Ki and Ki Development
Japanese, Chinese, and Indian traditions provide many explanations for the nature of ki. The most common explanation found in the West is that ki is “life force”.
The Ki Research Institute (Ki no Kenkyukai), which has historical links to Aikido Yuishinkai, and which is recognised by the Japanese government as the foremost authority on the subject, believes that ki is “the fundamental energy that the universe is made of”. Koichi Tohei, the founder of the institute, believes that ki is a physical, not mystical phenomenon, and that eventually science will find a way to detect and measure it.
In fact, it doesn’t matter what you believe ki actually is. Experimentation has provided a body of tests and exercises that demonstrate that ki behaves in particular ways and is best utilised in particular ways. If you use ki in the recommended ways, and exercise it in the recommended ways, unification of mind and body and the ability to understand and deploy ki visibly and significantly improve.
You have ki from birth, what the training does is expand the amount of ki you deploy and your sensitivity to the ki extension of others. Testing shows that you are actually a conduit for ki, not a container of it, and growth in ki understanding enlarges the “bandwidth” of ki you can deploy.
Ki can also be plus or minus, and your body and mind immediately reflect this. Positive words, positive images and positive actions immediately change minus ki to plus.
An in-depth understanding of ki lies at the heart of many martial arts. The study of ki has been pursued in martial arts because of its life-saving microsecond advantages of perception, understanding and timing in combat and, additionally, its side-effect of fundamentally changing the practitioner’s approach to life.
Ki can be shown to affect other people at a short distance, and to affect someone without their knowledge. However, it certainly isn’t “magic”, and the main benefit in situations with other people doesn’t lie in cutting their ki or in using ki as a weapon unless you are very senior. Rather, it lies in:
- calmness, and the awareness and perception it provides you of the opponent and the surrounding environment,
- the ability to enter and move swiftly,
- the ability to lead the opponent, and
- the ability to throw, subdue or strike powerfully (or gently) unconstrained by the limitations that tension, aggression and muscular force place on technique, perception, and movement.
In particular, the awareness that continues to develop with training may lead to you avoiding situations altogether, or to resolving them without conflict or the use of force – although the energy and intentions of the other participants may preclude this.
As a side-note, senior practitioners of sword and aikido use their ki extension to test and unsettle their partner, leading to sudden resolution with one cut or technique.
Traditionally, ki understanding is gained through long perseverance in training correctly, without much explanation. Highly accomplished practitioners can demonstrate profound implicit understanding without necessarily being able to provide a detailed explanation of “how” they are doing advanced performance.
However, some styles, such as Yuishinkai, utilise the body of knowledge from Morihei Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Maruyama Sensei and some Zen teachers much more explicitly. There is a body of ki tests, ki principles and ki exercises which demonstrate the correct use of ki and also help to develop it. Additionally, the use of ki as it flows during aikido technique is explicitly described by instructors, and then tested during practice. In connection with this, it is vital that instructors are properly trained, monitored and mentored in how to ki test correctly and consistently, or the tests are pointless and students are misled and mis-trained.
Ki tests and exercises work by biofeedback and neurological programming. They are taught by having a student perform an exercise incorrectly, being tested (and failing the test), then explaining how to think and act to pass the test and testing again. The student therefore learns what it feels like when the ki is incorrect and when it is correct. Initially students use techniques (e.g. think like this, move your tanden/one point here, send ki there, your posture must be…etc), to pass the tests and to extend ki during aikido techniques. At some point in their training students naturally change their approach, abandon technique, and instead just turn on the feeling of being unified.
There is no “ki event happening now” message or feeling. It is much more akin to walking down a street and suddenly turning your head for no reason, to find someone looking intently at you. The more you train correctly, the more sensitive you become to this, and the more aware you become of your own degree of unification, or lack thereof, at any given moment. You can therefore quickly use one of the ki techniques to regain or increase your ki extension. O Sensei commented that being unified with the universe is not a permanent condition, that he himself lost unification, but that he regained it so quickly other people didn’t notice.
Ki extension and mind/body unification with the universe can’t be learned from a book. Academic knowledge must be accompanied by consistent practise and testing over an extended period. Of course, you can gain benefits from any degree of training and practise, but, as Tamura Sensei and Kataoka Sensei have both said to me, if you want this to work for self-defence or for in-depth personal growth you must train very hard. There are no shortcuts. How much you grow depends on how much you put in.
Practitioners should constantly check their ki extension during each daily activity, e.g. “am I sitting correctly?”, “could I have passed a ki test when I lifted my coffee cup?”, “am I connected to my environment, or is my attention locked inside my mind or focussed exclusively on what I am doing?”, “I’m standing at these traffic lights, is my posture correct, am I unified?”, etc. The intention of this is to install a running “background routine” that, through habit, subconsciously checks whether you are still unified, and alerts you if you are not. The whole point is to take your unification of mind and body into the real world, not to restrict it to the artificial environment of the dojo.
Without constant awareness of our own state we can also be hijacked by our bodies. Evolution has programmed us to respond to unpleasant situations by dumping chemicals such as adrenaline and others into our bloodstream for fight or flight responses. These chemicals work well on a species-level “good enough” evolutionary response to danger, but are not optimal for an individual’s own survival or well-being. Mind and body unification with the universe is a demonstrably superior response to danger, conflict, and other relationship situations, as demonstrated by the determination with which various martial arts pursue it, but the fight or flight chemicals directly disrupt that unification, calmness and awareness. One of the reasons ki-based training demands effort and perseverance is that we have to re-program our body’s hard-wired responses to stress and danger, and it takes time for the programming to stick, and then to grow in strength.
Not only is it vital to constantly self-monitor and correct your unification, it is vital to work with the very senior practitioners and instructors to experience directly what they feel like when they are unified and performing. You will find their degree of relaxation, calmness, and effortless power an order of magnitude greater than you had pictured when they talked about it or demonstrated. Tell your body to remember what you felt, and turn the experience into a target for your unconscious to work towards. It is important to not be shy and sit at the back of the seminar or class; instead sit in the middle at the front and try to get picked as the instructor’s training dummy. Look for opportunities to work with and be ki tested by the most senior people you can find; but don’t focus on technique, instead, pay attention to what they felt like – then get the details of the technique right.
Mind and body unification is not well understood, and misconceptions abound about what it is. Anger, fear, sadness, passion and ego do not disappear into an emotionless zero-state through unification of mind and body with the universe, but our management of them, choices, and range of responses improves dramatically. Unification is a completely natural state easily attained in daily life, but not so easily retained. It should not to be confused with satori, a state of enlightenment often associated with Zen and Buddhism – although the effects may be similar when prolonged study has resulted in a profound depth of unification. Anyone can extend ki and be unified in mind and body with the universe in their first lesson; however, the amount of ki that can be extended and used, and the duration and depth of unification, both increase with perseverance and correct training.
Another side to the ki equation that is often overlooked is that of ki-assisted healing. A practitioner of traditional Indian stick fighting made a comment that has stuck in my mind – that if you learn how to fight, in order to be balanced you must also learn to heal. As most people will know, many martial arts follow this same belief; for example in China many kung fu instructors were/are also practitioners of traditional medicine, which includes chi healing practices. There are several healing arts using ki in the Japanese traditions as well, such as Reiki, Kiatsu, and Yuki – the art practised by Yuishinkai students.
Learning to understand and use ki is a practical matter, especially when detailed explanation, demonstration and testing are consistently provided. It is not difficult to do at all; the concepts and exercises are straightforward. Performance of tests and techniques naturally reflects your understanding at a point in time and changes over time. Meditation and ki breathing are useful adjuncts to ki exercises and aikido technique and are highly recommended.
Ki understanding provides two benefits when practised diligently:
A profoundly different relationship with other people and with the universe as a whole;