ear are in the range of the human voice. I wonder if there is some scientific method to come up with a disturbing kiai based on the frequencies produced without resorting to simple trial and error.
The thing is though, that different people find different sounds distracting and unpleasant. Some may hate the sound of nails on a chalk board but others may not care.
The thing I find is that a strong kiai seems to me what makes the difference between kendoka who seem experienced and those that don’t. It’s also what I think really helps to define part of your individual nature as a kendoka and differentiates you from others.
For further reading, I also found this text on kiai. Although it is mostly karate centric, it has a lot of interesting insights into kiai and ki.
Although I may not have my kiai to exactly the level that I want it to be, I feel like I have a training technique now and I can see actual improvement.