A Kiai (pronounced key-aye for those speaking English) is a short and loud burst of noise from your vocal cords. It derives from your abdomen and you deliver it through the vocal cords. People often mistake it for a yell. It is not a yell. A Kiai is nothing but a loud sound.
It is common to find people yelling “Kiai” as their form of a Kiai. You will see and hear this often. Avoid using any specific word or noise pattern when you produce a Kiai. It is a loud and non-specific sound. So avoid saying things like “eeeyaah”, “aiii”, “hoo”, “hiee”, and especially “Kiai.” These are words and not a Kiai.
A Kiai is a guttural sound that comes from having tensed most of the muscles in the body, in particular those in the torso. This action invokes a quick and loud exhalation of air that provides the following potential benefits (depending on when and how you use the Kiai).
- Uttering a Kiai helps intensify the delivery of strikes
- It provides for strong muscle tension that may help protect the body from various types of an impending impact
- The abrupt sound may startle, disorient, or freeze an opponent
- It may help you focus energy on a specific task
- A Kiai forces you to breathe in places where you might otherwise hold your breath
- It may alert others nearby and draw their attention to your circumstance
- A Kiai helps to time the delivery of a strike with a planned increase in intensity
These benefits are temporary. None of these benefits last for more than a fraction of a second.
As with everything in the martial arts, a Kiai has no magical properties. Sometimes a Kiai will add intensity to a movement or show your level of intensity to others (often useful in a tournament setting). The Kiai may help you focus on energy and intensity when delivering or receiving a strike.
You may find that a Kiai detracts from these same activities. When and when not to use a Kiai can be a nuanced thing. You should practice using the Kiai so you can use it when appropriate. You should avoid using a Kiai for every single movement as this will limit your overall speed and lead to exhaustion from excessive muscle usage. Learn to Kiai when it offers benefits and learn to avoid the Kiai in most other circumstances.
In most Kata, you will find a place where you can or should Kiai. You should take these opportunities to practice your Kiai (unless your instructor has asked you to avoid using the Kiai so as not to disturb others). We suggest Purple Belt candidates should develop a strong Kiai that they can invoke at any moment.
But we are not vigorous advocates of using a Kiai at every turn. You will see practitioners (often at tournaments) who Kiai as though it were part of their breathing cycle. These practitioners often yell the word “Kiai.” We suggest these practitioners make inappropriate use of the Kiai. As a Tensoku Ryu student, you should become practiced at using a Kiai but frugal in its use. Consider how many times can you frighten or intimidate an opponent in two minutes?
Within Tensoku Ryu we use the Kiai when we deliver a periodic powerful strike or when we need to tense our muscles to better absorb an impact. These are rare occurrences. As you will find later, we may deliver ten (or more) minor strikes for every one powerful strike. We might only Kiai (if at all) as we issued the powerful strike.
One reason for minimizing Kiai usage is that issuing it will cause you to experience momentary freezing of your anatomy. While you might Kiai without this freezing action, freezing is hard to avoid. It takes time to recover your breath following a Kiai, so this limits the speed with which you can move from a Kiai moment to the following series of rapid nuanced movements-something we strive for in Tensoku Ryu. If you Kiai often, you will slow the cadence of your movements.
If you take part in tournaments, then you will find other practitioners often use the Kiai. It is what their instructors trained them to do. When practitioners perform Kata, you will find they either do not Kiai, or Kiai at every fresh angle or within each sequence in the form. They do this because they believe it proper. So we cannot fault them for following their instructor’s advice. But you may discern that most of these Kiai lack conviction and do not qualify for any of the benefits listed at the head of this article.
You will find another common use of Kiai in tournaments. If you take part in Kumite, or if you watch it, you will find practitioners who Kiai when they hope they may have scored a point. Practitioners use the Kiai in this way to confuse or intimidate the opponent and to suggest the judges should award a point. The hope is that the judges will reward a point even if the associated blow was not that effective. This can work, though judges may detect the pattern and then ignore any future Kiai.
When you take part in tournament Kumite, you will find people who Kiai every time they engage you. You might handle this circumstance by moving out of the way to show the Kiai accompanies an ineffective strike, striking before your opponent can Kiai, or producing a Kiai at the moment you strike.
In a tournament, you should expect to hear and experience a Kiai from other practitioners. If you demonstrate a Kata at a tournament, then use a Kiai only at one or two specific points in your form, if you use Kiai at all. Do not concern yourself that others are using Kiai often. It is to their detriment as it often shows an amateur method of Kata performance. Limit any use of your Kiai to moments when it shows meaningful intent.
If you spar, then someone who uses a Kiai should not surprise or intimidate you. Expect it to happen and use the opponent’s need to Kiai against him or her. Note both that the Kiai can be predictable and that the Kiai often causes momentary freezing of the opponent. Use these behaviors for your benefit.
For your ranking examination, we do not expect you to Kiai much. We hope to see you use a Kiai in a few specific instances of your choosing. This might be in Kata or self-defense actions, but could be in any other areas of demonstration including kicks, hand strikes, or related skill areas. If you neglect to use a Kiai during a ranking examination you will not fail, but you may receive feedback regarding your need to focus more on using a Kiai. We do not put great emphasis on the Kiai, but we believe it has benefits that every student should experience.