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Karate yells: Bogus or big help in self defense?

by Lori Hoeck on November 19, 2009

kiaiWatch any martial arts classes or movies and you will likely hear shouting or kiai.

Martial arts legends tell of kiai so powerful they could disable an opponent. I imagine it was akin to the scene in the film Dune when Paul Atreides uses his Bene Gesserit Voice skills as a weapon.

Those who train in combat arts or reality self defense may scoff at the idea, since kiai‘ing could reveal your position to other opponents.

So are those shouts necessary or not?

Here are the usual reasons for kiais:

  • Mental ramp up
    After many years of martial arts training my personal kiai mentally powers up my body and mind into a steady, alert, and coiled state of readiness. But don’t worry about training that long if you don’t have time. A good holler can clear anyone’s mental cobwebs.
  • Push “pause”
    Sure, if you know the kiai is coming or you are used to them, they are not a big deal. But a powerful, resolved, and utterly focused yell injected into a self defense situation can provide distraction and take an attacker off of the attack track.
  • Stop panicky breaths
    Ever notice those short, quick breaths that come in times of great stress or trauma – the kind that can lead to hyperventilation? A good kiai or shout can help stop that pattern and bring back focus.
  • Power
    Remember picking up that heavy box or TV and grunting at the exertion? Exhalations like that tighten the core area and give extra power.
  • Absorption
    A helpful use of kiai for me in training comes during or right after a hit. The tightening down of core muscles at that moment helps absorb the hit less painfully. Also, forcefully evacuating the lungs of air removes a main factor in the debilitating effect of having the wind knocked out of you.
  • Authority
    Have you heard the sound of authority when a law enforcement officer or emergency worker uses a strong voice on a panicked or unruly crowd?  Learning to find your Inner Warrior voice comes in handy for explosive phrases, too. Imagine powering these words with kiai-like intensity:  “Back off!” or “Put that gun down!” or “You! Call 9-1-1!” or “No!”

Just like any weapon, the kiai doesn’t control you. If stealth and silence is needed, you can create many of  the same effects of a kiai by tightening the core muscles without vocalization.

How to Kiaikarate-yell
Find your own fearsome, empowering sound by going somewhere you won’t be made fun of or feel too awkward and practice. Many people pick vowel sounds, but you can imitate television character Zena’s trilling war cry if you want or a growling lion – whatever makes you feel strong.

(One red belt I knew, who was fond of drink, used the word “Ouzo” for his kiai. I guess “Sambuca” didn’t work as well.)

Breath for the sound must rise from the abdomen, muscles tightening fast, and air exploding outward in a full blast. Clavicular breathing (in and out of the upper lungs) will not help much in creating the needed sonic explosion. Also, don’t choke it off at the throat. Keep the sound intense rather than letting it fall off — you want the sudden explosiveness of dynamite, not the wail of a siren.

Use this sound when striking the attacker, blocking, or simply to psych yourself into action. If you find yourself in a situation never having practiced a power sound, make any noise you can — make it deep-sounding and loud.

Thank you for visiting and learning about self defense.
If you think others can benefit, please pass it on!

Lori Hoeck

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