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How to Kiai

by on January 14, 2009

This is not something that should be part of a curriculum. Be that the case, I recall being told in three different clubs, of which two were karate, one was taekwondo, how to kiai. Could our time be better spent on other things?

In all seriousness, in one club we were told to kiai a certain way (the most ridiculous way I’ve ever heard: PAH-HO) and then spent over 5 minutes doing different drills where the focus was not on understanding the drill, but on making sure were were pronouncing our kiais correctly. I didn’t ask any questions at the time, but found it very silly.

Kiai is a gutteral expression of emphasis originating (in the Japanese arts) from the battle cries of Japanese warriors. Its considered a vocalization of focus in some martial arts and completely a showmanship feature in other martial arts. Power lifters sometimes grunt, sometimes yell. Tennis players sometimes yell, sometimes squeal. Ninjas used it from “the shadows” [1]. In shotokan karate, it is a way of encouraging someone to focus by pushing everything else out of your mind. The idea is that outward actions can gradually affect inward actions, like being outwardly courteous to someone you would rather just push down the stairs in an effort that some day you will genuinely want to be courteous to them. It has many other purposes including demoralization, body protection by releasing air and tightening muscles, and others. For this last purpose, it can certainly be used to help people learn to coordinate breathing, flexing, and execution of attacks or blocks, but once mastered, might not be necessary at all.

If that’s the case, should there be instruction on how to kiai? I’d submit that it should be instinctive and sound however you want it to sound. If it gets your adrenaline going and improves your ability to focus, by all means go for it. But the oft cited mantra of “everyone chooses their own path in karate” applies to this as well. Experiment with different kiais until it feels natural. Let me know what you think.

  1. Great article. I’m a believer in the yell although I respect fellow students desire to refrain. My favorite is leading into a board break with a slow-building, bottom of the stomach AHHH-HOOOO!!

  2. Ray,

    Just read your article on “Hiiiyaah”. Very nice. The three points you mention are very true. Most importantly, the 2nd and 3rd points imply that a kiai is very important. I respect fellow students refraining from a kiai, but have to question whether or not they are holding themselves back by doing so.

    I don’t see why anyone would hold back for any reason than self-conscienceness. People are sometimes afraid of “looking silly” by kiai’ing at all. Maybe they think they have a funny kiai. I know a guy who kiai’s like a chicken, but it sure as hell works for him and I respect him for it.


  3. yurika permalink

    Here’s an interesting look at kiai, comparing karate and taiko:

  4. Steve permalink

    It is almost the same thing as the rebel yell and a sudden loud yell of “BACK OFF!” taught to us by British security forces showed that it can momentarily startle the attacker, bring attention to your predicament and possibly scare other would be attackers off or at least cause them to re-think their actions.
    That’s a heck of a lot better then having to come to blows and that is what the ancient masters wanted us to do in the first place, AVOID TROUBLE.

    Of course, modern day “warriors” think they know best.

    I have used it quite a lot on the streets in Northern Ireland, you know, places where those modern day warriors fresh out of the dojo would soil their pants if they stayed past nightfall, would be found by the police or British army slumped down in the gutter, knifed or beaten to death becuase they knew it all, had a big mouth and wouldn’t listen to the instructor in the dojo who tried to teach it to them.

    I have stepepd over many a body like that in the wee hours, the bodies of those who were alive a few hours ago, shooting off their big mouths, who were new black belts…of course.

    Do yourselves a favor…learn it and practice it. That silly little yell may save your life one day.

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