Kiai: harmonizing mind and body

East Asian martial arts have been practiced for centuries as both a method of self defense and a meditative spiritual exercise. “Kiai,” an exclamation made during or after an attack, is an important part of the execution of martial arts techniques. The kiai is explained as an outburst of inner spiritual energy, harmonizing the practitioner’s body and mind to press the attack; the practitioner focuses all their energy solely into the strike, and their exclamation has the added effect of intimidating the opponent. Additionally, the physical act of creating the diaphragm-based yell tenses up the muscles and prevents the user from becoming winded or taken by surprise by a counterattack. In this way, the use of kiai in martial arts resonates with our group’s theme of sound connecting the mind and body.

The sample I have included is a video of practitioners of kendo, a practice developed from samurai sword exercises, training. Each individual strikes the dummy opponent and emits kiai in conjunction with the hit. In this case, the syllable on which they are basing the shout is the Japanese word for “head;” in kendo, the kiai’s importance is such that in order to win a match, one must execute kiai for each hit, calling out the part of the opponent which they are striking. In this example, kiai is both a coordinated shout that strengthens and focuses the attack and a required ritual within the cultural and official context of the martial art.

8 thoughts on “Kiai: harmonizing mind and body

  1. Very cool to see how sound actually can help a person with certain actions. The thought that a deep sound from the diaphragm could help tense the muscles and actually improve performance when in physical confrontation is very interesting. Also the varying degrees in which people approach the kiai is interesting in that some come into it stronger and some more reserved. Could that have to do with differences in fighting style possibly?

  2. I think it is interesting how martial arts use the Kiai to increase the precision of the attack. There are other cases in which screaming or yelling might impact the effectiveness of something such as dunking a basketball or chopping wood. Both effects of the Kiai (on the attacker and defender) seem like fascinating ideas to study.

  3. It was fascinating to see how differently the various kendo (students?) in the video approached the Kiai—some with lots of energy, others not so much. I didn’t know that the sounds correspond with the body part of the attack, is this the case with other martial arts forms? Does the Kiai vary in different forms (or whatever the movement sequences are called). It might also be interesting to look into how Kiai may or may not relate to the ideas of chi in terms of the regulation and/or harnessing of ones’ internal energy—I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t some connection between the two. I also found it intriguing how the sound is so psychologically and physiologically significant at the same time—far out.

  4. I found it interesting that you connected kiai not only to the psychological aspects of martial arts, but also connected to logistical aspects. I like that it helps to protect the person from being winded, making kiai adaptive for safety as well as psychological impact. What was the original primary purpose, psychology or protection?

  5. Are there variations between countries or even regions of the same country as far as how the kiai sounds? Like, dialects of kiai?

  6. This is fascinating. I knew that something like the kiai existed in martial arts, but I had no idea how central it is to not only the mind but also the body of the practitioner. I’m curious, though, as to why the specific part of the body must be called? Is that only in “competitive” kendo, as a way of keeping the fight organized, or is it a part of the practice as a whole?

  7. This sounds really interesting! I also think it would be interesting to note if there are any studies (psychological, or otherwise) that look at the opponents’ reactions to the kiai.

Comments are closed.