Why is it so hard to kiai?

Kiai: “In martial arts, the term commonly refers to a short yell made before, during, or after a technique. Students of Japanese martial arts such as aikido, karate, kobudo, kendo, or judo (or related arts such as taiko drumming) use kiai to startle an opponent, express confidence, or express victory.” (Wikipedia)

Many years ago, as an undergraduate student at Dalhousie University, I was prompted to take my first martial arts classes, a women’s self-defense class, after being attacked in Halifax, once at night and once on a crowded street during the day. I got away both times and I wasn’t hurt but my response, or lack thereof, really bothered me.

What shocked me was that I was silent while being held against a car on a crowded street. There were police officers across the street but I didn’t yell to get their attention. Not even a “Hello” or “Over here.” I don’t know if 19 year old me was scared the man holding me would hit me if I yelled. I don’t know. I just froze.

The police saw me and rescued me. Thank you. After, while getting a lecture from the police about being in that neighbourhood (I lived there!) I felt so stupid and so angry with myself.

So I did something about it. Along with a group of young women I spent a weekend learning some self-defense basics. I learned to get up quickly from the ground, to break a board into two pieces, and to yell. We were all surprised at how hard it was to yell.

Tonight I found out it’s still hard!

In Aikido, we kiai with each strike, throw, or pin. The purpose of the kiai is both internal and external. Externally, the goal is to shock or startle your partner. Most Aikido techniques begin by taking one’s partner off balance and a good kiai helps with this. But it’s also internal. The kiai focuses your own attention and energy on the technique and on the person in front of you.

A good kiai is a self defense technique in its own right.

And I do kiai. But too quietly apparently. My own perception is that I’m incredibly loud. But not so, I’m told.

When I teach, the voice of authority is the quiet voice. I almost never get loud to get my students’ attention. I speak quietly and make them come to me.

There are of course years of socialization as a woman in our society that Aikido is up against. In Aikido we’re told to stand tall, to make big movements, to be determined, and to be loud. Taking up space and being loud? That’s just about the opposite of what women in our society are supposed to do.

I think I don’t like getting attention through being loud. And being forceful in the way that Aikido requires isn’t easy for me. But I’m working on it. And I’m very certain now that I’d yell if attacked.

So I will have to get louder. Maybe my kiai will be my new morning call to wake up teenagers. 🙂 I can see that going really well.

8 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to kiai?

  1. Sam, you love the grace and the beauty of Aikido. I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like you as a person, much less as a woman, or an Aikido practisioner, are actively looking to take up more space and to bring attention to yourself as bigger than life, in a truly internal-external way. That said, maybe you should. Sounds like you might really be onto something here.

  2. Since the moment we enter school, we are told to sit down and be quite. Kiai requires an opening up. That is why some people do not have a good yell. When you kiai do not just yell, attack with your yell. Throw it at the attacker just like when you go for a kote gaeshi. Think of it starting in your belly, turning inside like a tornado, then push it out with your stomach muscles, yell and attack with it. I practice Kiai alot and I have knocked people down with it, no joke. Go find a place and just practice Kiaing.

  3. Enjoying this blog. I began studying karate at age 40, along with my 2 sons and husband, and absolutely fell in love with it from day one. I had no significant trouble finding my kiai. Learning to actually hit someone during training has been more challenging, but I’m getting there. I grew up with a feminist mom, was never told to act like a “lady” by anyone whose opinion I cared about, got plenty dirty and sweaty all the time riding horses and stuff like that. Nonetheless, societal messages about what women “should” act or look like are difficult to ignore, and karate is helping me to shed that baggage. I hope to be a sensei, and have a current goal of getting more women students to enroll at our dojo, so I’ve been trying to better understand what barriers women have to learning a martial art. I’ve been reading things online and asking women I know IRL about it, and the reasons are sometimes confounding. The requirement to shout turns out to be a stumbling block for many women. So is worrying about how they’d look in a gi. I try not to roll my eyes (I think we all look awesome in our gi, women and men), and instead am trying to figure out ways to help women look past the things that make karate seem too scary to try. Being in a class with men apparently sounds intolerably uncomfortable to some, as well. Learning karate is amazing for me, and I know so many women who would benefit from it, but they’re too self-conscious to try, and that makes me sad.

    1. I would also love to get more women out at Aikido. It’s so much fun and I think it’s so valuable for women but I’m not sure how to do it either…

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