Ki is derived from a Chinese character that depicts steam rising from rice as it cooks. It literally translates “breath, air, or gas,” and is understood in Chinese medicine and martial arts to refer to the life force that all living thing possess. Another way to define this abstraction is “vitality.” There is nothing mystical or religious about this: if you are alive, you have ki; and if you are healthy, you have just as much ki as any martial arts master. This vitality, or life energy is bestowed by the Omnipotent Creator of all things, and in a sense, at least as far as mankind is concerned, ki is what is referenced in Genesis 2:7:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Unfortunately, ki is the one aspect of martial arts philosophy that has been most romanticized, most misconstrued, and most abused. Some self-professed “masters” claim that ki gives them super-human strength while others boast ki as some sort of commodity that can be created, moved about, and sent out. Ki has also been described as a “sixth sense” that can be developed or as something to make one heavy as lead or light as air. And, the list of claims goes on and on, much of it belonging in a carnival side-show or sourced in witchcraft and the demonic.
As mentioned, ki does exist, and since all human beings have physical bodies undergirded by living souls, possessing this ki or vitality isn’t really the relevant issue for the martial artist, aside from the need to stay healthy and strong. Rather, what is important in martial arts training is the awareness of one’s ki coupled with its honing (i.e. as a blade sharpened on a whetstone) and exertion or application through the physical medium of the body. It’s the honed awareness and focused application of ki to static and dynamic technique which can equip an adept martial artist with esoteric abilities that make him formidable in combat or able to preemptively diffuse a hostile situation before punches are even thrown. And yes, some of these abilities may or may not be easily or fully explained by the physical sciences, as is the case with great feats known to have been performed by normal people in moments of adrenaline-laced crisis.
Forrest E. Morgan, on page 103 of his excellent text Living the Martial Way (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 1992), writes:
Unfortunately, most modern [martial arts] instructors don’t understand these talents, much less use them. As a result, they invent the nonsense we see offered the public today. Even the few who really have the skills [i.e. to hone or apply ki]–those legitimate teachers of the classical martial arts–rarely comprehend their own capabilities well enough to pass them on to others. Instead, they continue the time-honored tradition of repetitive physical drill, year after year, until some small percentage of students intuitively grasp and apply the skills of their forebears. Most students never catch on . . . Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not criticizing the repetitive nature of traditional martial training. That process lays the essential foundation for properly learning any martial art, and I’m a true believer in the traditional way. But, there are better approaches to teach the esoteric skills [honing and application of ki] than simply waiting for students to figure them out for themselves.
This journey begins with understanding the principles of aiki (i.e. the static expression of ki) and kiai (i.e. the dynamic expression of ki). Both of these terms are Japanese in origin and describe abilities used at higher levels in most traditional martial arts. Each term is a combination of ki (i.e. life energy or soul/spirit) with ai (i.e. harmony, blending, or existing in concentration), and interestingly, each is an anagram of the other. There is no fundamental difference between aiki and kiai, though the connotations slightly contrast. Aiki refers more to an undistracted state in which one’s ki (living soul) and its attributes, some to a greater or lesser extent, are brought into harmony with the motions or actions of one’s own physical body. Such coordinated focus in martial arts inevitably then incorporates blending with and dominating the physical motions of an attacking opponent. For this reason, the traditional style of Aikido concentrates upon physically blending with an opponent’s attack and then using his energy, leverage, or momentum to upset his balance and thereby dominate the situation. The connotation of kiai, on the other hand, has more to do with the dynamic expression of aiki or the harmony/coordinated focus of body and soul. In terms of kata, the use of the kiai or “spirit shout” is supposed to be a tool for learning to dynamically exert aiki, but sadly, like so much modern martial arts training, physical trappings have been confused with and substituted for internal function. Aiki can actually be exerted without shouting or even moving, and learning to maintain aiki and exert kiai are foundational to putting away weakening distraction and honing and applying one’s very soul or ki in a conflict situation. Around the turn of the 20th century, a Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu headmaster rightfully acknowledged that proper development of this skill can lead to “defeating your opponent with a single glance.” Much more could be said, and more careful consideration should be given to these matters.
An interesting study would involve the relationship of ki to the electromagnetic fields generated by the human body (an amazing aspect of the Creator’s intelligent design). Is ki linked to one’s magnetic field, and can this field be harnessed or utilized like an arm, a leg, or the brain? Does aiki or kiai somehow bridge to the physical in the electromagnetic field of the human body?
Another interesting study would involve the triune nature of man (body, soul, and spirit) as revealed in the Bible (I Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12), the aspect of man that reflects the triune image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and how ki (life energy), aiki (harmony of body and soul), and kiai (concentrated focus of body/soul harmony) are best understood and applied in this framework. How do the body’s five senses or gates (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) and the soul’s five primary attributes or channels (imagination, conscience, memory, reason, and affections) affect ki and its application? Is perfect harmony of the five senses and the five attributes of the soul even possible? Or, is the honing and application of ki more about the coinciding absence of distraction or roadblocks in these gates and channels? Where does the spirit of man, its five faculties (i.e. faith, hope, reverence, prayer, and worship), and the absolute truth of I Corinthians 2:14-15 fit into the study and application of ki? Finally, what are the implications or ramifications concerning ki when one considers and compares the unregenerate spirit of man born in sin and abiding in darkness as the human will stands guard at the door between the soul and the spirit versus the regenerate spirit of man, born again in Christ Jesus, the human will having been surrendered to the indwelling Holy Spirit? Can these disparate states ultimately point toward diametrically opposing consequences in terms of aiki and kiai? Careful consideration should be given to these questions, particularly when it comes to martial arts practitioners who operate within the moral framework a biblical worldview or their Christian faith.
So, ki is real, and its not religious; it can be honed; and it can be applied in martial arts. True aiki and kiai actually take years to properly develop (though complete or perfect maturation is doubtful in man’s fallen and finite state), and there is no exact formula for success in this endeavor. Forrest Morgan, in the above referenced work, argues that the following tangible guidelines, however, “will begin your internal development and take the hit-or-miss guesswork out of this part of your warrior training” (Morgan, 107):
- Find heart
- Practice everything from the center of the body (i.e. the lower abdomen)
- Utilize the proper art of breathing to apply physical strength most effectively
- Learn to focus your whole being toward a single objective
- Practice kata with utmost seriousness