Kiai, the act of forcefully exerting your life force, or ki (chi / qi for Chinese martial arts), on a physical opponent using your own voice. It is also synonymous with battle / war cry. When first exposed to the martial art Kendo, or the way of the Japanese sword, one is often surprised by how loud and intense Kendoists yell and yell at each other.

There is nothing more embarrassing in American culture than screaming until your lungs go hoarse for no apparent reason. We are regularly exposed to kiai through martial artist movie stars like Bruce Lee’s screams that sound like his underwear is 10 sizes smaller, or “I scream the same pitch in all Tom Cruise movies – yes “I’m-angry-or-no-voice. Usually the kiai is involved when the action movie hero is killing someone.”

Although we are not killing anyone (not even figuratively) by starting kendo, kiai generally feels awkward and embarrassing to students. It doesn’t help that when we start using kiai we’re counting “ichi, ni”, that it feels like we’re saying “itchy knee!”, Or yelling “MEN” for the basic punch. Since “men” is an English word that does not mean mask, it feels strange, although it would be just as strange to yell FRONT.

Kiai is very important and develops over time as we practice. Don’t expect to sound like the sensei on your first day! Kiai is unique to each kenshi but has the same purpose for everyone. It lifts our spirits, focuses our minds, prepares us to move, helps us overcome our physical limits, teaches correct breathing, and not to mention it (sometimes) scares our opponents.

We all start somewhere and no one will laugh at a new student for counting out loud. In fact, it may impress some people, while most will not notice anything out of the ordinary. Count out loud when you have a group and no one will notice. Don’t count at all that you prepare to be embarrassed.

Kiai during warm-ups sets the tone for the entire practice. If there is no energy or spirit in the warm-up, there is most likely little energy in the remaining practice session. Use this time to get comfortable listening to your own voice, as one voice will merge with many.

Don’t worry about embarrassment. While it may take some time, everyone eventually gets over the feeling of shame and starts using this powerful weapon. Sometimes it is easier to just vocalize by yelling something unintelligible rather than saying men or counting. Do what is comfortable for you at first.

I always noticed that the better a kendoist got, the more interesting his kiai could sound! Occasionally, kenshi become so comfortable vocalizing that it seems as if two opposing kendoists are screaming curses at each other during their match. (I think they “probably” are not). Kiai out loud even if you feel silly; you will not regret!

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