Kiai/Kihap/Chi Shout - Is It Really Necessary?

Many martial arts, especially the Oriental ones include the practice of shouting at certain points in training. Japanese styles call it Kiai, Korean styles call it Kihap. I don’t know what the Chinese word for it is, but I have trained with some who simply called it Chi Shout. For simplicity, I’m just going to stick the Japanese notation of Kiai (as I’m primarily a Japanese stylist and it’s the version I’m most familiar with)!

First of all, what is it? Very simplistically, it’s a shout that comes from contraction of the diaphragm and feels like it’s coming all the way from belly. A shout that comes just from the voice-box, sounds more like scream. I have a simple way of teaching this, especially to kids. Though it’s not the nicest of explanations, it does make it easier for them to understand. Think of when you’re vomiting. The whole belly area contracts to expel whatever it is trying to get rid of. Use that same feeling of contracting the belly are to expel air as you shout. You will of course always get some smart kid who’s Kiai sounds like he’s retching, but at least he’s shouting from the belly. I demonstrate by shouting this way, then shouting just from voice-box and ask them if I sound “scared or scary”? They always agree that the shout just from the voice-box sounds like you’re scared, the shout from the belly sounds scary.

Like I say, this is simplified and it’s not the most pleasant of explanations, but gets the basic point across quite quickly and easily!

So is the Kiai necessary?
No, not completely!

  • Many Chinese Kung Fu styles don’t Kiai at all, especially the softer/internal styles!
  • Originally the Okinawan styles didn’t Kiai either. Wouldn’t have been a very good idea as the Japanese overlords had banned the practice of martial arts and you wouldn’t want to draw attention to yourself shouting away late at night. That said, the Okinawan versions of Karate were generally softer like the Chinese styles that largely influenced them.
  • Kickboxers/boxers don’t shout (some of you feel the urge to point out that these are “sports” rather than “real combat”, but I’ll come back to that later)!

So if Okinawan Karate did not generally practice Kiai’s, when was the Kiai introduced into Karate?
When Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate to Japan, he did not initially teach Kiai’s. However, when practising in the Universities, his students would sometimes practice alongside other Japanese martial arts who did Kiai. Allegedly, his young Karate students asked if they could Kiai too so as to show good spirit. Funakoshi agreed and so the Kiai was introduced into Karate to keep up with other Japanese arts. Originally when performing a kata (pattern/form) they could Kiai at and any point that they felt the urge. This was later refined to 2 Kiai’s at set points in each kata. I believe most schools of Taekwondo follow this practice too.

Bruce Lee, famous for his noises whilst fighting!
Purpose Of A Kiai
As mentioned above, it’s one way to show spirit. It adds to the mental commitment and intensity when performing a technique. It can help you to psych yourself up (like a war-cry before battle)!It can also startle an opponent by delivering a short sharp shock to the auditory nerves! At best it can induce a flinch and momentary freeze; and a momentary freeze is enough time for an experienced martial artist to deliver an effective and decisive blow. I think we sometimes forget this as when we practice it often we become a bit desensitised to it.

A little side effect of this which many people overlook is that it can assist us to develop a very powerful voice when required. The Kiai teaches us to connect our voice-box with a powerful exhalation which is generated all the way from the stomach area. Add this same principle to a simple phrase that you might use in self protection, such as “BACK OFF” or “NO” and suddenly those words carry a lot more depth!
I consider myself to be fairly softly spoken, but when I do shout, it’s loud! Being able to project a good powerful voice adds to your assertiveness and is an part of your self protection soft skills.

Lady competitor shows strong spirit during Kata competition!

The Kiai And Sport

First of all we have to define WHICH sport!

If we’re talking about boxing/kickboxing, then they are continuous fighting systems. Trying to Kiai continuously would put pressure on the breathing, hence stamina. For a duration fight like these styles, it would clearly be detrimental. Also, as mentioned above, you become desensitised to it after a while so it would lose it’s impact very quickly in that environment! In fact it would have lost it’s impact before the fighters even entered the ring!

For Karate sport fighting (varies from style to style and association to association), it is common that you have to Kiai with a technique or you don’t score the point. So even though the fighters are desensitised to it, it is still a requirement. A lively bout can therefore become quite noisy! I can see a logic to this on one level in that Karate still wants to maintain some of it’s Budo (martial way) roots and even if the competition opponent is desensitised to a sharp Kiai, a street opponent might not be. So there is logic to continuing the practice, even on a desensitised opponent! But as the original Okinawan Karate did not include Kiai’s, that rational could be argued to be floored.

However, Shihan Yokota Kousaku explores the concept in his book Shotokan Myths, of a “silent Kiai”. This is using the same rapid exhalation but without the sound. He points out that when moving very fast a big loud Kiai can actually slow things down as the Kiai often takes more time than the actual techniques! Therefore a silent Kiai, can actually be a quicker exhalation and therefore match the speed of the physical technique!

Is There An Advantage To NOT Doing A Kiai?
When I spar, I seldom Kiai. As mentioned before, people are soon desensitised to it and it can actually slow you up if you over do it.

This next bit may seem a little bit of track, but bear with me, the point will be made.

Have somebody grab your wrist, then try to pull your wrist free. First do it using all your strength and forcibly pull it back. Do it a few times as this is your control (your point of reference)!

Now hold your arm out and imagine that somebody is going to try to hit it with a big stick. You have to hold your arm out as long as you can and only pull it away at the very last split second! Would you tense up and pull your arm back with all your might? Or would you relax and “snatch” it back without any thought of strength or forcefulness?

After trying that a few times, have your training partner grab your arm again and this time, pull your arm away as if it were about to be hit by a big stick (snatch back, relaxed, without using strength).

Most people will find that the second one will work best. I found when teaching that women particularly favour this escape over other releases/escapes. The reason that it works is that you don’t signal to your opponent your intention. Even if the opponent aims to use the same amount of strength/force in restraining your arm in both scenarios, in the first one they will feel your arm tense as you prepare to pull and they instinctively tighten their grip even if they don’t intend to do so. Therefore your strength meets and increased strength from them!

In the second scenario, you don’t tense first. Therefore your opponent receives no signal of your intention to pull away, so they do not get the chance to increase their strength either. They have no chance to adapt and respond to your initiative. You may not necessarily release your hand from their grip when you pull this way, but it will more than likely pull them off-balance which is a result in itself. Whilst they are off balance you have a window of opportunity to strike whilst they are more focused on regaining their balance rather than protecting themselves from your blows. A small window of opportunity should be enough for a high level martial artist!

Now a good Kiai can put a freeze reaction into an opponent that’s not used to it. However, too many Kiai’s and too many feints etc., will make them tense up and become edgy, ready to respond/flinch to your slightest movement! True, this can induce them to make mistakes. But if you keep relaxed, whilst sparring/fighting; or even in a real life pre-fight self protection scenario, then your opponent is likely to relax a little bit as well. You can still be intense (my students tell me that I am), but relaxed at the same time. That way when you do attack, without much tensing/Kiai/feinting (like pulling your arm from the stick), they should be less able to respond as they don’t sense your intention and thus have less chance to respond to any attack on your part. They’re not quite so hyped up so as to respond/flinch to your slightest movement! The ability to remain relaxed enough so as too hide all your intensions and catch your opponent off-guard is is a high level skill and takes time to acquire.

I would say that this is especially true in a self protection situation when a bully may be “peacocking“, thus leaving many openings. Whilst a good Kiai might cause a mental freeze, it will also cause the opponent to bring his guard up as a flinch reaction, thus covering his vulnerable targets. You want him to keep peacocking with his hands by his side until too late, he’s been hit.

I suggest you experiment with sparring. Do a round where one attacks and the other can only defend. In the first round, the attacker uses lot’s feints and Kiai’s to get the defender on edge and induce mistakes. Let both sides try.

Then do another round. This time the attacker should relax as much as possible without any Kiai’s or unnecessary feints. Keep the same focus, awareness and emotional intensity; but only feint as part of a distraction to an actual attack. See if there is any difference in the amount of times you actually hit a target (score a point)! If you’re not used to doing it this way, it may take a while to adapt and you might not get it straight away so give it a fair chance! But I’d guess you find that high grade students will score more when they relax, thus inducing their opponent to relax. It’ll also save you energy.

When the lion pounces, it goes straight in first time. If spotted, it may have to chase it’s prey first, but it does not try to wear it’s prey down we feints and false attacks and a lot of growling at it first!


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