The Kiai is one of the most difficult things for a beginner to do when they first start training. The thought of screaming some incoherent noise in a room full of people you don’t know seems very alien. However, as with everything in Karate, the Kiai has a very special purpose and is classed as a technique in its own right.
Punches to the solar plexus area of the body (at the apex of the rib cage) cause the diaphragm to spasm, which is why a strike here can cause the target to lose breath. The solar plexus is directly above the abdominal muscles and has not skeletal or muscular protection, therefore it cannot be protected by tensing.
So how do we protect against a strike to the solar plexus? This is where the Kiai comes in. In order to Kiai our core needs to tighten quickly and force an exhale. This helps protect against a strike to the solar plexus and ensures there is no air in the lungs (minimising the effect of a diaphragm in spasm).
Additionally, the strong shout serves to stun the opponent as it is unexpected. As the opponent is stunned, there is a momentary advantage which can be used for either retreat or attack.
The Kiai causes rapid muscular tension of our core and this in turn makes the core more rigid and it becomes a strong component in our stance. This in turn helps our body develop power.
In competition the benefits of the Kiai are well understood and a technique will not score a point without Kiai as it is not deemed strong enough.
The Kiai is a natural extension of the breathing during any technique. You will noticed that with any experienced Karateka there is a very short, sharp exhalation with every technique. This has a similar effect to the Kiai in terms of protecting against a solar plexus strike but most importantly, here it is used to ensure the whole body is locked as one at the point of contact, maximising power. This exhalation is not just a sound, something often mimicked incorrectly be junior students, but a mechanism that forces tension and Kime.
In terms of Karate, Kime can mean "power" and/or "focus" describing the instantaneous tensing at the correct moment during a technique.
There is a concept that power flows from the earth through you into the target. When in a solid stance, any force applied back into the striking attack will be transferred through the attackers body back to the earth. The earth has a greater surface tension than any of us, so assuming the body is rigid, the earth in essence pushes back. The Kiai, or strong exhalation, on performing any technique helps create the rigid body at that point of contact. To perform an effective Kiai our core needs to tighten quickly and force an exhale. When our core tightens, it is more rigid and it becomes a strong component in our stance. This applies to both receiving and delivering a punch. Even if you don't make an audible noise, tightening the core at the moment of impact provides a good balance between stability and protection from a strike to the solar plexus.
When transferring power from a punch or kick to a target, the more rigid the rest of the attacking body is, the less the push back from the target is going to affect the attacker due to the rooted nature of the stance and body, as described above. If any of the muscles used in the technique are not tense, then the joint where the muscles are lax absorbs some of the push back and diminishes the force applied to the target. Therefore it is important at the point of Kime to instantaneously tense the whole body. As you get more advanced you need to be able to apply this instantaneous tension and then relax very quickly afterwards so that you do not diminish power but you are able to move fast again immediately after an attack.
Often in Karate we rotate our bodies to move in a different direction and this is pivotal to Kihon, Kata and Kumite. Stability and balance when changing direction is very important. When the body rotates around a central axis, if an arm or leg is far from this centre of rotation without something in the opposite direction balancing it, then rotation will be unbalanced and will often end in an unstable move. Even if there is balance with things of equal weight balancing each other far from the centre of rotation, the rotational speed is greatly reduced as more energy is required when the rotating object has mass far from its centre.
In karate, to help with this problem, we should consider the benefits of compact rotation. By this we mean moving in a direct and straight line to a compact position (feet roughly together and arms in the preparation position for the next move) before rotating the right amount and then using the power in the bent back leg to drive in a straight line to the required destination. This has the additional benefit that when you land in stance you are only moving forwards and not to the left or right as well, thereby improving balance and stability. It is important to remember that in compact rotation, it is important to keep both legs bent so that the height remains the same throughout the full technique.
Having a compact body during rotation is quicker, more balanced and the exit to the final stance can be better controlled and is more powerful.
An extension of compact rotation is Hikite. As we punch we send an arm and one side of the body in one direction. This would create forward momentum if done on its own with the stance and body having to compensate, making it inefficient. Hikite creates rotational balance, so the same mass moves with the same speed in the opposite direction to the attacking arm meaning that all rotation energies are balanced and there is no additional twisting moment that the body and stance has to cope with.
How do we maximise power when delivering techniques in Karate? Force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. However, transferring that force to a target also depends heavily on the ability of the delivery object to resist any ‘push back’ from the target.
For the first part of this, maximising force, it helps to use the analogy of a ballistic projectile. Imagine a bullet fired from a gun. This has a devastating effect on the target but has a very small mass which travels very fast. Now imaging a cannon ball; this also has a devastating effect on the target but does not travel as fast as a bullet but has much greater mass. So, force can be increased by either making the projectile faster or by increasing its effective mass. In Karate, the projectile is a fist, foot, elbow or knee and we maximise power by increasing the speed and the effective mass at the point of impact.
To make attacks or blocks faster we need to train the muscles and use correct body timing. When executing a move we talk about holding back the attacking side of the body until the very end. The step is executed creating some speed of moving the attacking object forward, at the very end of the technique, the body rotates in the same direction adding additional speed to the attack and finally the extension of the attacking limb itself adds further speed. At the point of impact the attacking object has speed from its own extension, the rotation of the body and the speed of the step all added together – all these can be improved with training.
To increase the effective mass of the strike we need to use the whole body. When punching with just the arm, no body rotation or step, the force is just what is generated by the mass of the arm travelling as fast as it can. When we add in timing so that we rotate the body as well at the end of the technique, we are essentially making the strike even faster. Also, by using the whole upper body in the rotation the effective mass becomes upper body and arm (provided the shoulder muscles are tensed therefore connecting the skeletal parts of upper body and arm). When we add in the step, the speed is further increased as the whole body is moving as well as the upper body rotation and the extension of the arm. Also, the effective mass is that of the whole body (assuming good Kime locks all the skeleton together into a single unit). So well timed Kime locks the whole body together at the point of contact therefore hugely increasing the effective mass delivering the technique.
So by using the body correctly with good timing and correct muscle control, the force of a technique can be massively increased over that produced by just throwing a lazy, badly timed technique.
Now, the second aspect of this is how to ensure that as much force goes into the target as possible. This is all down to stance and how rooted the body is when delivering a strike. We have discussed how the body should be rigid so that it doesn’t absorb any shock from the target and that all ‘push back’ from the target is transmitted to the floor. Since the floor is undoubtedly more rigid than the target, this means that the majority of force goes into the target where it is intended to go. Without this rooted stance a lot of force can still be transmitted to the target but not as much as if the stance was well rooted.
So to maximise power that is transmitted during in attack, move the body fast (limb extension, upper body rotation and quick step all timed together), have good Kime on the point of contact (lock all the muscles of the body at the point of contact therefore making it that the whole body mass is hitting the target) and do all this in a well rooted stance to ensure any ‘push back’ from the target has minimal affect on the attacker.
Gravity in Karate
Walking or running is something we do every day without even thinking about how it works. As we shift our weight forwards without the support from our leg we essentially fall forwards. We move our back leg forwards to 'catch' the body and essentially control the fall; therefore walking is controlled falling.
In Karate many students do not seem to be able to differentiate between controlled falling and the dynamic explosive movements we should use when moving in stances. As a Karateka we have to have complete control over our body and this means not letting gravity dictate the rate at which we move forwards or backwards. To achieve this control, we need to create power in the leg that is pushing us into stance so that we can then use this to propel ourselves forwards quickly rather than 'falling forwards'. This is done by bending the knees before we move from the Yoi position.This gives us the ability to use the stored power in the leg muscle to thrust the body forwards quickly making the step a lot quicker than 'falling'. This use of thrust from the back leg also creates stability in the stance as the back leg pushes strongly into the ground to create the thrust and the front leg is driven forwards making a strong and stable stance.
This same principle is also applicable to moving from one stance to another. In Zenkutsu Datchi we start with a strong pull from the front leg (where the 'power' is stored) and then it is all too often the case that the speed of moving forwards is not maintained by using a strong push outwards and instead students then just rely on 'falling' into stance. Students must ensure that during the second half of the step there is a strong thrust from what will become the back leg. Interestingly, when we see students in Zenkutsu Dachi and the back leg is not straight, this is a very clear indication that the leg has not been used correctly to drive the stance forward.
It is difficult to change what our bodies are used to doing naturally, using very little effort to walk and letting gravity do most of the work for us. However, as Karateka we must ensure we train our bodies to change the way we move in stance, using control and not relying on gravity alone.
Zanshin, Eye Contact and Telegraphing
Karate is heavily based on discipline and requires the practitioners to exert control over their bodies and mind. Zanshin translates as remaining awareness and in Karate terms mean that the practitioner must remain alert and aware, with maximum concentration, throughout and even after a technique has been executed - only relaxing when told to do so by the instructor.
Often in modern day training there is a more relaxed attitude to Zanshin and after moves are completed the participant will relax and move around slight losing concentration. This lack of mental discipline can start to undermine some of the more esoteric benefits of Karate and that mental toughness. As an instructor it is easy to spot this but difficult to correct, often only coming about in practitioners from years of experience. However, instructors should continue to reinforce the correct approach to training from the very start of training.
A very real side effect off this lack of Zanshin is in Kumite. Starting with Gohon or Sanbon Kumite, my personal experience is that opponents tend to 'give away' their intention with their eyes. By this I mean that students tend to look at where they are going to strike before they move and that implicit movement of the eyes tells a well trained Karateka what their opponent intends to do. This is also seen quite a lot in Kumite drills even at a high level. As instructors we should be aware of this and reinforce that eye contact is important, not only to help us 'read' our opponents but also to ensure that we do not telegraph our intention to our opponent. Students should be aware of this along with the reasons behind it so that they can start to ensure good eye contact and Zanshjin from the early days of their Karate practice, otherwise it becomes a bad habit and is then much more difficult to change later on.