Monday, September 27, 2010

The Real Kiai

     Ask almost anyone involved in the Japanese or Okinawan martial arts about the kiai and what it is, and you'll likely get several answers:
1. It's a loud shout.
     That's very good, Cubby.  But is that it?  I mean, why do you shout?  Are you scared or what?
2. It's a shout that helps you tighten up your abdominal muscles, thereby making your technique more powerful.
     Well, that's a better answer than #1 but it's still incomplete.  Simply tightening the abdominals won't necessarily make your technique any stronger but it'll make you look more attractive if you're wearing Spandex.
     Actually - and you all should already know this - tightening the abdominal muscles inwards, which is what most people do when they contract these muscles, actually separates upper and lower body strength.  This makes your technique weaker.
     There are muscle connections that run between the upper and lower body and when you exhale and contract the abdominals inwards, those connections go slack.  This means that if you're striking with an upper body technique, your power is restricted to the upper body; you cannot utilize the power of the your lower body.
     If you're using a kicking technique, you cannot utilize the power of your upper body.  You can only employ the power of your leg and, to some degree, your hips.
     Ideally, the abdominals are not powerfully contracted when you execute your technique.  By using reverse breathing (which we've discussed in earlier lectures) the abdominals are tightened somewhat , but without contracting them inwards.  This unites the strength of the upper and lower body, allowing you to unify and strike with your whole body.
     But you don't have to shout to do it.
3. It's a shout that scares the bejeezus out've your opponent.
     That's a good answer, too.  A sudden, unexpected, powerful noise shocks the nervous system.  This can  temporarily "stun" your opponent, leaving him momentarily helpless and unable to defend himself.  Simple as this sounds, it actually requires considerable practice. 
     Most martial arts practitioners tend to kind of "squeak" when they kiai.  Some even say an actual word.  I've actually been in schools where students were taught to say the word "ki-ai!" when they kiai...!!  Pretty weird.
     Not only that, but many martial arts enthusiasts shout with their throats.  After two or three shouts, they can hardly speak.  This is an indication that their technique is wrong.  The true shout comes from the lower belly and is a guttural sound.  If it's done properly you should be able to deliver an explosive shout and then continue talking without any problems or discomfort.
     But that's not the right answer, either.
     You may have noticed that I've not been using the Chinese term for shouting, chi-he (pronounced "chee-huh").  There's a reason for that.  Calm your toot.
     The correct answer is that the true kiai doesn't necessarily have anything to do with making a noise.  The word kiai means roughly, "spirit meeting."  This doesn't mean that you're about to begin a seance or play with a ouija infers that the kiai is a moment when the body, mind, and spirit are brought together, fused together for a single instant.  This fusion allows you to fully focus your entire being on the task at hand.
     The Chinese phrase, chi-he, means roughly "energy/spirit shout" and this seems (to me) to be more concerned with the exterior function of the kiai...the shout itself.  Those of you who have gone to the trouble of purchasing my book will recall a chapter which is devoted to the tehcnique of shouting.  And if you haven't yet purchased a copy, get off your butts and do it.  If you can't afford it, you need to find a better job.
     But enough of that.
     The Japanese phrasing is, I think, a better translation of what the true kiai should be.  It's much more than just mere physical technique, much more than just shouting.
     There is a story about a young American karateka (karate practitioner) and his sensei (teacher) that really drives the point home.  The student was practicing a particular kata (form) and when he had completed the set, his teacher informed him that he had forgotten the kiai. 
     The student was confused; this kata had no kiai in it.  He reminded his sensei of this fact but his teacher was having none of it.  The true kiai, his teacher explained, doesn't necessarily involve noise.  It is a merging of the entire being - body, mind, and spirit - for a split second during the execution of an ending technique (when one theoretically destroys the enemy).  It is more of a spiritual/mental thing than a physical thing.  It's more than simply shouting and making a loud noise.  It is a fusion and focusing of one's being on the task at hand (destroying the opponent).
     This fusion is felt more than it is heard and a good teacher can quickly determine if it has been applied to a particular technique.  In this student's case, it hadn't.
     All forms contain the kiai but only a few forms require you to make a noise when you do it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dress For Success

      Many years ago there was a book named "Dress For Success" which enjoyed considerable popularity.  The author (whose name I can't recall) noted, among other things, how one's attitude was affected by the manner in which one was dressed.  It sounds a little weird but over the years, I have found many of his assertions to be true and it's one of the reasons I insist on students wearing a proper training uniform.
     In general, it can be said that the condition of one's practice uniform reflects one's attitude towards training.  If it looks like a used facial tissue; if it's torn and in need of repair, or if the salt stains (from yesterday's sweat) haven't been washed out, it is a fairly accurate indication of how one regards oneself and one's training.
    A students who pays a lot of attention to detail; who is a stickler for sharp technique and who aims at perfection will usually wear a uniform which is clean and pressed.  You could almost cut your finger on the creases in their trousers. 
     At the other end of the spectrum is the student whose uniform has been wadded up and shoved into a practice bag for a couple of days.  It has more wrinkles in it than an elephant's butt and his attitude towards training will tend to be lackadaisical.  His technique and form often leans towards the his uniform.
     And then, of course, there are a lot of in-betweens. 
     Training in street clothes is common in many internal Chinese schools and I think this actually has an impact on their (the student's) approach towards training.  Casual.  That's how they often regard it, but training time should be anything but casual.  One must concentrate and give a full 100% of one's attention to it.
     In the old days (and even in modern China) most training was conducted outdoors.  People gathered in parks to practice and so they naturally wore their everyday street-clothes.  That's why most kung-fu stylists wear shoes.
     But I think this kind of thing has had a negative impact on (Chinese) martial arts.  For one thing, street-clothes don't hold up very well to the rigors of strenuous practice.  So, the teacher has a choice; he can water down the training so that the students don't damage their clothes (and maybe themselves), or he can go ahead and conduct a vigorous class and end up with a bunch of half-naked students.
     Due to the heat and humidity (especially in southern China), many kung-fu stylists prefer to wear training trousers and tee-shirts.  Such clothing won't hold up in our training.  Tee-shirts don't stand up to grappling practice.  There are some who will argue that "in a real fight your opponent won't be wearing a heavy practice jacket", and that's why they prefer tee-shirts.  Okay.  So let's do the techniques and grab the tee-shirts.  Watch what happens.  Or we can just grab meat and execute the throw.  But then, a lot of students wouldn't be returning to class.
     The reason the heavy jacket is worn is NOT to accommodate the thrower in the execution of his technique; it's to PROTECT the receiver - so the thrower doesn't have to grab a fistful of meat in order to perform the throw.
     If the receiver insists on wearing a tee shirt or regular street-clothes, it leaves the thrower in a quandry.  Does he rip his partner's clothes to shreds?  Does he dig into his partner's flesh to perform the throw?  Or does he water down the technique?
     This is why I require all students to wear a full uniform in class.
     However, the main thing is that the overall condition of the practice uniform is an indicator of the regard a person has for training and even for himself.