The concept of Ki in Aikido
by Minhhuy Ho
Ask a Chinese what is 'chi/qi' and you will get as many answers as you
would asking an Aikidoka how to perform a kokyunage. A common answer is
that chi refers to a particular mental and physical state that exhibits
in a psychophysiological power associates with blood and breath. A
chinese philosopher will talk about this microcosmical 'matter-energy'
which is fundamental in forming and governing the universe. A
traditional chinese physician, usually also a taoist by education,
speaks about a microbiomaterial that circulates within the body,
maintaining the living force that makes the body function. The chinese
will probably accept any of these definitions in a 'matter-of-fact'
manner and do not expect questions or disagreements concerning the
meaning of chi. Of course this does not mean that they actually had a
very accurate idea about the meaning of chi or that everybody knows
exactly in what context one means when one talks about chi. In fact, the
chinese probably means all of the above definitions, and more. This
raises immediate problem for the western mind which makes clear
distinctions between matter/mind, material/nonmaterial,
physical/psychological/ physiological etc.. However one disagrees with
the chinese blatant disregard for the cartesian dichotomy, this is in
fact the way in which the chinese conceptualizes chi, or any other
phenomena at all. Furthermore, they seems to be happy to trade off the
analytical clarity for the imaginative richness.
When the chinese cosmic system which uses chi to
explain the structure and function of virtually every phenomenon in the
universe finally got transmitted to Japan in the seventh century, it had
the shinto and tendai buddhist flavours added on. Unfortunately, or
fortunately, the meaning of chi/ki did not get any clearer crossing the
japanese sea. At any rate, from the oldest extant japanese work on
traditional medicine, Ishopo by Tamba no Yasuyori, in the tenth century
to modern works such as 'Qi: From the Analects to the New Science' by
Maruyama Toshiaki, 'Qi: the Flowing body' by Harada Jiro one can see
that both japanese and chinese traditional medicine share a basic
conception of what it means to be fully human. Life is constituted by ki
(in the sense of breath and energy), a force that manifests in
respiration and that can be felt circulating within the body. Similarly,
japanese drugs and concoctions are aimed specially at nourishing ki and
enhancing its functioning.
Akido, a japanese martial art developed by master
Mohirei Ueshiba earlier this century makes heavy use of the concept of
ki. Aikido is one of the more spiritual martial arts and has been
considered as 'moving zen'. The name Aikido means 'the way of harmony of
ki'. Just exactly what is this ki that one supposes to harmonize with is
a controversial topic among Aikidoka's. Some believes that the physical
entity ki simply does not exist. Instead, the spirit, the intention, the
bio-physico-psychological coordination through relaxation and awareness
are concepts being used in the teaching. These Aikidoka's sometime tend
to frown upon the philosophical/spiritual aspect of ki. Other Aikidoka's
believe that ki does exist as a physical entity and can be transmitted
through space. They, on the other hand, make use of concepts such as ki
of the universe, extending ki etc.. By citing these two extremes, the
author does not wish to imply that the 'truth' lies somewhere in
between. But the fact of the matter is that there is a large portion of
Aikidoka who are still, and no doubt will continue be, on their 'quest
The task is not simple since many sensei's are
reluctant to talk about ki. Those who do, do it in a very oriental way:
full of metaphor, image and lack of clarity. The aim of this article is
surveying the writting and teaching of Kaiso, his deshi's: Ueshiba,
Tohei, Yamada, Shioda, Saito, Saotome, Nadeau, Dobson, Homa ... (listed
in no particular order) to find out what they did mean when they
mentioned the concept ki, or to find out whether one can come up with a
definite answer at all. For the sake of simplicity, let's propose three
simple definitions of ki:
- Ki: the principle that governs the universe AND
the individual, the cosmic truth.
- Ki: the action from a particular state of mind
and body that can have physical/psychological/physiological effect.
This ki can be expressed, and hence, perceived through physical
apprearance, behaviour, and body language.
- Ki: similar to (2). However this ki can be
expressed and perceived by means including but not limited to those
listed in (2).
One can see that from (1) to (3) the degree of
abstract decreases while the physical component increases. The meaning
of ki of course is not limited by the individual or combined definitions
Writings and Teachings of Saito, Yamada, Shioda,
Homma, Nadeau and Dobson:
Among the available Aikido literatures from Kaiso's
deshi's, "Traditional Aikido" by Morihiro Saito sensei stands out as a
classic. Nevertheless, in this five-volume work, the concept of ki is
discussed only briefly: "Ki: the vital force of the body. Through Aikido
training, the ki of a person can be drawn in increasing amount from the
universe. In practice, ki is directed before body movement takes place."
A short description of a series of exercises for ki flowing can be found
in his later work "Aikido, its heart and appearance" where one "causes
partner's ki to flow out (fluid)" and "calling out your partner's ki and
linking it to yours". Yoshimitsu Yamada sensei, a marvelous Aikido
technician, in "The New Aikido Complete" is even less specific about ki.
He refers to ki as "the power of the spirit of the mind that we all
possess but which we use only on rare occasion." There is no noticable
mention of ki in the work of Gozo Shioda sensei, the founder of
These sensei's are accomplished Aikidoka's in every
sense of the word. Saito sensei's profound knowledge about Aikido
techniques especially his contribution to the jo, bokken kata's is well
respected in Aikido and aiki-jitsu circles. Shioda sensei's flawless and
spontaneous techniques can only be compared with the equilibrium and
tranquility reflected in chinese landscape paintings. It is hardly
possible that these masters, who studied with the master of ki himself,
are ignorant of the importance of ki. One can hypothesize that these
sensei's feel that the teaching of ki, whatever their definitions are,
has no place in a technical manual and is best left unspoken. Andvanced
students should experience and define the essence of the art themselves
with the guidance of the sensei. This style of teaching, known as shinin
(imprinting of the heart), is not foreign to the oriental. The saying "A
special transmission outside the Scriptures, no dependence upon words
and letters" sums up the fundamental of Zen teaching. As Shioda sensei
wrote "They (martial arts) must not become mere intellectual exercises,
the fundamental budo 'conduct' must not be treated lightly, and the 'way
of technique' must not be neglected as a form of spiritual and physical
training", he wished to emphasize the idea that the essence of Aikido -
ki - would express itself to those who practice and follow basic
techniques diligently. This sentiment seems also to be shared by Doshu
in his interview with Stan Prannin.
The sincere and direct approach in "Aikido for Life"
has made Homma sensei's book an excellent introduction to what it takes
and what it tastes like to be an Aikidoka. Aikido for Life is not a
technical manual per se, albeit several techniques and exercises were
included, but rather a reflection on the physical and mental training
process of Aikido. Homma sensei's book reflects his honest feeling about
the art and the way it should be practiced. He performed an irimi to
many conceptions and misconceptions in Aikido. Homma sensei devoted the
whole second chapter to the discussion of ki, which he believes does not
exist. "The word ki is made of two letters, 'k' and 'i' nothing more. Of
course you know how difficult it is to undestand something that can only
be imagined. Some try to describe this thing that doesn't exist by
letting their explanations drift into the realm of mystery. The mystery
of ki has been deceiving many students"
To Homma sensei, ki has no color, shape nor weight and
cannot be shown by ki believer simply due to the fact that ki as a
physical entity does not exist. Homma sensei himself however, does not
come up with the definition of ki himself as it seems not to be within
the scope of his book. Instead, he urges one to dicsover ki "through
daily practice inside and outside the dojo" but not "adopting another's
definition blindly." Aikido according to Homma sensei is the "training
of the mind" which expresses itself through breathing. When one's mind,
body movement, and breathing is in harmony with the surroundings, one
experiences the true meaning of Aiki. In this aspect, Homma sensei's
concept of ki seems to be similar to definition (2) mentioned above.
Homma sensei credits several technical accomplishments such as
'unbendable arm', 'unliftable body' to consistent practice and rejects
the contribution of the "mysterious power" of ki. However, he also
credits the benefits of several Aikido exercises, such as nikkyo and
kotegeashi wrist warm up, and practices such as open hand, back rolles
to shiatsu (acupressure). This seems somewhat contradictory. The
concepts of keiraku (chinese: jingluo, english: meridian), rokuzo (liuzang,
six yin organs), roppu (liufu, six yang organs) mentioned in Homma
sensei's book are those discovered/invented by chinese traditional
medicine. From this perspective, shiatsu inherited its entire
theoretical foundation from acupuncture. The concepts of channels
existing in human (and animal) body and their associated ying and yang
organs (which do not necessarily have the equivalence in western
medicine) are unique to chinese traditional medicine. Their sole purpose
is to circulate chi within the body. The chi mentioned here is a
physical entity as defined earlier according to chinese traditional
medicine. One cannot use these concepts without accepting their raison
d'e^tre. It seems that Homma sensei has denied the existence of the
physical aspect of ki in one context only to use it in another.
Among O sensei's first american deshi is Robert Nadeau
sensei who came to study with the master in his late seventies. Nadeau
sensei, being profficient in several martial arts, has profound impact
on his students not only thought his super physical techniques but also
his dynamic approach by way of harmoninzing physical and mental
concepts, action and comtemplation. Since there is no literature
available by Nadeau sensei, his teaching will be extracted from the
works of two of his decorated deshi's : Richard Strozzi Heckler and
In "The Ultimate Athelete", Leonard sensei describes a
typical Energy-Body workshop pioneered by Nadeau sensei. The workshop
begins with the assumption that "a field of energy exists in and around
each human body". This energy is ki, "a single manifestation that
includes emanations that can be measured by our present science, plus
other esoteric or metaphorical amanations". One of the exercise in the
workshop is "sensing the energy body" where partners stand with arms
extending towards each other. When one 'feels' the energy from one's
partner, one is asked to move apart to find out how far away one can
still sense the energy connection. It is also obvious from other
exercises that Nadeau sensei's idea of ki includes definitions (2) and
"The Anatomy of Changes" by Heckler sensei portrays
his effort to utilize Aikido principles in psychotherapy. The book
describes the hara as "a point two inches below the navel, as the center
of gravity and the place where ki (or life energy) originates". One can
"feel or imagine a warmth in this area" to center oneself. To "ground"
oneself (feel the connection between the body and the ground), one
extends ki by feeling or imagining one's energy as "a strong flowing
current that moves from your belly through your pelvis and legs, deep
into the earth". Similarly, "unbendable arm" is done by feeling or
imagining that "a current of powerful energy flowing through and out of
this arm for a distance of a thousand miles. Your arm is like a conduit
for a limitless and far-reaching energy that effortlessly flows through
it. When you start to feel tingling, vibrating, or streaming sensations
in your body and arms, continue to relax, and allows these sensations to
join the current that is flowing through your arm". Again, this way of
conceptualizing ki has more overlap with definition (3) than (2).
Terry Dobson sensei received the mission from O sensei
to spread the spirit of Aikido to his people when he was one of Kaiso's
last uchi deshi's. His life was the proof for the fulfillment of that
promise as he refers to himself as a "ki mechanic". His only written
work left is "Aikido in Everyday Life" though he has "imprinted the
hearts" of many by his teaching. In "Aikido in Everyday Life" Dobson
sensei refers to the one point "where one should be living ... it is the
'organ' which can sense attack faster than the intellect." This one
point, according to Dobson sensei, is the protective spirit, ki, which
is employed in unraisable body exercise. But ki also is one's
"connection to all life, time, and space; nowness; and energy".
Throughout his life, Dobson sensei has been the mechanic for a more
down-to-earth kind of ki. "Aikido in Everyday Life" was written to solve
life conflicts by Aikido techniques. As he wrote "It is possible for a
liar or a cheat to use Aiki or any of otherfive attacks to responses and
aim for a 'kill' or a 'win' over somebody who has made the mistake of
attacking him. But strange things begin to happen to people who become
involved with Attack-tics ... even the most mean spirited of people
begin to relinquish their grasp on their aggression, lose their anger,
and reconnect with the living force". From his well known story "A Kind
Word Turneth Away Wrath", one can see that the essence of Aikido
according to Dobson sensei has a strong social implication. It seems
that Dobson sensei's concept of ki covers all three definitions
W.-T. Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy,
Princeton University Press, 1973.
Y.-L. Fung, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy,
McMillan Press, 1966.
T. J. Kaptchuk, The Web that has no Weaver.
Understanding Chinese Medicine, Congdon and Weed, New York, 1983.
W.-M. Tu, Confucian Thought, State University of New
York Press, 1985.
S.-C. Huang, Chang Tsai's concept of Chi, Philosophy
East and West, vol. 18, pp. 247, 1968.
Y. S. Kim, The Concept of Chi in Chu Hsi's philosophy,
Philosophy East and West, vol. 34, 1984.
Y. Sakade, Longevity Techniques in Japan. Ancient
Source and Contemporary Studies, in Taoist Meditation and Longevity
Techniques, Eds. L. Kohn and Y. Sakade, Center for Chinese Studies, The
University of Michigan, 1989.
Morihiro Saito, Traditional Aikido, vol I-V, Minato
Research and Publications 1974.
Morihiro Saito, Aikido, its Heart and Appearance,
Minato Research and Publications 1975.
Yoshimitsu Yamada, The New Aikido Complete, Carol
Publishing Group 1981
Gozo Shioda, Dynamic Aikido, Kodansha Publishing 1968.
Translator: Hamilton Jeffrey.
Stan Prannin in Aikido and the New Warrior, Eds.
Richard Heckler and Goerge Leonard, North Atlantic Books 1990.
The Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, An
Outline of Chinese Acupuncture, Foreign Langauges Press, 1975.
Felix Mann, Acupuncture. The Ancient Chinese Art of
Healing and How it Works Scientifically, Vintage Books 1973.
Shizuto Masunaga with Wataru Ohashi, Zen and Shiatsu.
How to Harmonize Yin and Yang for Better Health, Japan Publication 1977.
Toru Namikoshi, Shiatsu and Stretching, Japan
George Leonard, The Ultimate Athelete. Revising
Sports, Physical Education and the Body, The Viking Press 1975.
Richard Strozzi Heckler, The Anatomy of Change.
East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy, Shambhala Publication 1985.
Terry Dobson and Victor Miller, Aikido in Everyday
Life, North Atlantic Books 1983.
Aikido Today Magazine, The Journal of the Martial Arts
and Spiritual Discipline of Aikido, #25, vol. 6 1992/1993.