Anyone who has ever studied karate practitioners at work, will have noticed that they can be a very noisy bunch. The shouts of “kiai” reverberate around the dojo and it can often be baffling to the observer, why would there be a need for this noise? Why do practitioners yell kiai in Karate?
A kiai is an integral part of Karate. It helps to focus the energies of the student to give her punches and kicks more power and it acts as a battle cry to potentially awe your opponent. It makes them aware of how confident you feel that they are going down.
What is a Kiai?
The kiai is a shout that is used in many different martial arts including karate. It is said to be taken from a reversal of “aiki” which are the first four letters of “aikido” another discipline which uses the kiai.
You can break down the kanji for “ai” into what are called three radicals. These are “join”, “mouth” and “one”. The kanji for “ki” represents a pot full of steamed rice this is supposed to denote “energy”.
Therefore, aiki really refers to the harmony between spirit and energy.
When reversed, to kiai, this connotation of harmony between spirit and energy is preserved but there is also a stronger focus on “mouth” or giving voice to this harmony. Thus, the kiai was born from the aiki and is considered to be the “yin” to its “yang” by many martial arts practitioners.
The term also appears in Korean martial arts but is known as “K’ihap” because the Korean Hangul alphabet has different pronunciations from the Japanese.
It’s worth noting that the Korean Hiragana script does not offer the same visual representation of the concept, though.
The Four Classic Types Of Kiai
There is not one kiai but, in fact, four classic types of kiai which are used by martial artists when fighting:
- Attacking shout. This shout is the loudest and most fierce. Its designed to force the enemy to drop their concentration and give the attacker’s body the courage and momentum to overwhelm the enemy. There is no particular word used to signify this shout. It can be whatever the fighter deems appropriate. However, “ehy!” appears to be the most common usage in Japan.
- Reacting shout. This shout is heavier and more intense than the attacking shout. It’s meant to discourage an opponent when their plans have been thwarted. The objective here is a hollow sounding “exhalation” and for the Japanese this is normally said as, “toh!”
- Victorious shout. This is a celebratory taunt given once you have overwhelmed the enemy. If you have laid many blows upon him, why not let him know that he is beaten and let him grovel before you? The Japanese tend to use “yah!” sound for this but it can be changed to anything that makes you feel delight as you scream.
- “Shadow” Shout. This isn’t really a “shout” at all, instead, it’s a commitment of mind, body and soul to the shout as if you were to make one. It’s a peculiar concept that involves blending the other three shout forms in your mind and acting as though they were vocalized (when, in fact, you remain silent).
How Do You Do A Kiai?
A kiai is not just shouting. If it was, there’d be no need for instruction or practice and yet, if you want to get your kiai right, you do need to practice.
The emotion that should underpin your kiai is not rage, hate or frustration but more a focused intent to win.
While there are no easy routes to developing the perfect kiai and it is best to work with a sensei on this – you can begin with this routine:
- Get your posture right. You want to angle your pelvis a little bit forward but keep the spine in alignment then relax and let your body rest upon the lower abdomen.
- Get your breathing right. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This is good practice for nearly everything in life too. Breathe from the bottoms of your lungs and breathe deeply. Feel your breath in your stomach and not your chest.
- Then expel the air. Push from the bottom of your lungs, exhale explosively.
- Get vocal (unless you’re using a “shadow shout). Use the back of your throat to create a vocalization for your shout. It ought to sound natural. Typically, a well-delivered kiai sound has a sort of “vowel” feel to it. It’s worth noting that you don’t shout “kiai” and don’t have to make a “k” sound of any kind, unless it feels right.
- Be loud. A lot of first time kiai users sound like mice rather than lions. You’re not screaming like an extra in a horror movie, but you should be stamping your presence over everyone around you. No matter who told you to “be quiet and not make a fuss”, now’s the time to ignore them. Be loud.
- Let the kiai pulse. Think of your shout as a weapon and not a vocal instrument. You drive it up through the abdomen and the mouth directs it at your opponent(s). It should have impact and it can pulse – it doesn’t need to stay at the same pitch and volume (which would be very draining).
How Much Kiai Is Too Much?
Technically, in a fight, there’s no such thing as too much kaia and, in fact, there may be benefits to using it constantly:
- It’s a full on berserker performance. The berserkers were the Viking’s shock troops. No armor but just a desire to kill and an attitude to go with it. Their enemies often fled the battlefield as the berserkers raced toward them screaming their lungs out. A constant kiai can have a similar effect.
- It might get you some help. If you’re in a street fight or a surprise encounter, then screaming might draw the attention of passers-by and get you some assistance (or at least inspire someone to make a handy call to the police).
- It might make you seem crazy. Sure, this is probably not very useful to you at home but in a fight, who wants to fight a crazy person? Your opponent might just give up before they have begun.
- If you’re fighting “to the death” then a kiai is appropriate with every blow. A kiai would, originally, have signified the intent to kill. Thus, a killing blow should have a kaia.
But there are potential downsides to this approach to fighting too:
- It may make you overconfident. Berserkers may be legendary warriors but many of them ended up dead on the battlefield. An armored foe that kept their nerve could make easy pickings of a man with no armor.
- It may annoy your opponent. You may, instead of scaring your opponent, just make them angrier and that may mean they fight harder than they would have done.
- It can leave you exhausted. You need oxygen and energy to scream and you also need oxygen and energy to fight. Screaming burns fuel that could be fueling punches and kicks.
- It eliminates the “element of surprise”. There’s a lot to be said for getting the first blow in while your enemy is unaware that you are there. You can’t shout at someone and expect them not to know you’re there.
This means that you need to think carefully before you go full on “kiai” because while there can be benefits of this approach, there can also be serious disadvantages.
How Many Kiai Should Be Used In A Single Kata?
This depends on two things: the instructor and the kata itself. Most instructors will choose a kaia moment at least once per kata and it’s very rare for them to exceed 5 in any given kata.
You can see some great examples of this in the video below which walks you through a great number of katas:
Which Other Martial Arts Use A Kiai?
The kaia is used in several other martial arts including judo, aikido, kobudo and kendo. In fact, in kendo – if you don’t deliver a kiai when you hit the opponent, you don’t get the point for the hit in competition!
Why do practitioners yell kiai in karate? Well, they don’t yell “kiai” but they do yell because it’s part of the way that the martial art is practiced and because it is said to help with attacking and defending in karate. That yell is known is a “kiai”.
Draeger, Donn F. Modern Bujutsu & Budo: Martial arts And Ways Of Japan, Vol III. Weatherhill, Tokyo 1974, 1996
Don Oberloh, The Dojo Desk Reference- Translation of “Hyaku Jiten no Bugei” by Sakiyama Akatsuki, Densho Publications Honolulu, Hi. (2006) ISBN 0-9787198-0-8
E.J. Harrison, The Fighting Spirit of Japan Overlook TP; Reprint edition (1988) ISBN 0-87951-154-0
Forrest E. Morgan, Living the Martial Way: A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think, Barricade Books, 1992, ISBN 0-942637-76-3