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One thing that draws passersby into a martial arts school is the yelling they hear coming from inside. What the people hear is the kiai/kiyup being sounded by the students while they are training. Just like the uniform, colored belt, and bow, the kiai is an integral part of martial arts training. When people hear a kiai/kiyup, they immediately associate it with the martial arts.

Samurai warriors were renowned for their powerful kiai in battle—a startling war cry that was said to paralyze opponents with fear. A warrior who could summon a powerful kiai would rarely be viewed as weak or tired by his opponents. Unfortunately, most people think of the whining howl used by Bruce Lee or other movie martial arts is the sound that all martial artists make. Actually, the grunt or puff sound used by boxers is closer to a kiai/kiyup than the sound you hear in most martial arts movies.

As a martial arts student, you learn how to kiai/kiyup properly so it reinforces your technique. You also learn to not flinch and freeze at sudden loud noises, so you will be able to more quickly assess the source of the noise, whether it poses any threat, and what, if any, response is required.

Types of kiai

Myomoto Musashi, in his book, The Book of Five Rings, said there were three types of kiais:
  • Preemptive. Used to scare the opponent or draw him off his guard. Also used as a way for a warrior to release his own fears as he goes in for the kill.
  • Fighting. Acts as a psychological attack and gives added power (ki) to physical attacks.
  • Victory. Serves as a release of pent-up energy, a way to express the joy of winning,  and as a warning to others who may be thinking about attacking the warrior.

Meaning of kiai

The word kiai is made up of the ideogram "ki," which means energy or spirit, and the ideogram "ai," which means matching or unite. Many Eastern people believe a force flows through all things. This force is called ki in Japanese and Korean and chi (or qi) in Chinese. Therefore, kiai means "working with ki" or "harmonizing ki" or "uniting the spirit." E. J. Harrison, in his book The Fighting Spirit of Japan, describes it as the "art of perfectly concentrating all one's energy, physical and mental, upon a given object with unremitting determination so that one achieves one's goal." Some simply call it a "spirit yell"

How kiai originated

Folklore has it that, in the early days, a village would have one warrior who would proclaim himself the master warrior. When a “wannbe” would confront the warrior, he would issue a challenge to fight by using a yell which the warrior would answer with his own yell. When the winner emerged, he would again issue a yell. The winner would now be the master warrior of the village

It is instinctive for humans to emit some type of grunt or growl when exerting a lot of physical force, such as when lifting a heavy object. Warriors throughout the centuries have refined this into a yell.

Purposes of a kiai/kiyup 

  • It shows your fighting spirit. When performed under stress is like crying out "I will not give up! I will prevail!"
  • It focuses your total concentration on the attack.
  • It focuses timing, breathing, movement, and power.
  • It increases the power of an attack by tensing the appropriate muscles. 
  • It ensures you don’t hold your breath during exertion. Holding your breath during exertion increases blood pressure, which may be harmful. Ever seen the bulging veins on a weightlifter's temples?
  • The first syllable "ki" forces oxygen into bloodstream forces because muscles need maximum oxygen to perform forcefully.
  • The second syllable "ai" tenses the body tenses the body at the moment of impact  of your attack or block. It also tenses the body at the moment it receives a blow to direct the force of the blow throughout the body instead of just in one area. 
  • It helps absorb an attack. When you are attacking, you are generally moving forward and vulnerable to a counterattack. If you are hit by a counterattack, you cannot absorb the blow as well as you might if you were retreating from the blow or even standing still. By expelling air, the chest and stomach become firmer and less susceptible to having "the wind knocked out." Also, letting a blow slowly force the remaining air from the lungs gradually absorbs the power of the blow. If kicked in the chest while holding the breath, the rise in pressure in the chest cavity may cause the heart to go into fibrillation (heart muscle starts trembling instead of rhythmically pumping), which is potentially fatal.
  • It may surprise an opponent and break his or her concentration.
  • It may intimidate or "psyche out" an opponent.
  • It may psychologically stun the opponent for a moment, giving you a bit of advantage.
  • It may be used to create an opening. When used just prior to the actual attack, it may cause an opponent to flinch or step back.
  • It helps release maximum energy. For example, when lifting weights, at some point your body says this weight is too heavy to lift. However, there are two common methods, and the use of the kiai, to circumvent your body's good sense:
  • The most obvious method is panic or being "hyped up." Everyone has heard the story of the mother who sees her son working under his car just as the jack holding up the car breaks. She rushes out and lifts the car off of him. This may or may not be true, but, in law enforcement, we see plenty of situations where a panicked, crazy petite woman is able to resist the efforts of many large officers to subdue her.
  • The other common method is to use some type of drug. The most notorious one is PCP. It was originally used as an anesthetic for animals but was later rejected. Its effects on people include psychosis and an inability to feel pain.
  • The method martial arts students use is the kiai/kiyup. It momentarily blots out fear and indecision and short-circuits the body's safety mechanisms for a fraction of a second. This usually is not harmful because full strength is only exerted for a split second and it is not being exerted against a significant opposing force.
  • It makes sparring judges take notice of your attack.
  • It makes pattern judges take notice of your performance.
  • It boosts the overall spirit of a class of students.
  • It may impress and deter other potential aggressors.
  • It alerts others to your predicament.

Kiai distracts opponents

In March 2008, neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, reported the results of a study of 29 volunteers who used a driving simulator while inside an MRI brain scanner. The subjects had to steer along a virtual highway, both undisturbed and while hearing a true or false question. While in the listening scenario, MRI brain scans found a 37% decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which processes spatial information, knowing where you are in space. There was also a decrease in activity in the occipital lobe, which processes visual information.

These data show that listening to and processing puzzling information disturbs a person's ability to react to a situation and make the proper response to it. When facing an attacker unused to hearing a kiai, a kiai may give you that split-second edge you need when responding to the attack.

A 2011 University of British Columbia study found that people watching video clips of tennis matches reacted more slowly and predicted the direction of the ball less accurately when players grunted while returning a ball. The grunt was distracting and blocked sound cues, such as the sound of the ball hitting the racket, which made it more difficult to judge the speed and spin of the returned ball. Using a kiai when attacking may have the same effect on an opponent.

I was once in a tournament with many rings running simultaneously. One woman was in a match in one of the rings. When she attacked, she made such a blood curdling scream, that, the first time she used it, action stopped in nearby rings and the spectators got quite and looked in her direction.

How to sound a kiai

The sounds martial arts students make when sounding a kiai are "E-eye" or variations of kiai, such as "ya," "oh," "or-ya," "seee," "utzz," "kiyup," or "e-yup". The exact sound of the yell will vary from person to person. Being a career Navy man, over the years my kiai evolved into a variation of the Navy yell "hooyah." You should experiment to find the best sound for you. However, do not try to sound like Bruce Lee—keep it simple and traditional sounding. Keep it to two syllables with a high octave first syllable and a low octave second syllable. Staying with the standard kiai sounds will keep you from saying something offensive in a foreign language. One famous Karate expert was well known for using the word "kusoh" for his kiai—it means feces in Japanese.  Actually, the kiai may be silent; everything else is the same except one does not emit a sound.

Ways of sounding kiai

  • For technique execution. Use a deep, low frequency kiai sounded at the instant of execution of a technique.
  • In victory. Use a high-pitched shout of victory.
  • For recovery. Use a mid-range tone used in the practice of resuscitation.
  • In meditation. Use a silent, internal ton.
  • In midst of a fight. Use a blood curdling combat kiai that strikes fear in the opponent.

Combat kiai

During a martial arts class or during no-contact or semi-contact free-sparring, we kiai with the mouth open. However, in full-contact free-sparring or an actual fight, opening the mouth makes you vulnerable to losing teeth or a broken jaw. Therefore, in a combat situation, it is best to use a semi-silent version of the kiai and keep the mouth tightly shut—make a sound like the puff sound boxers use.

When to sound a kiai

The kiai is sounded:
  • At the moment of impact of a technique, whether it be a block or an attack
  • When absorbing blows to the abdomen.
  • At certain points while performing patterns; failure to sound a strong kiai at the appropriate place is regarded as an error.
  • While free-sparring to signify a decisive technique. An attack without an accompanying kiai may not is regarded as a strong, decisive technique by a judge.
  • Anytime you want to accentuate an action you are performing.
In the military, they tell you that when you don’t know whether to salute, the best thing to do is, "When in doubt, salute.” In the martial arts, "When in doubt, kiai.” There is nothing wrong with using a kiai every time you execute a technique. Depending on the circumstances, it may be a low volume kiai like a whisper, or it may be a blood-curdling kiai that even causes the spectators to tremble.

Breath control during a kiai

Proper breath control during execution of a technique requires:
  • A low volume, high pressure exhale during execution, 
  • a high volume, low pressure exhale with a momentary cutoff of the breath at the moment of impact, and
  • a normal exhale after impact.
The kiai accomplishes this type of breath control. It uses a high-frequency first syllable (ki) and a low-frequency second syllable (ai).
Ki. You sound "ki" at the start of a technique to forcibly expel air through constricted vocal cords using the diaphragm, which restricts airflow, increases air pressure within the lungs, and forces oxygen into the blood stream. This relaxes the body so all muscles may work together for maximum speed and power. 
Ai. You sound "ai" at the moment of impact. During the execution of a technique, all your concentration and power is focused on the moment of impact and the sounding of the "ai." When sounding "ai," you release a burst of air from the lungs that relieves the increased pressure and tenses the entire body, especially the abdomen. With the abdomen tensed, the upper and lower body are solidly connected into one integral unit. This permits the body to transfer power from the legs to the point of contact and permits the body to transfer the reaction force quickly through the body to the ground and back to the point of impact before contact terminates. 
After the "ai" is sounded, you continue with a normal exhale. This disconnects the upper and lower body, relaxes the entire body, and allows it to return to the on-guard position quickly.

Example of how a kiai works

To see the way the kiai locks the upper and lower body into an integral unit, try to perform a full-extension push-up. To perform the push-up:
  • Lie flat on your stomach on the floor.
  • Fully extend your arms in front of your head with the palms flat on the floor.
  • Use the fingers to raise the hands up so they rest on just the extended fingertips.
  • Fully extend your legs with the feet about a shoulder's width apart
  • Dig your toes into the floor so only the balls of the feet are supporting the legs.
  • Now for the tough part. From this fully extended position, do a push-up on the fingertips and toes
Most people are unable to do a full-extension push-up the first few times they try. They push up the upper body and the lower body, but the abdomen stays on or near the floor. To see how a kiai locks the upper and lower body into one integal unit, properly yell a forceful kiai and tense the abdomen at the moment you attempt the push-up. Most people will now be able to perform the push-up.

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