Can you teach someone “fighting spirit”?
- Some people would say that you can’t teach it – it has to come from “the inside”.
- Other people say that we don’t need to teach it – it’s such a “natural thing”.
- And lastly, some people would say that we shouldn’t even teach it – there’s no use for it in “modern society”.
With that sort of mentality, perhaps we should just stop teaching Karate altogether?
Self-defense is such a “natural thing” that it will automagically come “from the inside” if it’s ever needed in our “modern society”, right?
Except, there’s a problem with that:
We, as human beings, are such crazily complex animals that we often need to be taught even the most basic, natural things.
Indeed, personal trainers make loads of money teaching athletes how to run, deadlift and squat – even though running, squatting and lifting things are 100% natural movements.
And in Karate, of course, we regularly teach people how to cultivate their primal “fighting spirit” – even though survival is the very first law of nature and should come automatically to everyone!
Because modern society has lulled us in to a Disney-like sense of constant security; where our biggest fight each day is the internal Starbucks struggle of whether to have a regular caffè latte or decaf.
But here’s the thing, compadre…
If there’s one thing my Karate Nerd™ lifestyle has taught me – through interviewing, training with, competing against and observing some of the very best Karate people on earth – it has to be this:
The best Karate-ka all possess a die-hard fighting spirit of incredible proportions.
And this unyielding sense of grit always manifests itself in one phenomenon:
Hence, in my opinion, the quickest way to teach fighting spirit – to anyone on any level – is as brutally effective as it is surprisingly simple.
Practice the kiai.
And don’t only practice it, but study it. Watch it. Think about it. Observe it. Re-discover it.
Then let it transform you.
Because not only will a kiai make your throat sore, but more importantly it will kickstart your fighting spirit like nothing else can. And that – to me – is the real purpose and value of kiai; a veritable litmus test of your fighting spirit.
Show me your kiai and I will tell you who you are.
But of course, there’s an art to kiai.
And even some science too.
With that being said, here’s a couple of things every Karate-ka should know about kiai:
First of all, what is “kiai”, exactly?
To put it super simply; kiai is that scream you hear in most Asian martial arts.
(Not to be confused with grunting).
Although many people think kiai means something along the lines of “battle cry” or “spirited shout”, the truth is actually a little bit different.
A quick look at the kanji (Sino-Japanese ideograms) that make up the word should give you a hint as to what the term really means:
- Ki = Energy
- Ai = Join
In other words, kiai is the convergence of your energy.
Simple as that.
Nothing mysterious or magical about it.
Thus, when you scream kiai, you are not only “screaming”, but more importantly compressing and delivering an instant release of your stored energy.
(Of course, there exists debate among people in the martial arts community about the whole “ki/chi/qi” energy thing. Most of those people live on fluffy clouds. Here’s what ki really is.)
When should you use kiai, then?
There are no rules for kiai, but here’s when you could use it:
- When you want to channel your energy.
- When you need to kickstart your fighing spirit.
- When you’re attacking or countering an opponent.
- When you do a kata.
- When you want to demonstrate your power.
- When you need to breathe.
- When you want to startle your opponent.
Som how exactly should one perform a proper kiai, then?
Well, there’s more to it than “just screaming”.
Here’s how to do a pretty awesome kiai.
- Open your hands.
- Put your hands by your sides, standing like a boss.
- Push hard on both sides of your belly (below your ribs) with the inner ridges of your hands (the space between your thumb and index finger).
- Now cough.
- (You heard me.)
- Cough again.
- Feel that? That’s your kiai muscle (transversus abdominis).
The intra-abdominal pressure you’re experiencing with your hands is exactly where your kiai should originate.
(That’s right; in your belly – not in your throat!)
However, at this stage you’re just letting your body work subconsciously. The next step is to achieve it consciously, with your mind (using a shout instead of a cough), and then in conjunction with a technique.
These three steps are known as “shin-gi-tai” (lit. “mind-technique-body”), and together they represent the glue that holds your kiai together:
Now, let’s top this off with three commonly asked questions.
“I think kiai is pretty silly. Do I really need to scream just to “re-discover” my fighting spirit?”
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
More likely, you’re probably just afraid of sounding silly. But the only one who looks silly in a dojo is the person who doesn’t scream. Also, even if you think kiai is “silly”, don’t underestimate the value of placebo, closely related to the secret of reigi. Scream yourself to greatness.
“I can’t find “my” kiai. How should it sound?”
Imagine the dark sound of rolling thunder. Then, suddenly, a crack of lightning viciously strikes down.
Now copy that sound!
Many people try to articulate the word “kiai” with their lips, not knowing that this is just the name of the scream – not the actual thing you shout.
So how should a great kiai sound, then?
It’s 110% personal.
Some scream “eei!”, some scream “yaa!”, some scream “ooh!”. But the sound coming out of your mouth is actually secondary.
Focus on the breathing and fighting spirit parts first.
“But Jesse-san, I’m too shy. I can’t scream!”
Shy? Oh please.
If somebody held a gun to your head and told you to scream at the top of your lungs, you would scream without even blinking.
So use that imagery.
You’re not shy.
You’re just undermotivated.
Now, to really bring this point home, let me end with a story – as told to me directly by one of my old-school sensei back when I used to live in Okinawa.
I remember it like yesterday…
The Story of the Lion on the Savannah
You are standing on a savannah.
There are no trees around. No buildings or people. Nothing.
But there’s a huge lion in front of you.
And this lion is very hungry.
The lion roars!
“He’s gonna attack!”, you think.
The lion roars again, even louder.
In three seconds, you’ll become lion food.
The lion shows its sharp teeth.
You have two seconds left of your life…
You can’t run.
You can’t fight.
You can’t hide.
One second left…
The lion roars again, louder!
You have ONE last chance to convince it to not eat you – RIGHT NOW.”
What do you do?
Leave a comment and let me know.