Wednesday 30 May 2012

Ki in Aikido - what is it?

“Aikido” means “The way of harmonizing with Ki”. OK, fair enough. But what, exactly is Ki?

In different books on Aikido, you will find a number of different descriptions of Ki. In his book, The Spirit of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba (the founder’s son) describes Ki as “The world-forming energy which also lies at the core of each human being”. In Ki In Daily Life, Koichi Tohei (founder of Ki Aikido) describes ki as “the real substance of the universe”. In their classic text on Aikido, Aikido and The Dynamic Sphere, Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti describe ki as “inner energy” and they go on to state: “No ki – no Aikido.”

So, in short, what are we to make of this? Ki would seem to be some sort of energy that is both inside you and beyond you? And it is fundamental to Aikido. Which may make you wonder whether you need to be a physicist or a philosopher to understand ki. And, once you’ve understood it, you then have to find out how to use it in Aikido.
If this is confusing, don’t panic! The good news is that you don’t need to study any esoteric arts to understand how to put the ki into aikido. For some people ki may have a spiritual or mystical dimension – and that’s fine. For other people, ki is no more than a convenient shorthand term for a way of thinking and acting that has more to do with psychology and physics than parapsychology and metaphysics – and that’s fine too.

In Ki Aikido we talk a great deal about “extending Ki”. I like the description that Koretoshu Maruyama gives in his book, Aikido With Ki: “To extend ki is to have a positive spirit.” In my view, the simplest explanations are often the best and this, it seems to me, is a perfect summary of ki extension – a positive spirit. When you go to embrace someone you love you naturally extend ki. You don’t have to think about how to do it; it just happens.

In Ki Aikido, we have an exercise called ‘unbendable arm’ in which we learn to extend an arm and, even though we keep the arm loose and relaxed, it is very hard for someone to use force to bend the arm at the elbow. Beginners may find this exercise very hard to master. They constantly want to use strength, and tension, to ‘fake’ unbendable arm. To explain the feeling we are looking for, I sometimes ask a student to walk towards me and shake my hand. Assuming they are happy to do that (if they found me intimidating, the exercise would be counter-productive!) they generally find that the mere action of shaking my hand automatically gives them unbendable arm.  That’s because they are naturally extending a positive feeling; it is no longer a difficult ‘test’; it is something that is easy to do without making a conscious effort.

That is a fundamental feature of ki extension. It isn’t a clever martial art technique at all. It is something that everyone does naturally. The secret is to be able to put yourself into a frame of mind in which that positive feeling is natural all the time – even when you are practising Aikido at high speed. It’s not something you turn on and off – it’s just there.

When students first get the feeling for ‘extending ki’, they are often surprised at how easy and natural it is. Prior to getting that feeling they often assume that is something that is incredibly difficult to achieve and not at all natural. But even those of us who have practised Aikido for a long time may sometimes lose that feeling: we allow ourselves to become tense, to try to do something with force rather than with a positive spirit. That is one of the reasons for all the many Ki development exercises we practise in Ki Aikido. Sometimes “doing what comes naturally” can be surprisingly difficult!


  1. Kisshomaru Ueshiba tried hard to relate his father's more esoteric stuff in a more understandable manner - but it really won't make much sense unless you go back to the originals.

    Koichi Tohei varies along a range of being very practical to being really out there.

    The problems I have with "energy" is not that it's wrong, but that people then tend to go off into the "magical force" realms, which is, IMO, the wrong direction.

    Mainly, we're talking about the bridge between the mind and the body in practice, lead by intent - if you ask me...

    1. I have particular worries about the "magical force" versions of Ki that some people claim to demonstrate. I have seen some very bizarre demonstrations of "Ki power" on YouTube which appear to show people being thrown "at a distance" - which makes it look as though an invisible force is being used. This makes Aikido look, frankly, silly - like something out of Harry Potter. In my own experience, most people find it easier to understand Ki as a feeling that they can experience rather than as an esoteric idea. I still can't figure out what the Harry Potter version of Ki is supposed to be demonstrating though ;-)