The ever-elusive concept of “ki”

Throughout my study of aikido, I’ve had a number of curious friends ask me “is that ki stuff for real?”. I usually respond that “it’s absolutely real – it’s just not what you think it is”. Here in the West, I find that it’s pretty easy for people to get hung up on the “ki” in aikido, which is understandable. As one of the most vague and seemingly esoteric terms within Japanese martial arts, there is a tendency to imbue the term with whatever characteristics we’d like it to have. As a result, our idea of ki may become synonymous with mysticism, the occult, or super-human powers. Believe in it, you run the risk of appearing a zealous science-denier. Ignore it, and you’re cutting your own aikido off at the knees. That dualistic understanding is misplaced.

I took my kids to see the new Kung Fu Panda movie the other day. It was funny, and they loved it. From the outset, ki (or the Chinese equivalent, chi) played an important role in the film’s plot, but as is so often the case in cinema, it was employed as one more “ultimate weapon”. Develop your ki, the movies imply, and you will find yourself possessed of invincible powers, able to radiate pure, amorphous energy from your hands, dodge bullets, and the like. I can’t pretend I’m immune to that kind of seduction. The idea of “the Force” in Star Wars (Original Trilogy, obviously) was, in retrospect, an embarrassingly huge catalyst toward my own interest in aikido. Cool costumes, swords, AND mystical energy? One ticket to Dagobah, please.

While the idea of manifesting impossible powers draws many to try martial arts like aikido, their actual experience of ki turns out to be very different, infinitely more subtle, and ultimately more useful. I hate to break it to you, but studying aikido (or ki, in genreal) is not going to enable you to shoot cool laser beams, astrally project to the spirit realm, or bring dead flowers back to life with a touch. Those kinds of abilities remain (and belong) in the world of martial arts fiction and fantasy. If, however, the lure of them gets you in the door, maybe it’s not so bad.ki

Instead, we quickly come to find that “real” ki is more about synergy than raw energy. Occasionally, in practice, you will surely experience all the variables surrounding a technique coming together, coalescing into a throw, fall, or technique that just feels (for lack of a better word) “perfect”. Unfortunately, the feeling often vanishes as quickly as it appears, and our efforts to forcefully recreate its conditions usually end in disappointment. Aikido techniques are beholden to so many variables – timing, position, direction, ma’ai, atemi, how quickly to move, how “big” to move, when and how to breathe, even how much “joy” you take in the technique, just to name a few. Ki is manifested in your ability to bring those disparate elements into seemingly impossible confluence. As a beginner, it’s a bit like playing the lottery, but when you feel the technique of someone who has spent decades feeling their way through those variables with thousands of different partners, you get the sense that they can harmonize with just about anyone.

People love to put things in exclusive boxes, and they want something as arcane as ki to be at odds with modern biophysics. Usually, though, that’s just a product of our own assumptions or projections . Nobody denies that when you breathe out, your body’s density is greater. Or that when you allow your arm to take a slightly round shape, its natural bio-mechanical structure has greater integrity than when locked straight. Or that our bodies convert energy from materials we take in from the greater universe. These aren’t esoteric. magical concepts. One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with has been the idea that ki is drawn not from some external pool of cosmic energy, but rather the very real energy of my natural body AS IT EXISTS within the cosmos. For all its apparent mysticism, in application ki is distilled to using the everyday energy of your body to find harmony within a dynamic world.

Applied to your daily life, THIS ability becomes more significant than the CGI-laden effects of the latest Marvel movie or the ability to call a lightsaber to you from across a room. While I admit that would be pretty sweet, I don’t need super-powers – I need REGULAR powers. Rarely do I need to hold 4 guys up as they cling to the end of my bokken (although a good chudan no kamae IS a perfect example of the overlap of physics and ki). But I DO need to be able to carry my body in a way that keeps it safe, supple, and free from injury. I don’t need to project someone through a wall with a touch. But I DO need to be able to drive defensively without falling victim to road rage, mediate my kids’ bickering without inflaming the situation, or keep myself from getting worked up over some perceived minor slight. And yes – in the rare instances when I’m able to get out of my own way – it is, of course, very satisfying to see the effects of this unified energy upon my aikido.

The exercises we practice in class help us to be aware of ki, not as intangible magical energy, but as an awareness of our own bodies; their limits and their capabilities. Real ki resides in how you carry yourself (physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually) and it helps immeasurably with real issues. This reminds me of another question I’ve been asked by friends on occasion – “Have you ever had to USE your aikido?” Of course, the only answer is “I’m using it right now!”

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