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TAE Journal, Edition 9, A Ki Question. By Adrian Punt

Introduction

I have known Aikido teachers that talk, comfortably and at great length, about ‘ki’, as well as those who want all mention or reference of the word or concept banned from all discussion, whether on or off the Aikido mat. However, ki, or perhaps the less controversial term ‘aiki’, are fundamental parts of the name of the art we follow (whether you consider Aikido as ‘Ai-Ki-Do’ or ‘Aiki-Do’). Hence, in this article I pose ‘a ki question’ – what did O-Sensei, or more precisely, his first generation (direct) students mean when they spoke about ki and how have concepts around ki, or at least terminology, changed in the 50-plus years since the Founder’s death?



Aiki (合氣; literally: ‘Joining Spirit’) is a well-established concept in Japanese martial arts in which the ‘defender’ blends (without clashing) with the ‘attacker’ and hence can control their opponent with minimal physical effort by making maximum use of the opponent’s momentum against them. This blending of movements is achieved by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker and having the mental clarity and body coordination to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter technique. Can aiki be considered as a mechanical activity focusing on distance, timing, velocity, and direction of travel etc? Hence, are Aiki-jutsu and Aikido therefore the Japanese martial arts of blending? Is aiki more than just physical timing?


I think most people would answer yes, at least in part, to the questions above. Some may suggest that Aikido is only receptive or passive, that it responds to a physical attack. However, Koichi Tohei Sensei in ‘Aikido – The Coordination of Mind and Body for Self-Defense’ (originally published in Japanese in 1961 and then in English in 1966) [1], notes that Aikido follows the principle of non-aggression, but goes on to say:

“…however, Aikido is on the offensive and aggressive, because you pour forth and project powerful ki even before your opponent has had a chance to attack and apply techniques against him.”

Equally, Morihiro Saito Sensei in his 1976 Traditional Aikido Vol. 5 (p.36) [2] book notes that:

“Aikido is generally believed to represent circular movements. Contrary to such belief, however, Aikido in its true ki form is a fierce art piercing straight through the centre of opposition.”

In our style of Aikido, we follow the teachings of Morihiro Saito Sensei. In both tai jutsu and buki waza we learn how to initiate the physical encounter to our advantage and to control and neutralise an impending attack before the strike, kick or grab is launched. Could this be considered as an advance practice of aiki – of responding to an intent ahead of the physical attack? I would say yes. In this we seek to enter deeply into the space of the aggressor with full intent and commitment, with strong extension, and with movement from the body, we strike upward and forward with the blade of the hand, the tegatana. We seize the initiative and aim to dominate the encounter. Is this what Tohei Sensei meant when he said, “pour forth and project powerful ki”, or what Saito Sensei meant when he described Aikido in its true ‘ki form’ as “a fierce art piercing straight through the centre of opposition”? I would say yes. However, is ‘ki’ something more than just part of the concept of ‘aiki’? This is part of the ‘ki question’ explored here.


‘Ki’ Meaning and Use

Ki (気) is the Japanese word for air; atmosphere; flavour; heart; mind; spirit; feelings; humour; an intention; mind; will etc. Uses of the word ki can include expressions such as ‘ki ga katsu’ meaning to be determined or strong-willed; ‘ki wo ireru’ to do in earnest, to concentrate on, to apply one's mind; and ‘ki ga ooi’ which can be taken to mean ‘having many romantic interests’, i.e., to be ‘energetic’ in a particular context. Equally, ‘ki o yurusu’ means ‘to let go of one’s ki’, i.e., to let one’s guard down; and ‘ki ga chiru’ means ‘to have one’s ki scattered’, i.e., to be distracted. The question ‘genki desu ka?’ is typically translated from Japanese into English as ‘how are you?’. However, in Japanese, ‘genki’ (元気)means ‘lively; full of spirit; energetic; vigorous; vital; spirited​’, so you are in fact asking ‘Are you full of energy?’

Tohei Sensei, in his 1961 publication [1], makes multiple references to ki. He notes that Aikido means “the way of coordinating with ki”; that through practice we aim to lead our opponent’s ki; that we should aim to “pour forth ki” etc and that “As long as there is an outpouring of ki, you can maintain a posture of strength and still move swiftly in any direction”.


Saito Sensei also makes extensive reference to ki in his publications from the 1970s. In the 1973 Traditional Aikido Volume 1 [3] book he notes that “It should be the desire of all who practice Aikido to develop ki…”, that exercises should be done with full “ki extension”, and that “As you extend your ki, the ki of your opponent will return to you like an echo”. He also notes that you should “not receive your opponent's ki” but evade this by entering deeply and moving past them to their rear. He notes that in practice, “ki is directed before body movement takes place”. He defines ki as:

“The vital force of the body. Through Aikido training, the ki of a person can be drawn in increasing amounts from the universe. In practice, ki is directed before body movement takes place.”

Equally, ‘ki musubi’ is defined as “uniting of one’s own ki with that of the opponent” and kokyu as “Breath power. The coordination of ki flow with breathing”.


In Saito Sensei’s 1975 book, ‘Aikido Its Heart and Appearance [4], he also talks about the importance of blending / matching your ki with that of your partner, about guiding and controlling your partners ki, and says that ki is critical because it is the origin of strength. He notes the importance of building up ki power over that of muscular power and that the highest level of practice is that of ‘flow of ki’ (ki no nagare) and that this can include throwing your partner without coming into contact with them.


In the 1960s to 1970s, Tohei Sensei and Saito Sensei were clearly talking about very similar concepts, and they were talking about these in a very similar way. Tohei Sensei [1] notes that in daily life a Japanese speaker uses the concept of abundant ki to represent a good (or great) feeling, vigour and courage, and lack of ki to represent a bad feeling, timidity, a retiring disposition etc. He states “While he receives ki, he is alive. Deprive him of ki and he dies”. Also, “So long as his body is filled with ki and it pours forth abundantly, he is vigorous and filled with courage. On the contrary, when the body has run out of ki, he is weak, cowardly, and retiring”. An English speaker may use words like vitality, energised / dynamic, committed, confident etc in situations where a Japanese person would talk about abundant ki, i.e., someone who has ‘energy’, whether physical or mental, or both.


Tohei Sensei also notes [1] a deeper meaning for the word ki in Japan as something akin to ‘life-force’, or fundamental energy where everything comes from, and ultimately returns to ki. This is, to all intents and purposes, the same as ‘chi’, the vital force believed in Taoism and other Chinese systems to be inherent in all things. Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei in his 1984 book ‘The Spirit of Aikido’ [5], talks about the “…flowing movement of ki-power which is free and fluid, indestructible and invincible”. He defines ‘ai’ as harmony and ‘ki’ as a fundamental creative principle, i.e., force, energy. Hikitsuchi Mishio, in an ‘Aikido Magazine’ article from 1988 [6], also notes that “Aikido is harmonization with ki” but goes on to state that this does not mean harmonising with the partner's ki, but that you should “take the ki of your partner”.

Sensei Bernaldo de Quiros recounts that during his time in Iwama, from 1986 to 1993, Saito Sensei would mention ki a lot, “better three suburi with full ki than a thousand without”, but as noted earlier, the term ki is ubiquitous in Japanese language. Sensei Bernaldo de Quiros also notes Saito Sensei would also make a distinction between ki and kokyu using the analogy of a car: “ki is the fuel and kokyu the power”. In other words, kokyu is therefore the expression (in action) of ki. However, Saito Sensei’s 1994 book Takemusu Aikido Volume 1 [7] makes only limited reference to ki such as that on page 75 that states:

“Ki will manifest itself naturally if you are training correctly. Once you have developed ki, it will flow freely through your hands even when your fingers are relaxed.”

There are then only a few other references to ki in the Takemusu Aikido series such as “open your fingers fully and extend your ki” or “raise your arms upwards as if holding a sword, extending ki through your arms”. The definition of ki is simplified to “spirit or energy” and kokyu is only defined in terms of ‘kokyu ho’, i.e., exercises to develop breathing, ki extension and a stable posture. There appears to be a clear shift away from ki related terminology relative to Saito Sensei’s publications of the 1970s. Why this shift? I don’t know, but perhaps it related to western interpretations of ki and the desire to avoid language that could be misinterpreted. Maybe, maybe not.


Aiki, Ki and Energy

Aiki might be a longstanding term in Japanese budo, but to me, Tohei Sensei in the 1960s and Saito Sensei in the 1970s were not talking about ‘aiki’ as a singular concept, but as ‘ai’ and ‘ki’ as clearly separate concepts with a distinct emphasis on ki. In this, ki (or more specifically an ‘abundance’ of ki) represents an energised state, where the mind, the intent, goes first.


These early publications note that like an attack of a spear or dagger thrust, you seek to evade the ki of the attacker, and in turn you aim to control, to dominate, to pierce straight through to the centre of the opposition. You act before your opponent has had a chance to attack and apply techniques against them, you seek to lead and ‘take their ki’. They include the concept that ki strength can be increased and that this is different (and additional) to physical muscular strength. They include the concept that ki, specifically extension of ki, plays a key part in maintaining a strong structure and that through extension of ki you are able to realise kokyu – in essence whole body power. These are martially oriented concepts.

In the 1985 book ‘Aikido’ [8] Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei describes Aikido as “The Way of Spiritual Harmony” and talks of ‘aiki-victory’ (masakatsu agatsu) and that aiki is the assimilation of body and spirit. He describes ‘chikara no dashi-kata’ as ‘extended power’ and that this is the unification of ki, mind and body. He notes that ki, as a core concept of Oriental thought, equates to spirit or life force. Although the concepts here are similar to earlier publications of Tohei Sensei and Saito Sensei, they perhaps present a more spiritual focus and aiki as a unified concept that may have influenced Western interpretations of the concept of ki.


It is important to note that although Shintoism, Buddhism and in part, Christianity, co-exist in Japanese culture, societal root beliefs are animistic, i.e., the belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena. Hence ki, whether considered as spirit, life force or universal energy etc, is not something that is superhuman or supernatural in the Oriental mind, it is just something that is. As Sensei Bernaldo de Quiros notes “I remember one teacher telling me that ki itself cannot be felt, only its effect in the body (kokyu)”.


As Aikido spread through the western world so did western interpretations and translations of terms and concepts, including that of ki. I have encountered some Aikido teachers in the west who strongly declare that they “do not believe in ki”. When questioned as to what it is they do not believe in, the response has been that they object to the concept of ki as some magical or mystical quality, some Jedi-like power. The language of ‘ki’ used by Tohei Sensei, Saito Sensei and the second Doshu varies and in part evolved over time, nonetheless, it is hard to believe that they were referring to a mystical power. This interpretation appears to be a ‘veneer’ that we in the west have added, a mysticism, even romanticisation, that was not part of the original concept.


But…. in our practice there is still an energised feeling, a quality that comes and goes and gradually grows with time, a quality that is hard to describe. What is it?


Training and Ki

In our lineage of Aikido we don’t tend to use terms such as ‘extend ki’ or practice mind and body coordination ‘ki tests’ such as that of the unbendable arm, but cut after cut, hour upon hour we work on raising the bokken from underneath – of extending and expanding. We work on being grounded but expanded, to the front to the back, to the sides, up and down, inside and out. We explore how the tensile structure of the body, the bones, joints, tendons, and fascia, along with gravity act as a system (see the article on basic training by Sensei Bernaldo de Quiros in the TAE Journal no. 1 [9]).


And as Ginny Breeland Sensei in the TAE Journal no. 7 [10] notes:

“Extension is first experienced through the arms. It feels like a 'lengthening'. As we practise, we learn that it can occur throughout the body along specific 'alignments'.
We extend the arms into the fingers and beyond. We extend the legs into the feet and below. We can extend and feel projection through the back and chest. We can even extend through the breath. Without extension, body movement may appear to be 'empty', lacking, or without substance. Extension is the crucial 'invisible' factor that can allow us to feel much bigger than our actual 'physical selves'. Extension opens the door to expansion.”

Are the concepts of extension and expansion considered here the same that Tohei Sensei and Saito Sensei wrote about in the 1960s and 1970s? To me they are.


Kihon waza gives us a broad window through which we seek to explore, understand and embed the principles of mind and body coordination into all of our movements. We seek to coordinate and control our whole-body structure and to move with confidence, clear intent and commitment, to move from our centre and to transfer the power of our full body movement directly to our partner. When working with a bokken or jo, we seek to make the weapon an extension of not just our own body, but also of our mind.


Key to the points above is the development of kinaesthetic awareness of our own bodies, to be able to literally feel what being centred, grounded, extended, expanded mean, and to feel the connection with our partner and how we transmit movement from our centre to them. Equally, it is about our partner feeling our intent and knowing, without a doubt, that their structure is compromised.


It is all about a feeling that some might describe as ki.


References

1. Koichi Tohei (1961). ‘Aikido – The Coordination of Mind and Body for Self-Defense’

2. Morihiro Saito (1976). ‘Traditional Aikido’, Vol. 5

3. Morihiro Saito (1973). ‘Traditional Aikido’, Vol. 1

4. Morihiro Saito (1975). ‘Aikido Its Heart and Appearance’

5. Kissomaru Ueshiba (1984). ‘The Spirit of Aikido’

6. Aikido Magazine, No. 40, 1988, p. 11 et seq.

7. Morihiro Saito (1994. Takemusu Aikido Volume 1

8. Kissomaru Ueshiba (1985). ‘Aikido’

9. Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros (2019). TAE Journal, Edition 1: ‘A Commentary on Basic Training’

10. Ginny Breeland (2021). TAE Journal, Edition 7: ‘The Outer Journey – Refining Basic Structure’


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