by Stefan Stenudd
Ki. Just by pronouncing that single syllable in any gathering of Martial Arts practitioners, a heated debate commences. Every time.
The debate is predictable. It focuses on one question: Does ki exist, or is it purely imaginary? An interesting question, for sure, but peripheral when it comes to Martial Arts training. Whether it exists or not, it works fine.
As a teacher of aikido and iai, I use the concept of ki constantly, not finding a superior or even an equal substitute for it. Is that irresponsible, presenting something which may not exist outside the mind? Well, itís all in the mind.
Bird versus polar bears
Man is a creature depending very significantly on the mind and its impression of the outside world - rarely identical with the objective world. This is particularly true in the Martial Arts, though certainly not only in them. Actually, it might be true for other animals as well.
I remember a TV documentary about animal life in the Polar area. In the midst of snow and ice, a sea bird was brooding on its eggs, in a simple nest on the ground. A polar bear approached. The narrator was convinced that the bear fostered no hope to catch the bird, but the eggs would not fly away.
But when the bear was about four feet away from the bird, it fiercely turned its head toward the bear and quacked. The bird looked pretty much like a duck, and sounded about the same. Not what we would call a decent kiai, but the bear jumped back several feet.
The polar bear is regarded as one of the most aggressive predators, not even hesitating to attack human beings, contrary to most animals. In its habitat there are no animals able to fight it successfully, and surely not this little duck. Still, the bear hesitated considerably, and next time approached with a lot more care.
At the same distance as before, the bird quacked, and the bear jumped back.
This went on for so long, obviously, that there was a cut in the documentary. And then there was another polar bear joining with the first one, reacting the same way at the birdís quacks. Again there was a cut in the film, and the narrator explained that this went on for quite a while. Finally, though, the bears had moved in over the nest, and the bird had retreated. The eggs were consumed.
You guessed it - I would call this ki. There may be other explanations, but for the sake of training, they could not make much difference. Donít try it with a polar bear, though.
Martial Arts applications
Ki is not only focused aggression, nor is it just a life force hidden within the breath. It is a concept with several ingredients, which are excellent for learning the skills of the Martial Arts. Let me go through some of them.
Ki is so closely linked to breath that it needs a good breathing technique and awareness of breathing, in general. This is fundamental to human physical capacity. Proper breathing increases endurance, brings mental calm and focus. This is true, whether there is ki hidden in the breath or not.
A strong flow of ki needs to have its source in the center, the second chakra, tanden in Japanese. The center, as well, needs not exist to work.
Breathing with a sense of doing it with oneís center, makes the whole body involved and the breathing deep, which is good for the oxygen consumption as well.
Focusing on oneís center increases balance, which adds power to oneís movements. This focus also helps to stay aware of oneís body, instead of allowing oneís mind to control the situation intellectually and try to solve it on that plane, which is often insufficient.
With ki, there is significance in the two directions of in and out. Strong movements need to be done with ki going out, which also means exhaling. This is essential also from a strictly physical perspective.
The extension of ki outside oneís body, in the direction one is moving, is immensely helpful in making the body adapt to the needs of the situation and achieve the result intended. Modern western mental training for athletes has incorporated some of this, although without that provocative syllable.
One cannot act optimally, if not imagining oneís complete movement beforehand.
In tameshigiri, for example, one is weak in the cut if remaining with oneís mind in the sword grip, or in the blade, or staring at the surface of the object to be cut through. It is necessary to imagine the completed cut, all through, or one will unconsciously slow down when approaching the object, or lean away from it. This preliminary imaginary cut is easily done with ki thinking, which also joins with breathing and the remaining in oneís center, to maximize the bodyís ability.
Also in dealing with an opponent, ki is very helpful indeed - the ki of the opponent, who does not even have to be aware of it.
It is next to impossible for the conscious mind to read an opponent with any confidence. One would easily be overwhelmed by contradicting thoughts and impressions, not to mention how slow the brain is with such processes. We learn to trust what we call our instinct, something which might need scientific analysis as well. But instinct, if not given proper directives, may be just as much a trap as the conscious mind is. The emotions can mess anything up, and they pretty much rule instinct.
Training to read the opponentís ki, is learning to sense his or her intentions, to perceive the small physical signals giving away what the opponent prepares for and aims at. Actually, a good reading of ki - whatever really takes place when one does it - can be a splendid way of seeing through feints, as well as reacting immediately to surprise attacks. I have to stress, though, like with the polar bears - be careful with the application of it.
The ki flow principle trains the student to react with action, instead of reaction. Instinct makes people defensive, and usually gives them the impulse to back away. Few battles are won by that. The ki way is to extend awareness as well as intention toward the opponent, making offensive moves come naturally.
Applying the center also to the opponent is excellent for reading and influencing his or her balance. The one who succeeds in breaking the otherís balance is very likely to win as a direct consequence of it. In the techniques of aikido, judo and similar arts, thatís just about all there is to it. The center is the most trustworthy and practical method for dealing with the opponentís balance.
Parallel to how oneís own center helps give awareness of the body, the awareness of the opponentís center helps in taking oneís mind off his or her weapon, fist or foot, and keep it on the body. In any Martial Art, one must deal with the opponentís body to win, whatever might stick out from it.
Yes, the body as opposed to the mind, is a persistent theme. In the Martial Arts, we need to allow the body control of its actions and responses, and our training should make it equipped for that responsibility. That is why we need a way of thinking, which focuses on the body, on bodily processes as causes and autonomous pilots in our movements.
The controversial syllable, as well as the concept of the center as a major source of it, may seem like theoretical abstractions to some, but they actually result in bodily awareness. They move our focus from the intellect, and train us in efficient spontaneous action.