A few months ago I wrote this article for Martial Arts Illustrated and thought I'd now share it with you all.
As, what I would call, a “traditional” martial artists of some 25 years experience, I have spent many years, taking from my arts, techniques and principals that would work for me outside on the street.
I worked on nightclub doors for many years, which also helped me to confirm and verify what worked and what didn’t, what could be modified and adapted and what could not.
One thing that has stood out for me as, arguably the most effective and directly applicable technique, is the Kiai. The “loud shout” you often hear in most Katas and most point scoring attacks on the competitive mat.
It’s a technique that needs very little adaptation, if any, for the street.
Whilst most other physical techniques have to be modified, if only as minimally as to be practiced from a smaller, more natural stance, or a less obvious no-guard, hands down position, the Kiai can be delivered in exactly the same way as it’s been practiced countless times in the dojo.
Those from a Karate background will recognise the Kiai points in your Kata. The two or, sometimes, three places in your Kata where you deliver the technique with added ferocity, Kimae and focus, whilst simultaneously releasing a loud, aggressive shout.
This should not only be an explosion of aggression and intention through the voice but also through the physical Kimae, the muscle tension, your facial expression, even the glare and emotion in your eyes.
Most of us learn this to begin with as a simple “shout loud”.
I can recall beginners in my early Karate days asking what a Kiai is – and after being told, “it means to shout loud” would then proceed to scream the words “SHOUT LOUD” at the top of their voice when practicing their Kata.
It’s quite rare in fact that you see Karate practitioners actually express genuine emotive aggression when performing a Kiai, usually it is just a loud shout, from the tops of their lungs.
To quote Myomoto Musashi, he said there are 3 shouts. The pre-fight shout, the in-fight shout and the post-fight shout.
For self defence, I would suggest the pre-fight shout is the most important. The purpose of this would be to scare off an attacker, making them feel that they have just picked on the wrong person, mistaking their initial victim selection process as having accidentally chosen a wild animal and not an easy prey.
For self protection, this is often known as the Aggressive Fence, where you use your voice, your body language, your posture and your predatory style actions to display massive aggression and rage at your potential attackers. It works against individuals and can also be extremely effective against multiple assailants.
However, this only works well, when the Kiai is be delivered with total commitment, one hundred percent emotive aggression and venom. For it to work effectively, for the attacker to genuinely feel this aggression, and for these shouts to trigger their own adrenal response, the person delivering the Kiai needs to believe it themselves.
For you to make anyone else believe it, you first need to believe it yourself.
I can recall a good friend Alec performing Ippon Kumite (one-step sparring) many years ago.
It has to be said, everything we did back in those days at Geoff Thompson’s Shotokan Karate Club, was aggressive. We loved it and lived for aggression training, heavy sparring, and full on testosterone inducing fighting.
So even one-step sparring was made as real and as deliberate as possible. It was quite simple, if you didn’t block you got hit.
For those not familiar, one step sparring requires both practitioners to stand in a Yoi (ready) position facing each other.
The first person then steps back into a downward block (Gedan Barai) and names the area of the body they are going to attack. Either Jodan (head) or Chudan (body). This would then be followed by a step forward with a straight punch to that target area, with the second person stepping back and delivering a block to prevent the strike from making contact.
However, Alec was well known for stepping back in the most aggressive of manners, and then literally punching you with his scream of “JODAN”. Even when you knew this was coming, the shock of this auditory explosion and the feeling of venom and pure hatred in his voice and body language would almost always cause you to wobble and stagger backwards a half step, in a vain attempt to stop yourself jumping out of your own skin and running for the door.
This was exactly the response Alec wanted because, no sooner were you gaining your composure and getting back to your ready position, was he charging forwards with a technique that contained the same level of ferocity and intention of making contact with it’s chosen target. You quickly learned how to block these attacks, either with a solid technique or, often, with your nose or jaw, which I found worked very effectively, albeit not very pleasantly.
This was a perfect example of pure aggression delivered with a voice backed up by total commitment and belief.
Even when you knew it was coming, it still shocked you and for a moment, you honestly believed this person, this friend and training partner, hated you and was about to set about destroying you.
What’s even more important was that, if you were to ask Alec, he would say that Yes, for that split second, he actually did hate me and did want to destroy me, even though we were best of friends.
And that there is the key. The secret to delivering a committed and effective Kiai. You have to deliver it with emotive aggression that you genuinely believe for that moment in time.
Take this Kiai onto the street in a self defence situation and the effects are the same.
This explosion of aggression and ferocity at a would-be attacker can often be enough to trigger their adrenal response and put them into a flight or fight state, or more importantly, momentarily place them in a Freeze state, whilst their conscious mind tries to rationalise the situation and make a decision on which of the fight or flight options to take.
In addition, this animalistic scream can be enough to raise alarm bells with passers-by, draw attention to your confrontation and dissuade an attacker from continuing. I would add, never to expect people to come to your aid, for that puts your safety and chances of a successful outcome in someone else’s hands. If they don’t come, you are still in trouble. What it will do thought, is draw attention and most attackers don’t want witnesses.
However, that is all a by-product, the primary purpose of your Kiai is to show your attacker that you are not to be messed with. That you are the wolf in sheep’s clothing that they did not spot and now they are in a world of trouble. Turn the tables, if only for a few fleeting seconds, because these are now extra seconds that you didn’t have before.
There are other types of Kiai point in a real-life attack. Myomoto Musashi mentions these as well, such as the in-fight Kiai, where you are now already engaged in physical conflict and use your Kiai as a way of increasing your own aggression levels, adding more purpose and intention to your attack.
It could even be as subtle as talking calmly and confidently as you choke your assailant in a very composed and controlled manner. This is in-fight dialogue that can make you appear to be totally at ease with the situation and a master of the street fight.
This all helps again to trigger fight or flight responses within your assailant, all helping your worthy “self defence” cause.
The final is the post-fight Kiai, which some may mistake for a celebratory or victorious shout for joy. Often this is used to scare on-lookers, send home a final message that discourages anyone else from taking the same foolish action of attacking you in the future.
All of which are highly tested and highly effective tricks of the trade of doormen and street fighters alike.
And, all of this is an extremely useful strategy, but not the main reason for my article.
The one, often overlooked aspect of the Kiai is the fact that you are practicing your ability to switch on and off your emotive aggression in an instant.
YOU are the one in total control of your emotion. You decide when to Kiai and with practice, are able to summon up pure hatred and rage in a split second, with total self control.
For me, the importance of taking control in a real life situation is crucial. If you are to stand any chance of winning or even just surviving a real attack, you must take charge and be the one in control.
We all know this is vital if you are to deliver a pre-emptive strike, as we always talk about not waiting to be hit first, but it is also imperative when we look at accessing the right mindset and attitude.
If we have to wait to be attacked physically outside, in order to have the motivation to switch on our aggression and Kiai mindset, then it may be too late.
I cannot rely on a potential attacker to trigger my aggression, because that puts me in their hands and reliant on their actions, when I have to be the one in charge.
So for me, the most important aspect of learning to Kiai properly is the ability to switch this on for myself; at will; when I need to.
And if I am not able to do this in the dojo, amongst friends, where I am least likely to be self conscious or embarrassed, then I cannot expect it to work for me when I need it to outside.
What’s more, if you can switch this on, then you can also switch this back off just as quickly, gaining an emotional mastery, albeit of only one quite primitive “anger” emotion, that can be translated to any event or situation in your life.
When I access a Kiai state, for that fleeting second, my intention is pure and complete. I am “in the zone” and I am in a pure state of aggression and certainty.
Being able to access such a powerful mindset, at will, means I now have a tool that I can utilise whenever I need to, and not just to access anger or rage, but any emotion linked to any intention.
This ability to switch on and off intention means I can use this to accomplish anything.
100% pure commitment
100% pure focus
100% pure intention
100% pure enjoyment
100% pure love
All are accessible using the same self control and on/off switch
If you want to take from your art, a technique that is directly applicable to self defence, personal security and the bigger picture of Complete Self Protection, then I suggest you look long and hard at your Kiai – it’s worth shouting about.
Stay Safe and Have Fun
Al Peasland x