I think we’ve talked about it before. The kiai (sort of) translates to “Empowering Shout” in English, which is actually a great definition of what it does, and it serves several functions within training. One of the strengths of many styles throughout Asia, but especially the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ones is the strength of tradition. One of the downsides can be a lack of explanation on why techniques are taught and the purpose they serve. This obviously comes with the caveat that it’s entirely dependent on both a master’s way of teaching and the practices of the school.
1) The kiai is a breathing exercise. It’s first function is to teach a student how to breathe properly. Breathing is one of the most important aspects of martial arts training and not just because it’s necessary to have a steady supply of oxygen when engaging in activities involving high cardio. It’s part of learning to synchronize yourself with your body and to synchronize each part of your body into a whole. This is one of the few aspects of martial arts that you can test for yourself. Like with many other sports, as well as singing and dancing, you learn to breathe with your diaphragm. So, when you inhale this tightens up your stomach and abdominal muscles. When you exhale, you can tighten your stomach muscles further by squeezing all excess air from your stomach.
If you stand with your feet apart, put your hands on your stomach, inhale using your diaphram, and then make a hard exhale like a “HA!”. You’ll feel your body curve slightly inward as your stomach tightens again.
Why is this important?
It teaches you to tighten your muscles on command naturally so that over time it becomes second nature. When either attacking or defending, you’ll need to be able to tighten your muscles very quickly. You can’t stay tensed up all the time because it slows you down. Try walking around with your muscles all tensed up, you waddle like a turtle. You need to be fluid, loose and then hard, the kiai becomes the signal where you take that “HA!” exhalation and do it at the full extension the strike, locking up your body for that split second to put the entire force of the blow into a pad or someone else.
Ridding your body of air, also helps you tense. Tensing helps mitigate the damage we take hits from hits. It’s still going to hurt, of course, but would you rather punch a stomach that’s loosey goosey or a stomach that’s hard as a rock? One of the common (and real) examples for training this at higher levels is using the kiai in combination with a training partner. Your training partner practices their roundhouse kick or punch into your stomach, while you practice the kiai or the yell. This teaches one student control outgoing after they understand the technique (because they don’t want to hurt their partner) and the other learns how to time their breathing in association with being hit.
You inhale, the air comes back, and you’re loose again.
You need to learn when and how, breathing is the first step because when done properly it will tense your muscles naturally for you. It also adds to your defense. The yelling aspect is helpful in the exercise because yelling is a natural hard exhalation, one you don’t have to think about.
Breath is central to all martial arts, even though they don’t approach the subject the same way or use the same techniques.
2) It helps teach timing. We discussed timing a little above with the tensing of muscles and synchronizing your body. But many martial artists use breathing to create the tempo of their movement, the inhalation and exhalation mirror the body’s movement from the beginning movements to the tensing up. We inhale at the beginning and then we exhale at the end. Even without the kiai, you’ll often hear martial artists making a hissing noise when they perform moves. The hissing is a slow release of breath. Again, emphasizing our control over our breathing and control over our bodies.
In the early stages of training, breathing can be very difficult for new students. The kiai acts as an early guiding point that allows a new student to immediately tell if they’ve timed their breathing right with their strike. They learn the movement of the strike, then they learn to apply the kiai to the strike, then they do the two together while in combination with other movements when put together into a kata or a form.
3) It pumps you up. Yelling is very freeing. It feels good and it builds confidence. It reminds you that you are strong, powerful. Remember, kiai is essentially an “empowering shout”. Beyond all the other benefits, yelling feels good and gives you a point onto which to focus. It clears away worries, anxiety, and nervousness. It clears your mind.
4) It can intimidate the other guy. It may not seem like it if your only experience with a kiai is through a television screen, but someone screaming in your face is actually very intimidating. If someone is knocking the kiai but talking up the berserker, they may want to rethink their stance.
You’re going to be asked to do a lot of things when you’re training in martial arts that may feel silly and be embarrassing. Not just because of failure or messing up, but because you don’t know the purpose of them yet. It doesn’t mean that they’re not worth learning. Silliness and embarrassment are part of life. The kiai, the kihap, and other similar vocalizations are a core aspect of many martial arts beyond the continent of Asia.
The downsides: If you’re good enough, you can track when someone’s about to strike based on changes in their breathing. The yelling is the obvious sign, but martial artists don’t actually need the yell to be effective. One of the most famous examples that has become a staple of cinema history and part of the American view of Asian martial arts are Bruce Lee’s vocalizations.
Bruce Lee covered his breathing tells with those noises, so his opponent couldn’t rely on listening for a shout to know when he was about to attack. It also sounded awkward and weird, which was the point. It’s intended to be confusing and unsettling, because the goal is to confuse and unsettle the person listening. If they’re unsettled and nervous then they are less likely to be offensive and more likely to make mistakes. It knocks them off their game. Psychological warfare is a valid tactic.
The more you know, right?