Ki, aiki and all that

Ki, aiki and all that

Nota Bene:What I am aiming to do here, being a geek, is give you my approach to ki. This is a complicated topic and you should realize that my views are, well, controversial. I feel that whatever your take on the subject, getting people to at least have a starting place is more important than anything else.

What is ki?

This is a big topic in the martial arts. Normally it is given definitions like Ok, you could certainly define it that way. The practical issue I have with this is reproducibility. While we might get a nice warm fuzzy feeling from talking about Universal Energy (still don't have a definition of this, I'm sorry to say), this does not help us actually do martial arts. If you are new to this raging debate, you should be advised that what I'm writing here is my own and that a lot of people who are into spirituality in the martial arts will have their hackles go straight up if you even merely try to discuss it in the way I'm going to. Understand what I have here, watch what they do and let me know if I have it wrong.

So what is ki really?

Ki is a Japanese character. Let's talk about ideographic languages for a minute. An ideographic language consists of symbols or ideograms which represent concepts indepdendent of their sound. China is a grand example of this. The various dialects of Chinese actually are quite divergent of each other and an analog might well be to refer to Russian, Sanskrit, Irish and English as dialects of European. In China, the character system permits you to write a note in your local dialect and send it to any other Chinese speaker, who will render it correctly in the loal dialect.

During the T'ang dynasty, the Japanese even went so far as to create a very specific form of Japanese that corresponded more closely to Chinese, so that for a time, a letter written in Chinese could be read largely unaided by someone in Japan. Because of this, there is a very specific classical Japanese reading of characters that appears especially in things that are ancient or purport to be. A good example is the venerable style of shorinji kempo which is the Japanese pronunciation of shaolin ch'uan fa. This resonates with tradition to Japanese ears.

Part of the joy and consternation of reading an ideographic language is that there are many characters with similar meanings. Why these were used can convey quite a bit of other information. It is possible, for instance, to write a sentence that is similar to a optical illusion: There are many possibly conflicting meanings available at once. Because of this, the very Western idea of having pairs of antonyms doesn't really work, and a Chinese friend of mine said that learning such pairs was the most difficult conceptual part of learning English.

Ki is one such character. It has many, many meanings and not all of them are distinct or even complimentary. This makes learning its meanings a decidedly non-linear undertaking.

So how do we use this for martial arts?

I want to separate out the meanings it has and focus on one that we really don't have a word for. We have words for pretty much all of the meanings of ki, such as torque, momentum, body weight and various psychological aspects too. These are all important, and the psychology of intimidation that is practiced at higher levels is particularly useful -- would you want to tangle with a junkyard dog? The one that we don't have a meaning for is structural alignment of the skeleton in order to transmit force. I call this structure used in this extremely specific meaning.

Mind you, I don't make this definition lightly. Having observed (as a geek) people who are very good at martial arts for several years it only gradually become obvious what I needed to focus on to reproduce what they did. So, here is where I go out on a limb:

When learning basic techniques, ki is effectively the same as structure.

As I said, at the higher levels, this is far too simple, but I assume that you need a starting point.

What is aiki?

Literally, aiki stands for "harmonious spirit", but if you take the definition of structure above, you can interpret this as blending structure. That is to say, you take over the other person's structure. A grand example is an authentic wrist lock. One of these will control the entire arm in such a way to give you a handle of uke's center of gravity. Other systems twist stuff and hit too, but there is a very specific feeling that aiki jujutsu techniques have to them. I would say what sets such systems off from all others is the way that the attacker's center is controlled.

There are many different strategies for this. There is the simple mechanical way (locking) as well as displacing someone's hips so they have to rely on you for their structure, timing it so their structure is in the wrong alignment for what they want to do or simply pulling then leading in such a way as to keep uke from using his hips. Aikido focuses largely on this last way, which takes a lot of technical savvy as well as timing. This is why aikido is so elegant looking and takes much longer to master than other aiki-based systems.

And how do I use all this?

I wrote this blurb so that you could think about this as you learn new techniques, or work on old ones. Try it. That means be aware of how the forces travel through your body (ki) as you do a technique and what effect it has on uke. Think about how you are really keeping your opponent from using his body (aiki). I have found for myself that when I think in these terms, I absorb more faster and the techniques I do always just feel better to me.

Ultimately you learn to use the word ki in the way that is traditional. At least part of this is suggested on conservative grounds: It's traditional. Another part of this is that the multiple meanings allow you to organize this concept in a particularly Japanese way, which I think adds a lot to learning a system. You may be a gaijin (foreigner) like me and keep all the various concepts nicely compartmentalized too.

Personally, I feel that every Oriental concept has a Western explanation and I should be able to ennunciate them both.