Ki and Karate: From Science to Experience
Ki has always been a central concept for karate and other East Asian martial arts. However, especially in the West Ki has also been condemned as an esoteric idea. While some claims hold some water others do not. In the following article I am going to define Ki as a psychosomatic regulation capacity of the body and I will show how it can be explained and measured. I am going to make use of the vast research literature on Ki and draw from here some conclusions how it influences ones karate and how one can strengthen it during daily training. By Punito Aisenpreis
Ki, Qui or Chi: Driving Force for Any Action
Ki is generally and colloquially defined as “life force” or “vital energy” (気Chinese Qi, Jap. Ki). In the Japanese culture the expression is omnipresent: If two persons meet, they ask each other: O Genki Desu Ka? = how are you, how is your Ki? If someone leaves home, the other person says: Ki Otsu Ke Te = take care of your Ki! The Kanji character “気” means the steam, which rises from rice. In other cultures, Ki is referred to as Chi, Qi, (China), as Prana (India), or as Odem (Germanic heritage).
Ki belongs to the central concepts of Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine and functions as a mediating factor between mind and body. As a psychosomatic holistic concept, it bridges the division of psyche and physic. In martial arts, Ki has a central function. The flow of Ki through meridians and the knowledge of vital points belongs to the foundation of Shotokan Karate (see Bubishi). In the terms Aikido, Kiai and Kime for example, Ki is a central element.
However, many martial artist and Shotokan Karateka deem Ki an esoteric concept that has been refused by Western medicine. Therefore, I will give a brief overview about Ki in medical research.
Ki and Western Medicine
The relationship of Ki and Western Medicine is indeed complicated. Two major reasons can be found for this: First, wrong translations and interpretations of Chinese concepts; Second, Charlatanism in the West. The major authority, when it comes to Ki research in the West, is Prof. Dr. Paul Unschuld, who holds the chair for theory, history and ethics of Chinese Lifesciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He examined the history of concept of Ki extensively.
His studies reveal that the meaning of Ki has changed in the course of the centuries. First, Chinese healers perceived it as some sort of vapors. Later they extended the meaning of the term to other phenomena. Therefore, Unschuld concluded in his opus magnum Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen:
“We may assume that Qi, despite its many diverse applications, always referred to a vague concept of finest matter believed to exist in all possible aggregate states, from air and steam or vapor to liquid and even solid matter.”(Unschuld 2003) (1)
From this standpoint, the translation of Ki as “energy” in a sense of electricity must be refused. According to Unschuld, it even might be possible that the concept of Ki became mystified when it was introduced in the West in the 19th century. Here charlatanism like electronic therapy and elixirs already existed and where widely used in societies. Exotic concepts like Ki became reinterpreted and alternative medicine circles eagerly integrated them in their portfolio.
The power of this mystification in the West even led to a change of understanding of Ki in East-Asia, when the concept became re-imported into Chinese. As Unschuld suggested in his research that Ki described for the Chinese healers in the past a chemical-molecular energy. They described it as “vapors”. An esoteric all-mighty energy, that flows through everything and connects heaven and earth, must be rejected.
Ki: A Empirically Measurable Phenomenon
Ki refers to an empirically measurable sensation and physiological effect like as it can be experienced in de qi during acupuncture (see Park et al 2013) (2). Modern research points to the same direction. Robert Chuckrow (2019) (3) argues that Ki could be part of the cell metabolism, happening in the mitochondria of the cell.
A Japanese research team around Tsuyoshi Ohnishi (2005, 2006) (4,5) examined the effects of a treatment with Ki on mitochondria function (inner breathing and energy provision) of the cell as well as on human cancer cells. According to their research the Ki transmitted from a Ki master (Nishino Kozo Sensei) to cells had a positive effect on the healing process. The Ki effect is empirical evident and well documented. Its healthy effects even convinced German health insurance, which cover acupuncture treatments since a few years.
However, a challenge poses the question what Ki is or how it can be described in theoretical terms. Paul Rusch (2009) (6) tried to theorize the concept in a paper about bioelectromagnetic and subtle energy. Here he refuses the notion of a chemical-molecular process that generates Ki.
According to his analysis Ki must be looked for an analytical level deeper. For him the most plausible concept that can explain Ki is subtle energies, which emerges in bioelectromagnetic field on the atomic level. Here the nervous system, molecular-chemical process and mental states are interrelated. But he also concludes: “Whether this energy is synonymous with some mysterious force called chi that correlates with electromagnetic fields is not clear.” (Rusch 2009: 310)
Russian and German researchers found the link between mitochondrial function and the heart rate variability (HRV), the scientific way of pulse diagnostics. (explained later in this text.) (7) The HRV rises with the body’s ability to create energy through the intake of oxygen (8). And the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, measured via HRV, can be trained and augmented through a specific HRV based breathing biofeedback training (9). To follow this chain of argumentation, HRV analysis and HRV training could detect and strengthen Ki. This might be helpful for Karateka who train frequently and hard.
Further research is needed to determine the very elements that Ki consists of. Until then it can be seen as an aggregate of a multitude of psycho-somatic processes that correlate with health and well-being – and it can be measured and strengthened – good news for Karateka!
Ki as Regulation Capacity
On an experiential level, Ki is the term used in the Japanese Martial Arts for a type of intrinsic process that is present in everyone, but in martial arts practitioners it is developed to a greater extent through the use of specific breathing and strengthening exercises as well as mental imagination techniques.
In both the Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts, Ki or Qi is said to originate in the abdomen (Hara in Japanese or Tan Tien in Chinese) and can be focused or concentrated with practice, into any part of the body. Also, on this level, Ki is more than just energy: It could be described as resilience, a force that withstands attacks and onslaughts on different levels. Ki is the capacity for self-regulation and the ability of the autonomic nervous system and the cell metabolism: Its responsive capacity for coping with adverse circumstances, preserving and supporting our health.
Today, Budoka’ s challenges are mostly not the rogues lurking around the next corner but new threats like global warming, mobbing, intrigue, fake news, negativity and so on might be much more realistic. And more so, Ki is needed giving us the ability to cope for example with the threat of the Corona Virus on both a mental and a physical level.
Measuring and Determining Ki: The Traditional Way of Pulse Diagnostics
Pulse diagnostics is an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine, which developed in the Indus Valley around 5000 years ago. In China, diagnostics of pulse was developed under the influence of India between the 2nd and 8th century AC, but the true beginnings might well stretch back as far as up to 2700 years earlier. In Chinese medicine, it is used for the detection of disturbances of a person’s vital energy (Chi), which expresses itself as Yin (feminine) and Yang (masculine) energy.
Today the pulse diagnostics, in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and especially in acupuncture and Shiatsu (massage) of Traditional Japanese medicine, is used to detect disturbances in “energy flow”. It takes years of training to learn to detect it and daily practice in order to incorporate it in therapy. Modern physiology understands that pulse diagnostics looks at the function of the branches of our autonomic nervous system, a system that gains more importance in the last decades.
Heart Rate Variability: The Modern Successor of Pulse Diagnostics
There is a new scientific method of detecting the function of our self-running, vegetative/ autonomic nervous system: The analysis of heart-rate variability (HRV) is gaining increasing importance both in sports medicine and in the control of stress- and behavioral medicine. In particular, coaches can measure and control the condition of their athletes very precisely and thus achieve more competitive success, health and longevity. Measuring Ki in Karate training.
High Ki: In a functioning autonomic nervous system at rest, the heart rate and the breathing are interconnected. (Figure 4 – left). The vagus nerve (rest and digest nerve) is stimulated and controls every heartbeat quickly, efficiently and with little effort.
Low Ki: In a stressed and unfit system (Figure 5 – see right), the heartbeat control is rigid and inflexible, controlled by the sympathetic nerve (fight – flight nerve). Any stress could lead to breakdown and damage.
Ki in Martial Arts Training
If we look at martial artists who incorporate Ki exercises in their training, we come across Koichi Tohei Sensei, Aikido and Ki teacher of the author, who promoted Shin Shi Toitsu Do (Mind-Body unification) of Tempu Nakamura (Japanese Yoga) since the 70ies of last century. The unbend-able arm (see Fig. 2.) and the unbend-able body (see Fig. 3) are central to his Ki exercises.
Another Japanese Ki master is Nishino Kozo Sensei with his Nishino Juku Ki breathing method, who also researched the effects of Ki on human cells. (see above). Both reached well over 90 yrs. of age.
In Karate, Aoki Osamu Shihan, the head of JKA Spain, has incorporated Ki principles into Shotokan teaching, the Aoki Bio Energy method. He graduated to 9th Dan in JKA Honbu Dojo Tokyo last year. He has developed five areas of connecting body and mind in this training: Youtai (stabilizing the body), Nyu sei: (physical and psychological preparation), Yurumi Taiso (exercises for relaxation), Kokyu Ho (breathing exercises), Dooki (activation and flowing of Ki).
If we look at the teaching of today’s prominent JKA Karate Senseis, we detect several Ki principles in their lessons: Naka Shihan for example does stability testing as well as giving mental cues during his classes, Shimizu Ryosuke Sensei is emphasizing on relaxing into gravity while punching and Ueda Daisuke Sensei teaches at JKA Honbu Dojo the effect of Oi Tsukis extending Ki while executing.
Strengthening Ki in your Daily Karate Training
Ki principles could be part of every Karate training. This would expand the muscle power driven competitive Sports-Karate to a more holistic approach unifying mind and body aspects of the art.
1. Keep one point: Focus your mind on the center of gravity in your body.
2. Feel your weight underside: Allow yourself to relax into gravity and sense the ground.
3. Extend your Ki: Let our mind extend beyond your physical limits in every technique.
4. Relax completely: Calm your mind and let go of physical tensions while executing techniques.
5. Stability testing as well as the “unbend-able arm test” and the unbend-able body test” would enrich daily training and induce relaxing and awareness elements at any point of a hard workout.
- Unschuld, Paul 2003: Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text, University of California Press.
- Park JE., Ryu YH., Liu Y., Jung HJ., Kim AR., Jung SY., Choi SM. 2013: A literature review of de qi in clinical studies. In: Acupuncture Medicine 31(2), 132-42.
- Chuckrow Robert, Ph.D. 2019: A Biological Interpretation of Ch’i (Qi): 2019 qui-encoclpedia.com
- Ohnishi ST, Ohnishi T, Nishino K, Tsurusaki Y, Yamaguchi M. 2005: Growth inhibition of cultured human carcinoma cells by Ki-energy (life energy): scientific study of Ki-effect on cancer cells. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2: 387–93.
- S. Tsuyoshi Ohnishi, Tomoko Ohnishi and Kozo Nishino 2006: Ki-Energy (Life-Energy) Protects Isolated Rat Liver Mitochondria from Oxidative Injury: eCAM 3 (4)475–482
- Rosch, Paul J. 2009: Bioelectromagnetic and Subtle Energy Medicine. The Interface between Mind and Matter. In: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
- Kuchera et. al. 2003: Mitochondrial Therapy: Some questions of autonomic regulation mechanisms with use of HRV: Stress Research Institute, Meissen, State research Institute Moscow, Institute for New medical. T., Riazan.
- Aisenpreis, Punito M. 2017: The improvement of the parasympathetic response and the O2 intake at rest of stress-exposed patients through an HRV controlled application of intermittent Hypoxia/ Hyperoxia Therapy (IHHT): A pilot study out of therapeutic practice: University of Halle sport science.
- Aisenpreis, Punito M. 2013: The improvement of the parasympathetic response through a personalized 9 weeks HRV biofeedback training: University of Halle sports science.
About Punito M. Aisenpreis
Body-mind medical practitioner and researcher in Bavaria. Martial Arts and Meditation Teacher. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4. Dan JKA. Ki Training with Koichi Tohei, 3 years living in an Ashram in India. Regular Karate training in Japan with Andre Bertel and the JKA. Fascia therapy since 1981. Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. in 1994. Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau, teaches Karate, HRV and Fascia seminars.