What is ki? It is one of the first questions that beginners ask. The best answer I know is “Keep practicing and find out.” But that comes across as glib. What I mean is: ki–like fear, illness, joy, pain, faith, etc.–is something best understood through experience. Words point in the general direction like a pain chart at a doctor’s office, but each individual experiences it as an internal truth.
There is another difficulty with describing ki. Because ki is experiential, opinions vary from, “There’s no such thing as this woo-woo ki,” to “Ki is the universal energy that binds everything together.” While I don’t want to stir that debate, I would say that if you aren’t willing to act like ki is something possible to experience, if you think it is complete phooey, then aikido probably isn’t the art for you.
If ki is something you are willing to accept as possible in your worldview, there are a few things I’ve heard that helped me.
You can think of ki as:
None of these synonyms translate exactly. But they are signposts pointing toward it.
Many answers of “what is ki” didn’t appeal to me or resonate with me as a beginner. The Eastern mystical explanations also didn’t resonate with my experience of life. They were highway signs in a language I couldn’t read. I spent my first two years of practice doing my best and being open, sometimes feeling something, but not sure what it was. Then I read the following description of aiki and things began to cohere:
The feeling of aiki, harmonizing energy, is the feeling of being “in-the-zone” like during a sports competition.
It clicked. I know that feeling. It is vivid awareness of everything happening around you, almost knowing what will happen before it happens. I remember moments during basketball games when I moved in a pre-conscious understanding of the whole court. I sensed where the opponent was thinking of passing. Where the gaps were in the defense. Where the basket was without having to look at it. I just knew all that stuff and was part of it, moving through it, shaping it toward an outcome.
Being in-the-zone in sports is like being in the rhythm. My wife and I played in a taiko drumming group in Japan. For warm-ups, our club leader would relentlessly bang the same beat, sometimes an hour, while we either copied the rhythm or broke into quarter or 16th notes as we saw fit. We practiced in a hot, humid gym. Fifteen minutes was enough to make us tired and sweaty, but we tried to keep the beat. Our sticks blistered our hands. And then, when we became too tired to do anything but endure, something inside shifted. It wasn’t me keeping the beat; I had merged with it. We were all caught up in the rhythm which seemed to exist in and of itself. We participated in something greater than the sum of its parts.
Those two experiences–being in-the-zone and becoming the rhythm–helped me open up to what I was training on the mat. You can’t be in-the-zone at basketball if you don’t practice constantly. Just like you can’t sync band ensemble without learning your part and practice. To experience that zone–to feel what ki is–you have to drill the fundamentals.
So when someone asks “What is ki?” I share the sign posts that help me, but the truth is, the answer ain’t free. If you want to know, keep practicing. You will feel it. More and more. Just keep an open mind to your practice and experiences.
Feature image “Handshake”