Most martial artists hear of KI (CHI in Chinese) at some point in their training. Often, though, KI is poorly explained, and therefore its concept is foolish, interpreted as some mystical internal power we access only through deep concentration and meditation; Iron Fist style.
KI is not unique to martial arts. Many eastern philosophies, religion, and Feng Shui use KI to understand the Universe and the human body. KI sits at the center of traditional Chinese medicine theory. Acupuncturists treat their patients based on the status and health levels of their KI.
But what is KI?
The easy answer is that KI is the invisible energy that flows through our bodies and keep us alive– our life force.
Prayer based religions such as Christianity may call it the soul. KI affects our health, moods, emotions, strength in technique, and expression of our arts. If KI does not flow properly through our body, we get sick. If our KI is weak, we have sloppy technique. We are all born with KI, but we don’t all develop it. To develop KI to its highest level, we must focus on it deeply with training. There are exercises that we can practice to help develop and strengthen our KI.
In Aikido, some teachers have integrated KI development within their training. This is because the concept of strong energy and vitality goes hand in hand with general Aikido concepts. Koichi Tohei Sensei was the foremost Aikido instructor to integrate KI development with Aikido training. There is no doubt that to have a successful martial training, one need to have strong vital energy. In Shodo this is very important since calligraphy captures our KI on paper. Our vital energy flows through the brush with ink and makes and implant on the paper. The connection of mind and brush and the harmonization of KI energy is critical for good calligraphy.
KI training and development can be mystical if wrongly interpreted and understood. In a very simple way, Toyoda Shihan once explained the process of developing KI (Toyoda, 1993). He wrote that there are four levels of KI development we must go through to fully experience the effect of KI in our training.
The first level of development is KIAI.
KIAI means to join with KI, but Toyoda Shihan defined it as the harmonization of KI energy with physical activity. KIAI to most martial artists is a yell performed during dynamic techniques. But KIAI is more than that. In martial training, when we reach a level of complete harmony between our energy and our body, strong KI can be expressed with a yell. A simple shout without KI has no meaning and no strength, and usually, its sound quickly disappears. However, a yell with KI can resonate like thunder, echo in a building, and shake a wooden structure. We can see KIAI in technique that is clean, sharp, and graceful.
The second level of development is KIROKU.
KIROKU is the Power of KI. This is a higher level of intensity. It is the stage when we start to understand the power and effect of our KI. KI is flowing through our bodies and it is manifested in our technique, art, and in our daily lives. While KIAI is the harmonization of KI energy with physical movements, KIROKU is felt during contact from one person to another during technique. In Shodo, KIROKU is seen in the shape, vitality, and expression of brushstrokes.
The third level of development is KIHAKU.
KIHAKU is the spirit of KI and is similar to KIROKU. When we talk about the “spirit” of KI we speak of something beyond power, but a higher level of KI development and understanding. At this level, one should be able to draw the KI of others and use it in technique. We can also use KIHAKU to connect and understand other people which will allow us to help others in meaningful ways.
The fourth level of development is HIBIKI
HIBIKI means “echo”. An echo replicates a sound instantly and precisely. This also happens naturally. A person at this level of KI development has immense spiritual power. Like an echo, one reacts to any situation perfectly and precisely, without confusion or delay, harmonizing with our surroundings.
We could interpret these as levels as quantities of achievements. But they are not attained simply through training in technique and exercise or by passing a promotion test. There isn’t a required amount of time needed to move onto the next level. It is a lifelong process, and it may take some people longer than others. While it is important to understand these levels, we must not get stuck in the intellectual understanding of them. Instead we must simply express our true self fully and mindfully during practice, whether martial or artistic, and consequently, our energy will become vital, active, and healthy.
Toyoda, F. (1993). The Concept of KI – Stages of Training. Aikido Today. 8(2).