Ki (or chi in Chinese) is a Japanese word meaning spirit or energy. It is a complex and somewhat elusive concept that will vary greatly depending on one’s person belief system or faith. Christians can interpret this as the Holy Spirit, others regard it as life energy, George Lucas calls it “The Force”. Whatever you want to call it, it is a concept that is the source of many debates but there is little argument that ki does in fact exists in one way shape or form.
I think Yoda said it best in The Empire Strikes Back:
According to Wikipedia (I know, not an academically sound source, but bear with me) there are three kinds of ki:
Some believe that a person’s ki can be so great that it can go beyond the body into a target thus devastating or healing that target without even touching it. This is demonstrated in many movies and video games. Kanazawa Sensei (2012) writes of “sending positive ki” to those who need it – a similar sentiment to praying for someone.
We can’t measure ki (yet) but we can feel it. We can feel it in an inspired athletic or artistic performance, in a kata, kumite, or when it feels like all the stars are aligned in our favour. Positive psychologists refer to being in a state of “flow”; athletes describe “being in the zone”. When you experience ki you will know it.
“Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.” ~Yoda
Kime means focus (of energy). Energy can be random, unpredictable, loose, and wild (parents of small children know this). But it can also be graceful, fluid, and controlled. Kime is the precise point at which all of one’s physical, mental, and spiritual energies converge on one spot for one instant. This is similar to concentrating all of the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass on one spot to burn something. The instance of kime is often accompanied by a kiai.
Ai refers to uniting or concentrating. Kiai, then, means concentrating one’s spirit (or energy) to the point where it can no longer be contained in the body. Think of ki as a sphere of energy housed in the hara (abdomen) or a little monster that is tumbling around in there and in the instance of kime (focused energy) the little monster escapes in the form of a loud shout. This shout, however, is not a vocal one initiated in the lungs or vocal cords; it is a sound emanating from deep down in the body, caused by the contraction of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.
A true kiai is spontaneous and real. It can be experienced it in kata and kumite when one is at one with one’s movements – without realizing it, one will express a loud shout in harmony with one’s technique and think to oneself “where did that come from?” For beginners any old shout is OK. Children are even coached to actually say “KIAI” when they strike. Advanced karateka should seek the deeper meaning and source of this energy.
This is not to say that there is always great, spiritual meaning to ki. There could be, but that is up to the participant. Those seeking to find some spiritual meaning in training and find it are fortunate.
Kanazawa, H. (2012). Karate: My life. Singapore: Kendo World Publications.