Many of my kendo friends are aware that I drone on endlessly about sae or snap. Often kendoka who have good kihon and timing, fail to make decisive ippon because they do not finish the strike sharply.
This could be because they are using the too much right hand power or because they are pushing the shinai forward rather than cutting down. Often though, lack of sae is caused by ineffective kiai. It’s hard to explain this without demonstrating, but if your kiai is slow, lacks energy or comes before or after the point of impact, then it will not help you make a successful attack.
Kiai should be sharp and explosive and delivered exactly at the moment you hit the target. Its purpose is to focus all your physical and mental energy on the cut. It emphasises that nothing else exists for you at that moment, only your total commitment to the strike. Some people believe that kiai is made to alert the shinpan that they have scored a point, or that it is a declaration of intent, a bit like naming the pocket in a game of pool. This is far from the truth. Premature kiai means that your energy tails off too early. Using it to claim your point means that your energy peaks after you need it most.
Your kiai should be made in the spirit of sutemi, throwing every last particle of air into a totally unselfconscious scream as you hit. It will naturally continue briefly as you move through into zanshin. In fact a sharp single kiai will automatically make you accelerate past your opponent. Do not be tempted to elongate your kiai into something like the noise of a car with starter motor problems. Me-e-e-e-e-en simply makes you sound needy.
The mechanics of good kiai are simple. We have looked at them when we talked about seme and tame. You take a big breath in through your nose when you are still in safe distance, then let half the air out as a kakegoe shout; something simple like” ya”. Holding the remainder of your breath in your abdomen you step into your striking distance. Once you have broken your opponent’s centre or pre-empted his attack, raise your shinai and strike down at the target in the timing of one, expelling your remaining breath as kiai. The idea is not just to focus your shout but to commit your entire spirit.
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Following the recent Mumeishi seminar, Sueno sensei attended our regular Tuesday practice and taught another session to add to the information that he gave us at the weekend.
As before he put us through some very simple men and kote drills and reinforced the importance of correct kiai in achieving good technique. I have long been aware of the difference that good kiai makes in kendo and wrote about it in the early days of this blog http://wp.me/stBQt-kiai . Sueno sensei however dealt with the subject much more eloquently and I feel that it’s worth summarising his explanation.
Before moving into the drills, he repeated the point he made at the seminar, that “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. A good way of saying that different teachers have different approaches, but that in kendo the end goal is always the same. The drills themselves consisted of students working in pairs, starting in issoku ito maai with kakarite stepping into his or her own cutting distance and concentrating on delivering a men strike with correct ki-ken-tai- itchi timing. Each partner would make two large men attacks then receive two. After several repetitions, instructions were given to make the strikes smaller.
Once everyone was into the rhythm of exchanging men attacks, Sueno sensei made the following point. “Before starting the attack breathe in quickly through your nose; hold the air in your abdomen and make a big shout releasing some of the air. Then make your kiai as you strike, releasing the rest of your air as you move through to safe distance. As you strike your kiai should grow in volume and in pitch so that it increases your energy and acceleration and pulls your posture up throughout the attack and zanshin.”
He continued to point out that if you allowed your kiai to diminish as you hit, it would have the adverse effect, causing you to lose power and “grind to a halt”.
To demonstrate the feeling of “holding breath in your abdomen”, sensei suggested that we try to tense the muscles in our stomach and abdomen, which everyone could and did. Then he instructed us to put tension into our shoulder and chest muscles at the same time, which nobody could.
We then returned to the drills with the emphasis on just edging our feet into our own preferred striking distance rather than taking one clear step in.
As Sueno sensei says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” and I would be happy to have many of the Hanshi sensei as my guide. However in much the same way as does Chiba sensei, Sueno sensei has the ability to make complicated kendo concepts appear simple and logical.
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Sumi sensei at Imperial
I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.
We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.
I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.
As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.
Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.
So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.
Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.
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