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01 What is Ki?

A perplexing question and uniquely a question asked in the West. We are brought up in a culture of deductive reasoning and rather than have something just 'be' we want to know the who, what and why? The trouble is we learn about Ki through Eastern practice often traditionally and these kinds of questions are unusual. So here we are asking a question of a culture/ pedagogy that is unfamiliar with being asked these questions.

Within the framework of aikido ki is popularly talked about and even practiced through Ki development exercises, so what to do - withhold disbelief and suspend our western minds while we learn - or can we find out a little more on the way.

Experienced practitioners of the martial arts including Aikido can demonstrate impressive feats of coordination and skill. Often their skills are shrouded in mysticism and eastern spirituality and these feats are sometimes attributed to the development of Ki or Chi energy. In particular the 'internal arts', which are those that use primarily soft blending movements, focus on the development of Ki and Chi. This paper focuses on these internal aspects as applied to the physical test or feat called "unraisable body" and its development in the art of aikido, but is somewhat generalisable to other martial arts. Some historical background to the concept of Ki is presented as well as suggesting why it is used as a teaching paradigm. Unraisable body, a teaching curriculum example of Ki development is presented and an equivalent physical paradigm is suggested. The test is performed under laboratory conditions with a tri axial force plate to validate the physical paradigm.


When a new student begins training in martial arts they are confronted with aspects of eastern culture, much of which is incorporated into the basic ethos of the class. This usually includes lots of bowing and various phrases of an asian language. And while initially this is all quite strange it turns out there are very good reasons for this ritual behaviour. Bowing for instance is not some strange religious act but a method of encouraging respect for the art, its founder, the teacher and fellow students. Ritual also forms an integral part of Asian culture. Central to the techniques of aikido are the concepts of Ki and liberal use of the word is made in a typical class in both a martial and philosophical /spiritual sense. This discussion will centre on comparing the Ki paradigm with the paradigms of physics for performing the various techniques of aikido. The philosophical, spiritual aspects of Ki are not dealt with in this discussion, although the development of these aspects is considered an important and integral part of the art.

The culture of Ki

One of the first things students have to deal with is the concept of Ki and its application to aikido as well as perhaps their way of life. Explanations here range from a religious experience to explanations as mundane as the momentum of an opponent. Today there are many different styles of aikido some placing more emphasis on Ki and Ki development than others, this seems in some way to be a reflection of different interpretations of Ki. Tohei defines Ki as "cosmic power" and states that "Ki is a very complex word... and even more difficult to translate to westerners"[1]. Westbrook and Ratti [2] speak of the difficulty of defining Ki in a purely physical or mental sense.

The concept of Ki is a Japanese concept (Chi originates in China). and is more easily interpreted in the context of the roots of Japanese society. However to a westerner Ki is sometimes something of a struggle to grasp conceptually (though it appears that many Japanese find this difficult as well), this is compounded by having not usually internalised many of the precepts of Japanese society. Ideally then one would study all facets of Japanese society including some of the various religions and philosophies (such as Shinto, Zen etc.) to fully interpret Ki in its cultural context, unfortunately though this is a serious undertaking and would require a significant investment in time. The translation can, however be assisted if we look at some words that include the Ki character as it appears in the calligraphy for aikido. There are a number of different characters that represent Ki, alluding to it having a wider use within the Japanese society [3]. While there are many Japanese words that include this character for Ki which have deeply philosophical meanings there are also many that have purely physical meaning. Some examples that have a more physical meaning (together with their accompanying English translation) include denki (electricity), sekiyu (petrol/gasoline) and kiryoku (force). While this method of translation is at best a superficial one it demonstrates the generalised use of Ki in Japanese language and society. This is perhaps in line with Tohei 's teachings of Ki pervading all things. Perhaps using the physical sciences to examine Ki we need to be mindful of the development of science in eastern culture.

The development of Science in the East and West

The development of the physical sciences in Japan as we know it today was in conjunction with its contact with the west (though this is perhaps an ethnocentric observation), however development of the internal mind and philosophies was widely prevalent and advanced in East well before this Western influence [4]. Prior to this contact the development of the physical sciences in the East focused primarily on observation [5], for example the observations of the early Chinese astronomers was highly regarded. Discovery of the relationship between cause and effect was seen as less important [5], hence a theory such as Ki could satisfy observable data without discovering causality. The effects of the Ki paradigm then would be well documented but an understanding of how it works would not. Hence a physical science approach is not required or sought after for describing the physical world when a more philosophical description fits the observable. This would explain the tendencies of historical eastern culture to favour these sorts of explanations when describing complex observed events as this was more easily understood. However for today's scientific mind, assimilation of information in this way is difficult to accept. As scientists we can then try to understand the techniques of aikido and other eastern martial arts using paradigms that we are more familiar with.

[1] Tohei, Koichi , "Aikido :The co-ordination of mind and body for self-defence", Souvenir Press , London first edition 1966 
[2] Westbrook, A. and Ratti, O. "aikido and the dynamic sphere: an illustrated introduction", Charles E. Tuttle company Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo First Edition 1970 
[3] Kenkyusha,"Kenkyusha's FURIGANA english-japanese distionary", 1990 Kenkyusha limited, Tokyo Japan 
[4] Capra, Fritjof "The tao of physics" Shambala Press, Boulder 1975 
[5] Nakayama, Shigeru "Academic and scientific traditions in China, Japan, and the west", University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo 1984 
[6] Ohanian, Hans "Physics", Norton and Co. New York, 1985 
[7] Eckert,J.W and Lee, Ta-Kwong "The anatomy of nikyo (aikido's second teaching)", Perceptual and motor skills v77 pp707-715 1993 
[8] Olson, G.D.,Seitz,F.C, Guldbrandsen, F. "An anatomical analysis of aikido's third teaching: an investigation of sankyo", Perceptual and motor skills, V78, pp1347-1352, 1994