Kiai, the act of forcefully exerting your life force, or ki (chi/qi for Chinese martial arts), upon a physical opponent using one’s voice. It is also synonymous with a battle/war cry. When first being exposed to the martial art Kendo, or the way of the Japanese Sword, one is often struck by how loud and intense kendoists yell and scream at each other.
There is nothing more embarrassing in American culture than yelling till your lungs are hoarse for no apparent reason. We are regularly exposed to kiai through martial artist movies stars such as Bruce Lee’s screams that sound like his underwear are 10 sizes too small, or Tom Cruise’ s “I-yell-with-the-same-tone-in-every-movie-whether-I’m-angry-or-not” voice. Usually, kiai is involved when the action movie hero is killing somebody.
Although we are not killing anyone (even figuratively) when beginning kendo, kiai usually feels awkward and embarrassing for students. It doesn’t help that when we first start using kiai we’re either counting “ichi, ni” which feels like we’re saying “itchy knee!”, or we’re yelling “MEN” for the basic strike. Since”men” is an English word that doesn’t mean mask it feels strange–Although it would be equally weird to yell FOREHEAD instead.
Kiai is very important and develops with time as we practice. Don’t expect to sound like the sensei on your first day! Kiai is unique to each kenshi yet it serves the same purpose for all. It raises spirits, focuses our minds, prepares us to move, helps us push past our physical limits, teaches correct breathing, and not to mention it (sometimes) scares the daylight out of our opponents.
We all began somewhere and no one will laugh at a new student for counting loudly. In fact, it may impress some people while the majority will not notice anything out of the ordinary. Count loudly when counting with a group and no one will notice anything. Don’t count at all than prepare to be embarrassed.
Kiai during warm ups sets the tone for the whole practice. If there is no energy or spirit in the warm up, there will most likely be little energy in the remaining practice session. Use this time to become comfortable hearing one’s voice since one voice will blend into the many.
Don’t worry about being embarrassed. While it may take some time, everyone eventually outgrows the shameful feeling and begins to utilize this powerful weapon. Sometimes it is easier to simply vocalize yelling something unintelligible as opposed to saying men or counting. Do what you are comfortable with at the beginning.
I always noticed that the better a kendoist became the more interesting their kiai could sound! Occasionally kenshi become so comfortable vocalizing, it sounds as though two opposing kendoists are yelling curse words at each other during their match. (They’re “probably” not though I think). Kiai loudly even if you feel dumb; you won’t regret it!