A Kiai is a short and loud burst of noise from your vocal chords, or more accurately, deriving from your abdomen and delivered through the vocal chords. Some people think of it as a yell, but it is really not a yell, as such. It is simply a loud sound.
It is not unusual to find people yelling “Kiai” as their form of a Kiai. You will see and hear this quite frequently. You will want to avoid using any specific word or noise pattern when you produce a Kiai. It is simply a loud and non-specific sound. So avoid saying things like “eeeyaah”, “aiii”, “hoo”, “hiee”, and especially “Kiai.” These are words (though perhaps not words found in a dictionary) and not a Kiai.
A Kiai is a guttural sound that comes from having suddenly tensed most of the muscles in the body, particularly those in the torso. This action invokes a very quick and loud exhalation of air that provides the following potential benefits (depending on when and how the Kiai is used).
- It helps intensify the delivery of some strikes
- It provides for strong muscle tension that may help protect the body from various types of impending impact
- The abruptness of the sound may temporarily startle, disorient, or freeze an opponent
- It may help you focus energy on a specific task
- It forces you to breath in places where you might otherwise be inclined to hold your breathe
- It may alert others nearby and draw their attention to your situation
- It helps to time the delivery of a strike with a planned increase in intensity
As with all things there is nothing magical here. There are times when a Kiai will add some intensity to a movement or demonstrate your level of intensity to others (often useful in a tournament setting). The Kiai may also help you focus energy and intensity when delivering or receiving a strike. You may also find that at times a Kiai detracts from these same activities. When and when not to use a Kiai can be a fairly nuanced thing. You should practice using the Kiai so that you can employ it when you feel it is appropriate. You should avoid using a Kiai for every single movement and activity as this will ultimately limit your overall speed and lead to exhaustion from all the excessive muscle activity. Learn to Kiai when it is beneficial, and learn to avoid the Kiai in most other situations.
In many 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 think all Purple Belt candidates should develop a strong and effective Kiai that they can invoke at any moment.
But we are not strong advocates of using a Kiai at every turn. You will see some practitioners (particularly at tournaments) who Kiai with every strike or block. These practitioners also often yell the word “Kiai.” We suggest this is inappropriate. As a Tensoku Ryu student you should become practiced at using a Kiai effectively but then employ it sparingly and when it seems most appropriate. After all, how many times do you think you can frighten or intimidate an opponent in two minutes?
Within Tensoku Ryu we tend to 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 generally fairly rare occurrences. As you will find later, we may deliver ten minor strikes for every one powerful strike. We would only Kiai (if at all) as we issued the powerful strike.
One of the reasons for using the Kiai so sparingly is that issuing a Kiai will cause you to experience a momentary freezing of your anatomy. While you may be able to Kiai without this freezing action, it can be hard to avoid. It also takes time to recover you breath following a Kiai, so this limits the speed with which you can move from a Kiai moment to a subsequent series of rapid nuanced movements – something we strive for in Tensoku Ryu. If you Kiai frequently you will naturally slow down the cadence of your movements.
If you participate in tournaments you will find that other practitioners often use the Kiai. It is how they have been trained. When practitioners perform Kata you will find they either do not Kiai at all, or Kiai at every new angle in the Kata. They do this because they believe it is proper. So we cannot fault them for doing what they have been taught. But you will likely notice 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 participate in Kumite, or if you simply observe it, you will find practitioners who Kiai when they believe they may have scored a point. This is often done to confuse the opponent and to call the strike to the attention of the judges. The hope is that the judges will reward a point even if the associated blow was not that effective. The combination of the blow and the Kiai is intended to sway the judges in the event the judges are not entirely sure a blow was effective. This can work, though judges may quickly notice the pattern and then ignore the Kiai in the future.
Nonetheless when participating in Kumite in a tournament you will find people who Kiai every time they engage you. Your best counters are to move out of the way so the Kiai is shown to accompany an ineffective strike, to strike before your opponent can Kiai, or to Kiai at the same moment as you also strike.
If you participate in a tournament you should expect to hear and experience a Kiai from other practitioners. If you are demonstrating Kata at a tournament then use a Kiai only at one or two very specific points in your form, if you use Kiai at all. Do not be concerned that others are using Kiai frequently. It is actually to their detriment as it often demonstrates an amateur method of Kata performance. Limit any use of your Kiai to moments when it clearly indicates a powerful intent.
If you participate in sparring (primarily Kumite) you should not be surprised or intimidated by someone who uses a Kiai. Expect it to happen and find ways to use the Kiai to discredit the opponent or to use the opponent’s need to Kiai against him or her. Note both that the timing of the Kiai can be predictable and that the Kiai often causes a momentary freezing of the opponent. Find ways to use these behaviors for your benefit.
For your ranking examination we do not expect you to Kiai much. We would like to see you use a Kiai in a few specific instances of your choosing. This might be in Kata or in some self-defense actions, but could also be in any other areas of demonstration including kicks, hand strikes, or related skill areas. Neglecting to use a Kiai during a ranking examination will not be cause for examination failure, but you may receive some feedback about your need to focus more on using Kiai at times. We do not put great emphasis on use of a Kiai, but we do believe it has benefits that every student should experience and learn to utilize effectively.