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The KIAI  by Collin Affleck (May 20, 2000)

Noise or Technique

The kiai or “spirit yell” is far more than a simple yell it is a technique that has to be practiced no differently that the technique that it accompanies. It is said that a strong kiai can even be used to stun or intimidate an opponent, preventing an attack. At one time, there was even a martial art known as kiai-jutsu, which focused primarily on the use of the kiai (successful application would require a truly exceptional fighting spirit). It is said that a Karate master can defeat their opponent with only their kiai.  In order for your kiai to be perfected you should find a location that you can practice your kiai and make it part of your daily training routine.  I have found the car a great place, you can practice on my way to and from work or school.

Why Kiai

The kiai has several purposes:

  1. It empties air from the lungs. This is good, because if you are struck after executing a kiai, the chances of having the "wind knocked out of you" are greatly reduced. Also, by getting as much air out of your lungs as possible, it makes you a somewhat harder, denser target. Therefore, if you are struck after a kiai, it should not hurt quite as much.
  2. It should startle your opponent. Even a momentary pause or blink by your opponent can be the opening your are waiting for. Use a kiai to help create that opening.It should "psyche" you up. Think of it as talking to yourself before the big fight. The kiai should get your adrenaline going.
  3. It should also be used to focus your energy.
  4. It should also be used to control breathing.  Proper breath control is critical to maximizing the potential power of the technique.

A Proper Kiai

The kiai involves the tensing of the diaphragm and expelling air from the mouth, making a short sharp sound.  The sound should be a one syllable sound like "I", "HI" and "EE".  You want your kiai to be as short but loud as possible. However, a kiai should not be confused with a yell. A well-executed kiai will not cause the throat to feel to raw, as yelling would.  Continued careless kiais can potentially damage your voice or at tire you during a strenuous training session.

The other important part of producing the perfect kiai is good breathing patterns. A kiai is usually appropriate in the middle of an exhausting practice session. This is often when breathing becomes labored, and posture is poor. Your tend to use an upper chest breathing pattern (thoracic), and stoop over in order to get breath back. In fact, this gives the smallest lung volume possible, which doesn’t leave much air to kiai on.

Instead, it is useful to use a diaphragmatic pattern, which increases lung volume, and improves recovery time. To establish diaphragmatic breathing sit up straight with shoulders relaxed. Place your hands on your back at the bottom of your ribcage. As you breathe, try to make your hands move in and out without raising your chest and shoulders, or sticking out your stomach. The goal is to feel that the diaphragm controls your breathing. This will provide more support and control for the kiai, which means is has the potential to be louder.

Using good breathing relaxed shoulders and good voice habits will produce an impressive kiai without causing any damage to you.

When to Kiai

The kiai can be used in several ways.  The first and most common is to at the focal point of an attack.  The second could be at the focal point of a block.  A third version is to kiai prior to the attack to startle your opponent to create an opening.  You can also use the kiai to demonstrate spirit.

If the kiai is used in support of an attack the purpose should be to generate more energy.  You should also use the kiai to focus this newly generated energy.  In a Kata you will usually kiai on a finishing technique.

When the kiai is used to focus a block you should have the same mental and physical focus that you would have in an attacking technique.  If the block is applied in the proper manner with the proper focus it should have the ability to stop the attack of your opponent.  This type of block is used most often in a where the defender is attacking with the block.  An example of this is seen in Zen-shin-kotai where the soto-uke is used as both a block and an attack. 

The kiai can also be used successfully to surprise an opponent to create an opening.  This done by using the kiai to surprise the opponent, when surprised they will “freeze” for a brief moment.  You MUST attack during the brief moment if you wish to utilize this technique.

The kiai is also used to demonstrate spirit.  If witnessed, a proper kiai shows the fighting spirit in the student.  The student can also draw energy from the kiai during a workout.  The kiai can help drive the student past the previous mental limits that existing.


A quote by Master Funakoshi Gichin sums up why and how we kiai better that any other text that I have read on the subject.

“When you kiai, if it is a sound that comes only from your mouth, it has no value. Unless kiai explodes out from your stomach joining the whole of your body power and your spirit, it is meaningless."

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