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Monday, July 2, 2012

Ki to the Highway

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
- Confucius, Analects

A few days ago, someone on Facebook's Aikido group had the gall to make a post saying that ki power does not exist. The responses that followed this assertion were condescending and not particularly friendly. I'll post the first three here: 
  • "Then why are you here?" (3 Likes)
  • "If you do not believe in the existence of ki power, you have not understood the real power of aikido... all techniques depend on ki power: without that, there is only physical strength." (5 Likes)
  • "ki is everywhere, a vital force; the spirit of aikido; if you don't trust in this, you're lost" (1 Like)

I decided not to come to this guy's defense because I think he was being unnecessarily confrontational. But my opinion on this matter is a very strong one: there is no such thing as ki, and we in the martial arts should stop using the word ki (and its Chinese counterpart, chi) altogether.

There, I said it. Everyone take a breath.

Now I'll move on.

There are a lot of problems with the concept of ki, the foremost being that no two people can agree on what ki actually is. In my few short years in aikido, I've heard more definitions of ki than I could possibly count, ranging from things as mundane as "momentum" and "intention" to such wild ideas as "spiritual energy" and "the power of the universe". There are, in short, as many definitions of ki as there are people talking about it.

Some people embrace this amorphousness, deciding that ki is like God or the Dao: something that defies definition and can only be experienced for oneself. The problem with this is that ki, unlike God or the Dao, is supposed to be something we can cultivate and manipulate to produce measurable effects in the physical world (I suppose there are a few, like Pat Robertson, who believe they can do the same with God, but let's not get into that here).  The moment we start dealing with clearly-defined physical realities, we give up the luxury of  being able to chalk things up to mysterious, inexplicable forces. If something works in a concrete, measurable way, we ought to be able to explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

And by the way, we can explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

I have worked with some amazing people during my time in aikido and they have shown me some amazing things. But I've never seen any of them, including even the great Hiroshi Ikeda, do something that couldn't be explained by physics. No doubt, things like the "unbendable arm" must have looked supernatural to people who lacked a modern understanding of biomechanics, but we know better now. The second Facebook comment above notwithstanding, we no longer need ki to explain how good technique can overcome sheer physical strength. Royce Gracie proved that many times over in the early days of the UFC.

So, nobody can agree on what ki is and there is nothing in the martial arts that requires ki as an explanation. That ought to be evidence enough that ki is nonsense. But there is something much worse than nonsense.

Those of you who read my April post "We're the Problem" will remember a video of Jim Green, a karate instructor who is in the business of teaching children to take falls when he throws his ki at them. No doubt some see this as harmless silliness and consider confronting it with the truth more trouble than it's worth. But consider the case of Yanagi Ryuken.

Ryuken's name has become synonymous in the martial arts community with the worst martial arts delusions. His story was introduced to me by neuroscientist and secularist writer Sam Harris, whose recent interest in self-defense and Brazilian jiu-jitsu has resulted in some very interesting writing on the martial arts. Harris, as one might expect, is keenly interested in the debunking of unscientific martial arts myths. He presentes Ryuken as an example of what happens when masters and their methods go untested and unquestioned.

Ryuken is a master of no-touch throws; rather than striking or grabbing his opponents, he repels them with his ki. Here's a video of him in action with some of his students.

And here's a video of what happened when he challenged a martial artist from another school.

The website where I found this video said that Ryuken ended up with several broken teeth and cuts all over his mouth and nose. Delusion, in the case of the martial arts, isn't just funny; it's sometimes very dangerous.

None of what I've written so far addresses the more pragmatic users of the word ki: the ones who believe (correctly, I think) that what used to be called ki is in fact a combination of breathing, biomechanics, and visualization, and who assert (incorrectly, I think) that there's nothing wrong with continuing to use the word so long as we understand that there's nothing mystical or supernatural about it. I used to be in this crowd myself, but I think this stance was a bit hypocritical of me.

I am a real jerk about words. When we start deciding that words can mean whatever we want them to mean, words begin to lose their meaning altogether. We already have words for breathing, biomechanics, and visualization. Adding ki to that mix only obfuscates things.

For instance, when an instructor tells me to extend my ki outward as I throw, what he means is that if I think outward rather than downward my muscles will follow suit and my throw will go where it is supposed to go. He is telling me to visualize. I got similar advice from my singing coach in college, and he didn't need any mysterious foreign words for it. The best aikido instructors I've ever had just skip the ki middleman and say, "Think out, not down." It gets the same results and makes a lot more sense to most of us.

So to recap:

  • There is no agreed-upon definition of ki.
  • None of the martial arts phenomena attributed to ki need more explaining than can be provided by simple physics.
  • Belief in ki leads some people into ridiculous and dangerous delusions.
  • Use of the word ki complicates and obfuscates things that could be better explained with simple English (or German, or Portuguese, or Hindi, or whatever).
In closing, I must, as always,  remind people that I'm no authority on anything. I am not even three years into my martial arts journey, and have no business telling a sandan how to run her class. She can use whatever words she wants. But I, for the reasons above, will never use the word ki in reference to any part of my martial arts training, and will have a little difficulty taking those people seriously who do.


  1. I'm in the same boat as you--I don't use ki/chi/qi because I don't believe it exists. I use a very similar definition to what you do, but I also tend to include the fact that we do, in fact, put off energy (radioactivity and electromagnetism) which doesn't do anything but does seem to give you a feel for when something is in your space. That's about as mystical as I get. When people who have been training longer than I've been alive start taking about ki/chi/qi I tend to just smile and nod and find the physiological explanation for what they are demonstrating.

  2. I think visualization is the best word to use in the place of "Ki or Chi". I recently learned to ride a motorcycle. The instructors continually reminded the class to look where you want to go, and to not look down. Why? They wanted us to visualize where we wanted our motorcycle to go. If you looked down that's where the bike was going to go. If you looked up and through the turn that's where the bike would go. Recent experience off the motorcycle range has proven them wise. I believe that the same principle exists in the martial arts, especially Aikido. I have never experienced a spiritual force that moved me nor have I ever used spiritual force to move someone else. However, when I was able to visualize what I wanted to happen, more often than not my technique worked out the way I wanted.

  3. Very well presented. Ikeda shihan also actually says, the only Ki he is aware of is in his pocket and lets him into his house, I also teach my students that when they here the word Ki, from anyone, to think of it as meaning, breathing, visualisation, bio-mechanics and the desire not to be a victim etc. I make them aware of the word 'Ki', as where I operate my Dojo there is pretty much nothing but Ki Aikido as other close vacinity classes. I have been practicing Aikido 22 years and have been hopeful this idea (as you you outlined in your article) would be excepted for along while, by users of the word 'Ki', unfortunately there is that unwillingness to let go of the mysticism, which is understandable, a child who is told Santa doesn't exist is mortified, if they're not ready to see beyond Santa for how wonderful Christmas can be. My experience is those ready to accept modern understanding and see what the benefit of learning bio-mechanics etc. etc. will accept it and progress, those who are not ready will stay as they are until they are ready. The progression of Aikido will remain limited until there are more people pushing the boundaries of bio-mechnical understanding and manipulation like Ikeda shihan, but progression, growth and ability to see 'Ki' as a vague word used to described many formerly unknown areas of physics, are inevitable. Until then apply Aiki, with a smile, to the frustrations of the limitations placed on us as a species, its hard to let go of the past for most.

    Arigato Gozaimasu for an interesting and enlightened read

  4. Thanks for reading and replying, guys. I opened up these comments ready for an argument. That's what I got when I posted this on AikiWeb ( You guys all seem to be right there with me.