The Ki to My Aikido
April 1st, 2023
In The Beginning This is the letter that I have been writing for a long time. It'll be a little long (like many of my letters!), and may be controversial, but it’s important for me and maybe for you, too. My wish is for you to get as much from reading this as I did from writing it. This letter has been ruminating in my brain and a select few friends’ brains (mostly Hal and my wife who willingly – I hope -- continue to listen to my endless discourse) for years. Interestingly, the more I have worked on this letter, the better my Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan have become. I don't mean a little, I mean a lot better. If it was important for me to think, explore, and discover, it's important for me to write and share. Please let me know. My older son is a schoolteacher who says I should always open my letters by clearly stating a topic (I apparently missed this lesson) and to close with a summary and it's best if I can present the topic in the form of a question. So, what is the question? (Just warming up with the question thing.) Why do people practice Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan? (My Aikido lineage comes from Lou Kleinsmith through Eric Schneider who stressed practicing both arts along with meditating.) Why are you, I, all of us, practicing Aikido and/or Tai Chi Chuan and not any other styles of martial arts? What attracted us to these two specific martial arts? While I ask these questions, the answer for me comes down to one thing. I do them to learn about, to cultivate, to experience, and understand Ki / Chi. I'm going to use the term Ki for the rest of the article, but Ki and Chi are almost the same thing said in two different languages originating from two different cultures. There are many similar words in other languages, but I mostly practice Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan and this letter is long enough: I’ll stick with Ki. My practice of Aikido and my practice of Tai Chi Chuan are about my exploration of Ki. This is not the total of my practice, but it seems to have become my primary focus. This is why I practice these after having done Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo, wrestling and various styles of Kung Fu. So, what is Ki? I'll go into that in more depth later but first I want to provide some background. Learning to Learn How do we learn something? What are the steps we face in learning a new thing? I usually fall back on the steps we use in learning a new language. I read this idea in college explained by the existential orthodox Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. I am learning a new language, ASL, so this model is appropriate (Specifically, I am learning Pidgin Signed English or PSE. It uses ASL vocabulary but follows English grammar.) In my study of ASL, I am between the second and third stages of learning. When you first learn a language, you start by memorizing vocabulary. Then you move into learning sentence structure and begin conversations to use what you have so far, but you are still translating every word in your head. The third stage is when you can use the language without going from English to ASL signs in your head when trying to speak. You can speak fluently. The fourth phase, you think and dream in that language. (Interesting fact, native ASL people who are profoundly deaf from birth dream in ASL signs. No sounds.). That is the final stage of learning. You own the information, it is yours. You can think freely in that language. You can create in that language. This is the same for learning other things like learning physics: you need the language of the formulas. Music: you learn the notes and how that translates to an instrument (Talk about thinking in a language; Beethoven was deaf and still composing music!). In all these, you start with the basics and master the new idea through language by thinking in the language. But where is the Ki part? I am getting to that. (I told you this would be a long letter.) I see my journey in Aikido through the language model. First, I learned the words– techniques – ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, etc. I worked on the basics but needed to visualize each step. Years later, I could do the technique, but I needed to visualize it or think it before I could do it. More years later, I could do each technique without thought but I was still trying to do the physical technique. I was translating in my head. I advanced to stage three to be able to string technique into technique – randori – continually moving through ukes (thank you to all the ukes). Now I am working on doing the technique without doing the technique. The form and the movements are less important, I am working on my Ki, to think and dream in what I think Aikido is. Using the four principles of Koichi Tohei Sensei – Extension, Relaxation, Rooting, Being Centered to be my practice of Aikido. A Tale of Two Arts So, why Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan? What is special about these two martial arts? Why did O’Sensei feel it was important to create a new martial art – Aikido – and not just work on perfecting the arts he had learned? What did he think was missing? Both practices have something glaring in common right there in the name. (I told you I would get there.) Right in the middle. They both have Ki/Chi in their name. One translates to “the Way to Harmonize with your Ki”, the other is “the Grand Martial Art of Chi.” I've scanned a bunch of dojo websites and they all have different interpretations of Aikido: the way to harmonize your spirit, the art of blending with your world, way of harmonizing energy. I see lots of different ways to say it, but from my understanding, that’s not quite right, it's Ki. The way to Harmonize with your Ki. Aikido is about Ki! Finally, the Ki? I have been learning various martial arts since the age of 12 but these two, Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan, are my life’s study. I strive to experience, develop, understand, invigorate, purify, … my Ki. (A little spellcheck trivia here. My spellcheck likes the word Chi but doesn't like the word Ki! It really wants to write “key.” I know this is completely irrelevant, but this wouldn't be one of my letters if I couldn't get sidetracked in something that amuses me). To practice Aikido or to practice Tai Chi Chuan without the exploration or even the acknowledgment of Ki, is incomplete and missing what O’Sensei created. Like I said, it is in the name. It would be like being surprised to find out that Kentucky Fried Chicken sells fried chicken. I know many students who have become quite proficient with Aikido techniques but get stuck there. The form becomes the goal but not what the form offers to teach. The harmony part of Aikido is not a perfect two-person kata where you try to match speed and movement. That is called a dance. Aikido is not a dance; that is kata and we do not practice much kata except for some weapon stuff. Harmony is to open your center, become vulnerable and let uke’s attack offer their Ki to connect with yours. You need to experience your Ki (either consciously or subconsciously) to find the harmony in Aikido. How can you subconsciously experience your Ki? Lift your arm up. How did you do that? You had an idea; your arm followed your idea. You did not command a section of your brain to fire a nerve impulse to your deltoid muscle in your shoulder to contract and lift your arm. No. You lifted your arm. Your body moves subconsciously. Like your Ki. The Ki follows the mind, and the body follows the Ki. It is that simple. To clarify (my wife asked me about this) the difference between Chi and Ki and their expression in Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido are not the same. (Martial Art geek alert. This will get a little technical. For this letter, I will only touch on this, but I might write a more in-depth article later because it seems I can always write more.). One aspect I can best explain with an analogy: Think of an extension cord vs a battery. Chi (in Tai Chi Chuan) is experienced like a battery. You breathe in, down your chest and store Chi in Dan Tien, your center (in Aikido it would be called your Hara). You collect it and like raw gold, purify it, save it, and spend it very frugally. The goal is to accumulate as much as possible, and perfect battery. Ki, in Aikido, is flowing in and out of you, through you, like an extension cord taking the electricity from the wall to your computer and back. You breathe Ki in, and it moves down your spine to your center, your Hara, and it passes through and travels out your arms, your legs, your head, in every direction infinitely. The idea is to allow it to flow as free and unencumbered as possible. A perfect extension cord. A battery or an extension cord. There is much more but for another letter. Ki and Chi are the same as the electricity in both analogies, but different in how it is used and experienced. So, Back to What Is Ki? The answer – it is Ki. There is no English equivalent I know. That is why I mentioned some dojo’s translations earlier. It is Ki. A Google search brings up energy, spirit, essence of existence, vital life force, power.... Great words but not, in my experience, Ki. The first line of the Tao Te Ching is “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao”. There are things that cannot be explained or defined but can only be experienced. Names cannot define a thing. Shakespeare said it perfectly, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Think of trying to explain colors to a blind person, or music to a deaf person. It is not an idea they can comprehend. Have you ever felt in contact with a person you are not touching, have you ever for a moment felt invulnerability, have you ever moved an object that’s too heavy? All of these are possible experiences of Ki. We used to call Ki in our Tai Chi Chuan school “Stuff.” That was it, just “Stuff.” It is everywhere and in all of us. It is “Stuff.” Many of us seem to accept Ki in some situations. Many of you have taken acupuncture treatments (some might even study it). I know of at least one of O’Sensei’s students, Nakazono Sensei was a master of Acupuncture. Sharon Dominguez (she loves being mentioned in my letters. I love mentioning her in my letters.) learned acupuncture from him. Acupuncture is the medical art that balances your flow of Ki by opening or closing points in your body using needles. It cures sickness by adjusting your Ki. The practice of Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido, if done with awareness of your Ki and mindfulness, does the same thing. Many people also try meditating or doing yoga for much of the same purpose. Yoga is the practice of opening and aligning your Chakras, the Ki valves in your body like the ones an acupuncturist sticks a needle to control the flow. Meditation is the practice of becoming aware of yourself and your Ki. All these use or work on your Ki as does Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan. In those modalities, we can accept the role of Ki, see its value, and understand its cultivation, but for many, the role of Ki in Aikido is still a mystery. Back in the early days of Aikido’s development, Kohichi Tohei expounded in his classes, his books, and his practice of Ki. Many of O’Sensei’s senior students also talk about it or have strong practices in Zen meditation or Kotodama. Why do some of us not focus on Ki in our practice? Great questions and I have no answer, but I hope this letter may cause you to ask yourself this question. Ki’s concept and its study make Aikido unique and special. Its study makes Aikido Aikido. Ki in Action There is a big difference between a strong stance and a rooted stance. A strong stance is a braced posture where you hold your position by pushing from your legs into the ground against uke. Bracing works if you are not moving. You are braced. A root is done by extending your Ki into the ground and makes you feel, to your opponent, like you weigh 1,000 pounds. There were many images of O’Sensei where large groups of people could not move him. We practice this in our Tai Chi Chuan class. Then we have the phenomena of the unbendable arm, where you relax your arm muscles and let someone try to bend your arm. You extend Ki and your arm is unbendable. We did some exercises at ASNJ involving the idea of Ki and how correct posture affects you. A student would stand with their lower back in an arch and do unbendable arm and then they straightened their lower back and repeated the unbendable arm exercise. With the back straight, every student's arm was relaxed completely unbendable. The only difference was the shape of the spine, straight and whole, or bent and compromised. Remember the extension cord, the back is a major conduit of Ki. Think of it here as a hose instead. If you arch your back, you impede the flow. Like when you fold a garden hose to stop the water. You unkink the hose and the water flows, same with your back. We repeated this time and time again with the same results. You need to let the Ki flow to be able to extend it through and out your arm. Try it. There is a difference between an arm with Ki and a stiff arm. One is unbendable. When practicing, you can focus on the wrist lock, on the attack, on uke’s strength. While this works, is it not the best way? Learn to relax and extend. Put your body in the place that puts uke off balance without strength or a conflict. If you feel strength you are pushing into uke’s foot, into their strength. Instead of joining uke, let go of your strength and take the power out of uke’s feet and into the emptiness. Use your Ki and do not meet uke’s strength with your strength. Meet them with your Ki. Use uke to discover your Ki. Finding Your Ki In addition to studying Aikido, practicing meditation, Iaido or Tai Chi Chuan may help you by moving slowly to pay attention to your body, your mind, your Hara and start to experience the Ki in your body. See what posture allows it to flow and what impedes it. You need to know what and where your Ki is to blend, to learn to harmonize with uke. I hope everyone tries to experience their Aikido to the fullest. Think about why O’Sensei named it Aikido. Give up the idea of trying to “win” in Aikido. There is no competition in Aikido because it is, and never was, about winning. It is about learning and growth. And the focus of that learning and growth is the study of learning to harmonize with Ki. So, the key to Aikido, for me, is in the name. I practice AiKIdo. Now relax. Find your Ki in your Aikido. It is about the journey. Just Don’t Stop Believin’. --Jay Tall Sensei, Aikido Schools of NJ "Fill yourself with Ki, invite the attack."
--Morehei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido