The Life Force of the Far East
Although it's a part of the very word aikido, ki lacks a definition that everybody doing aikido agrees on. On any internet aikido forum there are countless postings about ki, and almost as many views on it. Here's mine.
This is true for both tori, the defender, and uke, the attacker.
For much more about ki and how to exercise it, see my book Qi: Increase your Life Energy.
Soft style aikido training.
Tori and ukeAt the moment uke takes aim at tori, there is a flow of ki from uke in that direction. Without it, uke would be unable to attack. When the attack comes, it is riding on that flow of ki. Since it is not the body, but the flow of ki that initiates and leads the attack, tori needs to do the aikido technique primarily on the ki flow and not on uke's body. Tori leads uke's ki, and thereby the body, too.
Taisabaki against bokken attack. Observe tori's left hand, showing which way the ki goes.
This is quite evident in the taisabaki evasive move out of line of the attack, which is the first movement in any aikido technique. Taisabaki is a way of letting uke's ki flow through, instead of blocking it. Tori makes taisabaki to accept the attacker's ki, stepping out of the way of it to let it pass.
Because of this, tori is able to steer the flow into the path of the aikido technique. When uke's ki is not blocked, but allowed to flow on, it can be steered by tori, mainly because it is natural for ki to keep on flowing.
CurvesThe path that tori leads uke's ki in, is curved. It is not possible to lead a ki flow in straight lines or sharp angles. So, every aikido technique consists of curves.
Uke's attacking flow - most often a straight line in the direction of tori - is diverted into curves, either leading back to uke or extending and accelerating or a combination thereof.
Most pinning techniques (such as ikkyo, nikyo and so on) bring the ki flow back to uke. Several throwing techniques (for example shihonage and kotegaeshi) do the same. Most regular kokyunage extend and accelerate the ki flow, away from uke, so that uke's body falls sort of in the effort to catch up with it.
Joining kiThe manner in which tori leads uke's ki is with tori's own ki. Tori makes both their ki flows join into one. This is done at the moment of the taisabaki, which is not essentially an evasive move, but a joining one. Tori moves away from being the target, by turning to join with the attack.
It's not necessary to make a full 180 degree turn with the body, since it is tori's ki that is doing the joining, really, so the body movement can be quite small, as long as it allows for the joining of ki.
Taisabaki can be compared to opening a door, to let someone pass through it. How much the door needs to be opened depends on who or what is coming. At the moment the door is opened, tori joins with uke's ki, and starts to lead it.
Actually, it's not the taisabaki move that initiates the joining, but the joining of ki makes the body move in taisabaki.
TimingBecause the joining is done with ki at first, and not bodies, there is really no need to wait for uke's body. The joining of ki can be done as soon as uke has aimed at tori, ie. started a ki flow in that direction. And when uke is committed to the ki flow, so that uke's body moves along it, then tori can start steering it.
When the steering starts as early as at uke's initial move, very little body movement is needed, but uke is greatly affected from that moment on.
If you accept and join with uke's ki already at the moment uke takes aim, it becomes quite difficult for uke to attack at all. It's as if the target disappeared. Who would ram an open door?
So, there are different timings that can be used in aikido. They correspond to the three training forms gotai, jutai and kinagare.
In gotai ("hard body"), starting from a static position where uke has already applied a grip, what has to be joined with is the ki continually keeping the grip. In jutai ("soft body"), where uke is advancing and the technique begins right before physical contact, tori is using the enhanced flow of ki by which uke is doing the attack. In kinagare ("flowing ki"), the continued training without a marked beginning or end, usually done with more than one attacker, tori needs to join with the ki already when uke takes aim - this way, tori acts so early that it gives the impression of tori initiating, almost as if being the attacker.
The last one, the kinagare timing, is the most advanced one, of course, and is really what the two former timings prepare for. One should cultivate the spirit of this timing, in Japanese sensen no sen, the ability and readiness to join with ki as soon as it comes, before any body movement. Kinagare means flowing ki. Ki should always be flowing.
EllipsesAikido movements are usually described as circular. This is not exactly correct. They are elliptical, like most relations between two objects. The ellipse has got to focus points, just as aikido has tori and uke, and it can be more or less extended, as are the aikido techniques.
Because both tori and uke move through a technique, the pattern they form together is never as fixed as that of a circle around one center. Even solo movements are more elliptic than circular. For example, the sword cut is not strictly circular, but extended forward to an elliptical path.
Astronomy is the big parallel. The planets in our solar system move elliptically around the sun, and in a system with two suns they move elliptically around each other. In aikido, the latter is to prefer if tori is not vastly bigger than uke.
More on astronomy and aikido here: Osensei and Einstein
SpiralsWith ki there is never a straight line. Ki moves forward in spirals, like serpentines.
It can seem to be straight, for example in tsuki striking attacks, but that seemingly straight line is spiral, like the rotating bullet from a gun. In karate this is obvious by the turning of the fist in the tsuki strike. In every aikido technique, seemingly straight moves contain bigger or smaller spirals - actually both bigger and smaller. Spirals within spirals. This is the nature of ki - spirals within spirals.
It is true about very much in nature - from the spirals of DNA to those of snail shells, of water and air movement, as well as whole galaxies.
We say that ki is flowing, but it would be more correct to say that it is whirling.
Moebius bandUke's ki flow can be steered, when its initial direction has been accepted, but not too drastically. When force is going one way, it can't be reversed to go the opposite way, not without a clash of wills and the conflict reappearing. The flow should be steered so that it does to uke feel like it continues forward.
How to do that, when most aikido techniques demand that the ki flow returns to uke? It is done in a similar way that the Moebius band works - without making a jump between dimensions, they are crossed. You continue forward, and there is a Moebius turn that makes the return feel like it's all still going forward.
On the Moebius band, it's done by the band being twisted around at one place. It's easy enough on a paper strip, with a pair of scissors and tape. It's just as easy in aikido techniques. The spiral does it. When there are spirals in the movements, you can turn and change directions without losing the forward move.
The Moebius thing is also the reason why it does not matter in what direction the spin of the spiral is - clockwise or counter-clockwise. One direction leads to another, without a jump or break in between.
The CenterKi can flow out of any part of the body. It can also enter through any part of the body. But there is one point of the body from which it comes, when it is put to use - tanden, the center inside the body, below the navel. This is the source of powerful ki, used by uke in the attack and by tori in the defense.
This center is also called seika tanden or seika no itten. It is the second chakra from the bottom in Indian tradition. More about it here: Tanden - the Center
Apart from being the source of ki, the point from which it flows, the center is also the point of balance, with a stability all its own - comparable to the spinning gyroscope, which keeps its equilibrium and position.
So, in aikido there is the center of the uke, and ki flowing from it, and the center of tori, with ki flowing from it. When tori's ki joins with that of uke, their centers move smoothly around each other - like twin suns orbiting each other.
For uke really to get drawn into the aikido technique, tori must accept and join with it all the way to uke's center, the source of uke's ki. It is with ki that tori gets in touch with uke's center. The two centers of tori and uke are joined by the ki flow between them, then to take the joint route of an aikido technique.
When tori, through ki, is in touch with uke's center, then aikido is born. This can be done even before uke aims at tori, even before uke gets the idea of attacking. By focusing on uke's center, tori can feel immediately when uke intends to attack. Then, it's good time to turn that attack into an aikido technique, pleasant for both. Tori steers uke's ki all the way from uke's center.
So, what is ki ?The word ki is written with a sign combining steam with rice - a symbol of boiling rice, indeed the source of life energy to the Japanese and Chinese. The word can also mean air or gas. "Vital breath" is a good translation for it, since it is closely related to both air and breathing.
The idea of a life force similar to air and breathing can be found in many cultures and tradition. In India it is called prana, in old Greece pneuma, in the Middle East ruach, in Norse tradition önd, and so on. Also the word spirit is linked to air and breath. Although they show many similarities, it should not be taken for granted that they are complete synonyms.
It is no mystery that the idea of a life energy is linked to breathing, since we start this life by inhaling and end it by a last expiration. As long as we live, we breathe, and we die when we can't. Our ancestors, when wondering about breathing, must have concluded that some kind of essence was consumed by it, something life-supporting, a kind of energy within the air.
They were right, in the sense that our breathing is our consumption of oxygen, the fuel to keep us warm. Energy, indeed.
But the idea of ki goes beyond mere inhaling of oxygen and exhaling of carbon dioxide. Ki travels differently through the body than oxygen does - although the classical diagrams of acupuncture meridians, bodily channels for ki, look like they might be inspired by the circulatory blood system. And ki relates to other bodily centers than the lungs and the heart.
Although there is surely a link between the bodily function of breathing and that of ki, it would be too hasty explain the latter as an old conception of the former. There is more to ki. The Chinese tradition also talks about the ki of heaven, a primal force by which all below heaven depends. Ki is universal, flowing through the whole world and everything in it. Much like the Holy Spirit of the Bible, which is sort of the acting force of God, the ether of God's will and power.
I like to relate it to inspiration, the sense of wonder and creativity that we can experience. That word, too, is related to breathing. Inspiration is primarily a feeling, an inner experience, and that is also very important about ki - the importance is not if it exists, and if so what it might be, but how it feels and how we can use it. Whether it really exists or not, it works.
I usually refer to ki as the ether of intention. Before anything is done, it must be intended, and that immediately gets ki going. So, everything is first done in this ether of intention, only later to manifest itself in the material world. The creative principle, without which nothing would happen. Creativity is not just doing something material, making an object, but it is the ability to act at all. To be alive, to think, dream, move, interact with our surroundings. Creation is an ongoing process, or we would cease to exist. Ki is the creative flow.
Exercises of the ki life energy are here:
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I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both Swedish and English. I'm also an artist, an historian of ideas and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.