Chi, Muscle Memory, and the Kiai

Some years ago there was apparently a bit of a tiff at our Kenpo school over exactly what chi is.  One of our senior black belts had gotten into his head that chi was related to piezoelectric processes.  Another of our students, who had written his dissertation on piezoelectricity calmly corrected the senior.  The senior black belt was less than enthused at being corrected, even if he was pretty much dead wrong.   There was some tussling and some anger.  Typical martial artists getting their dander up kind of stuff.  In case you’re wondering: no, I wasn’t involved in this and only heard about it later.

So what the hell is chi anyway?  Martial artists talk about it all the time like we understand it, but it remains a mystical thing for the most part.  The old Chinese masters implied it was some sort of energy field that could be manipulated, not unlike the Force from Star Wars.  Others have made equally outrageous claims: you can deplete your chi by having sex, someone with strong chi can punch down buildings, and so on.

Trying to separate fact from fancy in the martial arts world has been a beloved pastime of mine, and there’s no end of fancy in that world.  In my twenty some odd years of study I’ve come across all sorts of nonsense from chi to death punches and everywhere in between.

What is chi?  In my opinion it’s a pretty straightforward thing that’s sometimes difficult to accomplish.  When your mind is focused and body is running smoothly and you get that perfect shot without even trying, that’s chi.  It’s the alignment of mind and body, both focused on the task at hand.  In my experience, there’s nothing magical or mystical about it and everyone has experienced their own chi at some point or another in their lifetimes.

Think about the time when you did something that should have been difficult but it felt easy.  That’s chi.

I guess the question then becomes, “How do you increase chi?”

Practice and focus.  That’s all it really takes.  The more you practice and the better your focus gets, the more you chi goes up.  I guess, in some ways, it’s linked to muscle memory.  For the uninitiated, muscle memory is the theory that once you practice something enough it becomes automatic.  It’s not a perfect term because muscles don’t remember anything, it’s your brain retaining information about the best way to perform a task.  We all do this every day.  When you hit the brakes on your car, you’re not thinking about how to hit the brakes, you just hit the brakes.

You hit this point of just doing something by doing it a lot.  It’s almost like your brain is firing off a macro or a stored procedure: the execution of the task is nearly automatic.  All you’re doing is willing the movement to happen and it happens without needing to think about how to make it happen.

In the martial arts world, we develop muscle memory the same way everyone else does: repetition.  Do it a lot and it becomes second nature.

Bruce Lee had a great quote about this.  “Before I studied martial arts, a punch was just a punch. When my studies began, I realized a punch wasn’t just a punch. Now that I have mastered martial arts, I realize, a punch is just a punch!”

Bruce trained relentlessly.  Doubtless he threw more punches in a day than most people throw in a lifetime.  His punches were amazingly fast, owing to practice and his tireless training schedule.  His one inch punch is the stuff of legend.  On a personal note, my three inch punch is slowly getting better.

So, there you have it.  Chi and muscle memory.  Practice, practice, practice.  Stay relaxed.  Practice, practice, practice.   Practice gets you used to doing a thing, relaxing means you’re fighting your opponent and not yourself.  When everything aligns nicely, you’ve got good chi.

Which leads to the kiai.

The kiai is the shout that’s common among karateka and other martial artists.  It seems to be more prevalent in the Japanese styles than in the Chinese systems.  I don’t have enough experience with other schools to make a judgement call, but I gather it’s pretty common in the Korean systems, as well.  In Kenpo, we shout “Ights” (lights without the l), but other systems and people make their own noises.

I kind of break from tradition on the kiai.  There are those out there that feel you absolutely cannot be your strongest without a strong kiai, but I’ve never been one of them.

What is the kiai supposed to accomplish?  In my mind it puts a couple of things together: breathing and focus.  Sounds very chi-like, right?  Well, that’s the general gist.  When you punch, you’re taught to kiai, often as loud as you can.  By focusing on aligning the attack with the noise you help encode the idea you breathe out when you strike.  This both keeps you breathing and helps prevent an incoming strike from locking up your breath when it hits you.  When you get hit, you usually breathe in.  If you had already been holding your breath or inhaling when you get punched, the results can be disastrous.  Trying to inhale when your lungs are already full of air is a recipe for problems.  But, if you kiai when you strike, you’ve already exhaled so the natural inclination to inhale on a strike is actually a good thing.

I fully believe in this part of the kiai.  It’s great for teaching breath control.  The other side of the equation, the idea that you cannot have a strong attack without a strong kiai I agree with to a point.  We all grunt when we do something hard.  It’s natural.  The kiai expounds on that and amplifies it.  It lets you focus your energy.

Again, this is a great tool for training, but I’ve found that I’ve dropped the outward expression of the kiai – the noise – and kept the internal expression of focused energy.

As a result of this, I’ve had numerous debates about the efficacy of the kiai.  Traditional martial arts dogma says you absolutely cannot be your best without it, but I tend to disagree.  It’s just a noise.  Keep the breathing control and keep the focus.  Hell, keep the sound if you like it, it doesn’t hurt anything, but I have my doubts as to whether the noise alone is important.

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