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Using the force: A Westerner's attempt to describe ki


AP Photo/Wally Santana

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together. - Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episode IV.

Western martial artists often hesitate to talk about ki.  When they do, they do so with an almost mystical reverence, or with the hushed tones of an embarrassed skeptic forced to go along with a collective delusion.

Ki, or qi (prounounced "chi") in Chinese, has often been translated into English as "life force", "breath" or "life energy".  The difficulty rendering this abstact concept into English is only rivaled in scale by its pervasiveness in daily Japanese or Chinese language.  The Japanese language alone contains 11,442 known uses of "ki" as part of compound words.  This tells us that this concept, so arcane to the Western mind, is embedded so deeply in Eastern culture and knowledge that it is part of everyday life.  In fact, it is used to describe everything from martial techniques (ki no nagare), to the weather (tenki), to how one feels (kimochi). 

Dave Lowry, in his landmark book, "The Sword and the Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts", provides us with a very succinct and relatable summation of ki in Japan:

In Chicago or another American city, a conversation might include usages for soul ranging from the theological to those describing a cuisine.  Similarly, ki can be used in Japanese to describe things both sacred and profane.

But, what is it?  Unfortunately, trying to describe ki in a short article is akin to trying describing Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the same space.  But, we shall blithely proceed onward and make a valiant attempt.  

While the practical and didactic applications of ki and qi appear to be similar on the surface, the Chinese consider qi as not just a force but a basic building block of life.  The Japanese tradition views ki as a force to be tapped, developed, and channeled.  In both traditions, ki or qi can be developed through meditation, physical exercises, and breathing practices.    

Ki, as a "life force", is central to both healing and martial arts.  In the healing arts such as acupuncture, qi gong, and accupressure, the manipulation of ki - disrupting, rerouting, and enabling the flow of ki - is used to affect and improve various physiological and biological functions within the body.  As the main force of life, the manipulation of ki is thought to be able to trigger actual reactions such as the release of endorphins, hormones, and increase or decrease electrical activity in the body. 

To the martial artist, ki or qi is what allows a karateka to shatter bricks, an aikidoka to effortlessly throw an attacker across the room, and a xing yi practioner to generate the explosive power in his or her punches.  There are even certain styles, such as Toh-Ate, that claim to be able to project ki though empty space, remotely disabling opponents with invisible beams of ki.

While some of the claims regarding ki seem a bit far-fetched, there is physical evidence in the broken tiles and bricks left behind by martial artists that the human body can generate an inexplicable amount of force.  In Aikido, whose name actually means the "way of harmonizing life force", smaller practitioners have been known to throw off much larger attackers with seemingly little effort.  There are also stories of ordinary people who found miraculous strength when faced with life-or-death situations, such as being able to lift a car up with their bare hands to save a trapped victim.

Martial artists are often taught to "project" or "extend" their ki, to emphasize the concept of channeling something that is already there.  Proper application of ki requires coordination of mind, body, and breath.  Often, this coordination focused through a kiai, a vocalization or shout that comes from the centerKiai literally means the harmonization of ki, with sound merely acting as its vehicle.   

Regardless of style, there is general agreement that ki emanates from one's center, or tanden.  Physically, the tanden is the center of mass in a human bodyAs such, any movement that is physically connected to the center is likely to generate a large amount of force.  The force ultimately exerted is determined by how well the body is positioned and structured to maximize the transfer of energy from the center.  Simply put, the postures and positions adopted by martial artists have been developed to provide the most direct line of force from the center to the target.

As a Westerner, you may prefer to treat ki as a way of conceptually applying the principles of physics to your martial arts techniques.  However, understand that many of the methods and exercises to improve or increase ki have been developed by many generations over many centuries.  As such, with diligent practice, the end result - the ability to call upon increased strength and power at will - should ultimately be repeatable.  

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