Category Archives: Ki & Hara

Methods to Remain Calm during Violence by Steve Kanney

This is a very good question as a suggested topic.  While it may be possible to write extensively on it, I will give several examples.

I recall when I was about 18 years old, and had been practicing aikido for about a year or two, my teacher developed an exercise where he would attack with a wooden sword and we practiced evading it. As a Vietnam vet, I think he wanted to impart something he experienced while facing his fears during 2 years of combat.  So one day he picked up a real samurai sword and began attacking us with that during these exercises.  Slowly, he built them up to the point where I found him attacking me 7 times in rapid fire movements at full speed and with full commitment.  He did not have the experience or control to train people in this manner, and we have disagreed on this practice he developed ever since. However, on the last sword cut, I realized I was too late to evade the attack.  I immediately felt panic welling up.  However, at the moment I noticed panic develop, I had a powerful reaction to it: I knew panic = death.  I shut it down instantly and began an evasive move.  After I began to evade the attack, again, I knew it was too late.  I recall seeing that the sword was going to cut off my right shoulder and arm.  I thought there was a hospital across the street from the dojo so I would be alright, but then I realized I would not even live to get to the hospital.  There was nothing left to do, so I relaxed and waited for my fate to complete itself.  What I did not realize was that at the very moment when I shut down the panic and began to move, my feet went into the air and my movement continued.  As I watched the sword come down to slice off my shoulder, my shoulder continued to move out of the way from my initial reaction.  One could say that the sword practically shaved the hair off my chest rather than slice off my right shoulder.  I remember how my face became pale and my knees began to shake.  My instructor was also quite shaken up as well.  I tell this story to highlight a method of staying calm in an attack.  To the extent one learns the lesson that fear is self defeating through awareness, one will learn to cut off the reaction and do what is necessary constructively.  In my case, this situation was an example of plain dumb luck, I was not aware so much.  But I use it as an example that can help others realize the importance of cutting off one’s fears through awareness and then returning to appropriate action a hand, an important tool in staying calm during a violent situation.

In point of fact, the entire practice of aikido is a method to help one remain calm during a violent situation.  We practice having someone attack us.  We learn a movement.  We practice it over and over until muscle memory takes over and the calculating mind dries up.  We focus on closing openings by being aware and relaxed.  Our partner should, in a non-combative way, show us where we are open during regular practice so we can close each opening over time.  Then we practice defending ourselves in more pressured situations where numerous people are attacking us simultaneously.  We learn to become relaxed and aware of our entire environment, so we can perceive sneak attacks, etc.  Through awareness during practice, we learn to calm ourselves down and become more efficient, and importantly we learn that this is critical in making our efforts effective.  We also perform during tests so people who feel that environment as pressure will learn to relax while coping with it.  All these forms of practice lead to a substitution effect: when an emergency situation develops, rather than become tense, we are relaxed, aware and react reflexively based upon muscle memory.  This practice is called takemusu aiki, or the highest form of practice in any martial art (obviously with different names for each art, but the practice is the same).

For some people, learning to concentrate on their center of gravity is a useful form of practice to learn to control their fears.  The center, or hara, is an infinitesimal point about 2 inches below the naval.  We practice learning how this center is a receptacle where we receive ki and allow that ki to flow from there. Ki flows freely and should not be obstructed, but it is also not something “special.”  Like air, it is everywhere and ordinary.  This is not a method of training we regularly use in our school, but it can be a useful to help people learn to control their fears and remain calm.


First, let’s look at what ki is:

(Note: All quotations with pages given are from Zen and Aikido by Kamata Shimizu)

“Aikido is a martial art which aims at the cultivation of ki. The aiki in aikido refers to harmonizing one’s ki or vital energy not only with a partner, but with all living beings of the universe. This harmony enables one to realize that the flow of an individual’s ki exists as part of the flow of ki of the universe…” (pg 4)

“…it is often difficult to get up early for work whereas it is easy to rise early for pleasure. This is entirely due to the action of ki. It is our ki that orders the body to take some action and, therefore, it is essential to cultivate the spirit to develop ki-power.” (pg 10)

In aikido, the philosophy of ki can also be explained in terms of kokyu power, or breath power. “Kokyu-power is a force which unites one’s consciousness and breathing, which emanate from the center or lower abdomen (seikatanden). This power is not physical strength or a form of trickery. Using kokyu-power, which originates in the lower abdomen, a practitioner can entirely absorb an opponent with his breathing…” (pg 38)

Before one goes off and spends all their time focusing on their lower abdomen, remember Takuan’s comment from the first entry: “You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.’

Continuing: “Then, what is kokyu-power? I regard it as a power which fundamentally unifies the movements of consciousness, breathing, and the body. There is a phrase in Zen philosophy referring to the ‘oneness of mind and body.’ The mind is ‘the spiritual body’ while the body is ‘the physical spirit.’ To consider mind and body as separate is abstract thinking. In Zen, the most important thing is to act.  And action is nothing but the physical manifestation of will.” (pg 38)

So how does this apply to the actual performance of technique?

According to Munenori Yagyu, mentioned in the Takuan post, “That which is kept inside one and which thinks continuously is called the will. That this will, which remains inside, emits outwardly is called ki. For example, the will is the master while ki is the servant. The will remains inside and uses ki. If too much ki is emitted, one will meet with a setback. The will should control the ki to prevent it from excess.” (pg 85-86)

“…In all aikido techniques, you control your opponent with the flow of ki which comes from the center.

It is important in aikido to begin the flow of ki to control the opponent before he projects his own ki. This concept, known as kizen, is also considered to be important in the teachings of Yagyu-ryu swordsmanship…

For example, kizen must be utilitzed when executing the aikido technique ikkyo. Unless you are able to step in at the exact moment your opponent strikes you, you cannot make the technique work fully. Kizen is to take advantage of the instant just before your opponent projects his ki.” (pg 86-87)

A very famous analogy suggests that there is no space even for a single strand of hair. “If your mind hesitates with the movements of your opponent’s hands or legs, an opening appears, your defense weakens and the maai (combative distance) is lost. You should make sure not a single strand of hair can fit between the opposing technique and the movements of your hands and legs in response.” (pg 88)

Regarding another famous phrase, swift as sparks from flint, “This expression should not be misunderstood to mean simply instantaneous. It means that one’s mind does not stop even for a second. In aikido terms, it means one’s ki does not stop even for an instant…If one thinks about doing something quickly, his mind will be carried away with that thought and this will create an opening…

The importance of seeing this ki – [timing [meaning that the flow of ki should not be stopped even for a second, as opposed to the ki of aikido]] is explained in the following manner in the Katsujinken.

‘The first strike of the sword (itto) is not actually made with the sword, but is rather to see the ki [timing] of your opponent. The first sword sees the movement of your opponent and is thus the secret of swordsmanship. You should keep in mind that the ki [timing] of your opponent is seen through the first sword, while you strike your opponent according to this principle using the second strike of the sword (nitto).

‘The essence of the first strike does not lie in the sword itself, but rather in seeing the ki [of aikido] of your opponent. It is most important in swordsmanship to see the movement of the ki [of aikido] that your opponent emits. You see the ki [timing] of your opponent through the first strike and actually cut your opponent with the second strike. It can be understood that grasping the concept of ‘swift as sparks from flint’ is the essence of the martial arts.” (pg 89)

So the next question is what is this seeing…

“Musashi distinguished ‘physical seeing’ from ‘mental seeing’ because he believed that ken [sight] means to see something with your physical eyes while kan [perception] means to see things with your mind…Normally, we see [and hear] things with our physical eyes [and ears]…our eyes and ears only see and hear well the things which we like; this occurs merely because of our personal prejudices. We see and hear things with our own egos. Although we believe that our eyes and ears accept things quite objectively, we are totally mistaken. No matter how much we can see or hear, we do not see or hear what does not interest us.  Therefore, it can never be said that we always see and hear things correctly.” (pg 91)

“…Although usually when we talk about hearing we are talking about the ears, here it says that to hear something with your mind is the equivalent of perception….one can hear the movement of the opponent’s ki [with one’s mind]. Since you hear with your mind you don’t have to see with your eyes…You feel the movement of your opponent with your mind and this is perception. Perception is seeing the will…you should see things without stopping your mind in any one place. Mental seeing is not seeing the movement of your opponent , but rather the movement of your opponent’s ki…

It is not possible for one to learn to use this perception in a single day…Seeing with the mind comes first. Seeing with the eyes must follow seeing with the mind. We see things with the mind in order to see things with our eyes. Therefore, it is necessary to train ourselves to see things with the mind.” (pg 92)

Some of these concepts may be difficult to fathom. The text itself repeats these points many times in the discussion; but we don’t have space here to rewrite the text in its entirety. Rather, perhaps a rereading of the discussion above a few times may help. However, these ideas may simply be difficult for many people to fathom, and training is an essential element in developing an understanding. Genuine understanding cannot come simply from the conceptual mind. For example, while I cannot find the quote at the moment, I seem to recall a poem where the founder talked about seeing with the ears and hearing with the eyes. While the topic is the same as above, clearly trying to understand a statement like this with the intellectual mind will not be fruitful. In answer to such questions as these, my teacher often replied with a “just practice.” Through training, that is the quickest way to understand the meaning. Anyway, the above explanation is the best one I have found in discussing the uses of ki in the context of martial arts training, while simultaneously integrating the discussion with the key points from Takuan regarding the stopping mind.

On Ki – History of the Term (first in a series of two articles) by Steve Kanney

Ki (or Chi – Chinese) are central to many martial arts.  In fact, two martial arts use the term in their name: Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan.  The notion of ki will be explored in two articles below, detailing the historical development and usage in martial arts training.

Before embarking on these two topics I first wish to tell a story.  I took a number of classes in Tai Chi where chi became a central topic of conversation.  On one occasion, the master said that people should not think about chi as if it is something special…it is like air…all around us.  Then, he replied to questions about the location of chi in the body, in the center of gravity normally assumed to be 2 inches below the naval.  He explained that the real center of gravity is in a central point on the left foot when one’s weight is on the left foot, and in the same location on the right foot when their weight is on the right foot. Some time afterwards, he updated these comments and said the real center of gravity is in thenose.  Being Jewish, I naturally had to ask whether that particular instruction would apply equally to Jewish people as to say Chinese.  For example, in my case I was concerned about becoming top heavy…

On Ki: History

“The original idea of ki developed as a metaphysical principle in a number of Chinese schools of thought.  Ki was, for example, the essential principle of harmony, and it was the source of creativity expressed in the form of yin and yang (Lao-tzu), the vital fullness of life (Huai-nan-tzu), the courage arising from moral rectitude (Mencius), the divine force that penetrates all things (Kuan-tzu).

As a term, it was never clearly defined.  Sometimes it was equated to empty space (the void) or nothingness (Lao-tzu), at other times to the formative energy emerging out of chaos (Chuang-tzu).  It was regarded by some philosophers as the dualistic principle that structures the universe…this dualism evolved into the ki operating as yin and yang, darkness and lightness, from which arose the Five Elements Theory and the divinations of the Book of Changes.” In point of fact, I have heard ki equated to prana and even the Holy Ghost.

“The primary metaphysical principle of ki was introduced into Japan in the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794-1185) periods and generally upheld, but the introduction of Buddhist thought from India to China affected its meaning, due particularly to the idea of karmic retribution.

More significantly, the idea of ki combined with indigenous views of nature responsible for the cyclic process of growth, budding, flowering and the withering of plants and trees…

The most dramatic changes in the interpretation and application of ki began to take place with the rise of the samurai class from the late Heian period…reaching its apex in the early Tokugawa (1603-1868). The samurai who faced constant threats of death in an age of warfare understood ki in terms of courage, shi-ki; will power, i-ki; vigor, gen-ki; and bravery, yu-ki.  They were also concerned with equanimity, hei-ki; and conserving energy, shu-ki; which attempted to prolong breathing, ki-soku, as a matter of life and death…”

Ultimately, O’Sensei discussed his ideas of ki: “…I saw clearly that human beings must unite mind and body and the ki that connects the two and then achieve harmony with the activity of all things in the universe.”  Later, “When one unifies mind and body by virtue of ki and manifests ai-ki [harmony of ki], delicate changes in breath-power occur spontaneously and waza [proper technique] flows freely.”

According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba, “[the unity of individual-universe] inherits the idea of ki held by the ancient Chinese masters… [the free, spontaneous expression of breath power] teaches that a person’s breath controls his thoughts and bodily movements…The reason for Master Ueshiba’s emphasis on the dual functioning of unity and spontaneous expression is that he saw the essence of ki as being the essence of his budo.”

[Quotations above from Spirit of Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba pg 21-25 – [bold brackets my own]]

As Aikido continued to develop, unfortunately, the term ki became a political football.  Koichi Tohei, a top student of the founder, separated from the founder’s organization (Aikikai) a few years after his death and formed his own style of Aikido, called sometimes ki-Aikido or Aikido with mind and body coordinated. During his years under the founder, he was known for giving detailed and clear explanations of ki. While O’Sensei gave primarily mystical explanations, Koichi Tohei explained ki almost as a mathematical formula, easily understandable by contrast.  The Aikikai responded by virtually writing Koichi Tohei out of the history of the organization and cleansing the term ki out of the records of instruction.  Meanwhile, Koichi Tohei’s trademark became the ki of his Ki-Society, and while many aikido masters left the Aikikai for his organization in the early 1970’s, they all left in droves beginning in the 1980’s.  Fumio Toyoda Sensei was one who followed this path, later to rejoin the Aikikai.  We now have the relics of this political strife in our midst.  For years training under Sugano Sensei, the term ki was never to be heard.  It simply developed naturally with practice and there was no need to discuss it.  Under Toyoda Sensei the training left from Koichi Tohei, considered to be a valid method, continues on only absent the word ki as it is replaced by the term energy in daily practice.

When asked once about all the different teachers in Aikido and their political strife, Sugano Sensei wryly commented how strange it must seem to outsiders for us to call Aikido the art f peace.  They then observe how we all fight vehemently over who is teaching the real art of peace.

Takuan’s Unfettered Mind

Takuan Soho, as legend would have it, was friend and teacher to famed Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman in the history of Japan. As a Zen monk, poet, painter, calligrapher, etc, he lived during a particularly violent period of Japanese history. He therefore confronted war and violence, instructing both shogun and emperor and befriending the likes of Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu school of swordsmanship. Zen and martial arts training maintain a long history of inter-relationships in Japan. Zen practitioners also needed to interact with other religions/philosophies, and did so by supporting each individual in pursuing the belief system of their own choice.

That said, the interaction of Zen monks with famed martial artists during their growth and development can be quite instructive regarding the underling principles of martial arts training. A critical aspect shared by both traditions, Zen and martial arts, is learning to face one’s mortality. Takuan, himself, faced death unflinchingly. He requested no funeral ceremonies be done, that everyone simply go about their business for the day, and at the moment of death penned the Japanese character for dream and departed.

In his essay “The mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom,” written to Yagyu Munenori, he addresses certain very basic principles of all martial arts training. I’ve selected several quotations from the first two sections below:

“Abiding place means the place where the mind stops…

Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.

To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.

Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

…This is what you, in your style, call ‘No-Sword.’

If you place yourself before your opponent, your mind will be taken by him. You should not place your mind within yourself. Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.

The mind can be taken by the sword. If you put your mind in the rhythm of the contest, your mind can be taken by that as well. If you place your mind in your own sword, your mind can be taken by your own sword. Your mind stopping at any of these places, you become an empty shell…

Glancing at something and not stopping is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.

If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.

But if the mind stops before one of these men, though you parry his striking sword, when the next man comes, the right action will have slipped away…

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all of the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face a tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there…

This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are all settled in one conclusion.

At any rate, when one practices discipline and moves from the beginner’s territory to immovable wisdom, he makes a return and falls back to the level of beginning, the abiding place.

There is a reason for this.

Again, we speak with reference to your own martial art. As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind.

As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as the days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

In this sense one sees the beginning being the same as the end, as when one counts from one to ten, the first and last numbers become adjacent…

…of the beginning, the abiding place and the immovable wisdom that comes later become one. The function of the intellect disappears, and one ends in a state of No-Mind-No-Thought. If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs and body remember what to do, but the mind does not enter into this at all…

There is such a thing as training in principle, and such a thing as training in technique.

Principle is as I have already explained above: when you arrive, nothing is noticed. It is simply as though you had discarded all concentration…

If you do not train in technique, but only fill your breast with principle, your body and your hands will not function. Training in technique, if put into terms of your own martial art, is in the training that if practiced over and over again makes the five body postures one.

Even though you know principle, you must make yourself perfectly free in the use of technique. And even though you may wield the sword that you carry with you well, if you are unclear on the deepest aspects of principle, you will likely fall short of proficiency.

Technique and principle are just like the two wheels of a cart.”

I suspect most of the words written above, on some level are familiar to those who practice in the dojo. For example, on technique versus principle, Saito Sensei has often explained that there are two sorts of people in Aikido, those who talk about practice and those who do it. Regarding the unconscious ability of the body to respond naturally to attacks, Sugano Sensei terms this muscle memory. He also describes the way to look at an attacker, “glance as if looking at a mountain in the distance.” In other words, don’t look at his fists, his hips, or any specific aspects of their body in attempting to calculate how the attack will be launched and/or how you will respond.

However, the central theme his is the abiding mind versus the mind that does not stop. The description of how these aspects change throughout one’s practice, from beginner to middle to expert levels, is very important. Consider this point in how you train on a daily basis. How does the stopping mind leave you open to be defeated. We may begin to see this in some small way in daily practice, but it is also important to understand the process on an intellectual level, so we may become more aware of what is happening in practice and consider them in more depth.