30 June 2014


Jodi and Instructor Philip
We would like to congratulate Instructor Philip de Vos and Jodi Siecker on winning two medals each, during the recent ATC Invitational Tournament in Pretoria. Bsbnim Philip, who is the instructor at the main Soo Shim Kwan dojang in Potchefstroom won gold in 2nd Dan patterns and silver in power breaking; and Jodi won gold for power breaking and silver in novice patterns. Thank you for representing the Soo Shim Kwan in such a brilliant manner. You make us proud!

13 June 2014

Developing a Sensitivity to Ki

I was recently having a conversation with my friend Dr John Johnson about a book we have both read, Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts by Kenji Tokitsu. I then remembered that I had written an article for Issue #17 of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine which was inspired by this book. Since I have not posted it here on my blog, and since I don't generally write about the concept of Ki, I've decided to re-post it here.

Developing a Sensitivity to Ki in Taekwon-Do

By Sanko Lewis

While reading Kenji Tokitsu’s Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts (2003) I was wondering how his ideas, which focuses mostly on the art of Kendo, would translate to Taekwon-Do. This essay will contemplate methods for developing sensitivity to Ki in ITF Taekwon-Do, based on some ideas put forward by Tokitsu and some of my own reflections. Although it is more accurately pronounced as “Gi” [기] in Korean, in this essay I will continue to use the term “Ki,” as it is most commonly transcribed into English.

An essay on Ki in the martial arts is founded on some presuppositions. The first, of course, is that Ki exists. Since the purpose of this essay is not to prove the reality of Ki, let’s assume for the sake of the argument that it does in fact exist. A simplistic definition of Ki is that it is a type of energy found in animate things and to a lesser degree also in inanimate things. In people it is sometimes equated with the body’s nervous system which relies on electric impulses to relay messages. It is furthermore connected with a person’s will or intention. Most Oriental martial arts concur on its existence. Another assumption, which we will also accept as true for now, is that Ki can be sensed. A person that takes the time to practice certain skills can actually acquire sensitivity to Ki, not only to the Ki in him or herself but also to the Ki in other people. Such sensitivity can be quite useful for a martial artist for it could warn you of your opponent’s intentions. A third assumption is that it is possible to project Ki beyond yourself. Colloquially we can express it as “giving off a vibe.” Some charismatic people seem to beam an attractive energy, while other people seem to instil in us a sense of uneasiness. Many martial artists believe that they can use their Ki in this way to intimidate their opponents. Lastly, some martial artists believe that it is possible to project one’s Ki into an opponent and cause physical harm. This latter possibility will not be the concern of this essay.

Developing sensitivity to Ki could serve at least two purposes for martial artist. By acquiring sensitivity to Ki, especially the Ki of other people, a martial artist can increase his defensive capability. Since it is believed that a person’s Ki telegraphs his movements, if you are able to hone into your opponent’s Ki, you could “feel” your opponent’s intention. This means that it is possible to sense what your opponent will do a fraction of a second before he or she actually does it. With such foreknowledge you are better equipped to defend against an attack as well as better prepared to set up a counter attack. At the same time, a person trained in Ki is capable of projecting his or her Ki to his or her opponent. By doing this one is able to instil in your opponent a sense of uneasiness, even fear. In so doing you can psychologically dominate the combative encounter. It is believed that the real fight occurs in the mind, so if you win over your opponent’s mind you have in essence already won the fight. Tokutsu explains that “in order to conquer physically, it is necessary to first conquer the mind . . .” (32).

In Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts Tokutsu elucidates how these two purposes are applicable in Kendo. Kendo is a Japanese combat sport using a bamboo sword called a shinai. The Kendoka (Kendo practitioners) are dressed in safety armour. Strikes are only allowed to a handful of specific areas on the opponent’s body. Striking is usually accompanied with a loud shout, known as the kiai. (The Korean term for kiai is gihap [기합] and literally means a “concentration of Ki.”) Success in Kendo often goes hand in hand with feint attacks. “For the feint to succeed, your opponent has to confuse it with a movement of actual attack,” and “if the feint succeeds, it is because your gesture, as minimal as it may have been, has succeeded in troubling the mind of your opponent,” explains Tokutsu (32, 33). At advanced level, Kendoka are less likely to demonstrate any outward feints. The advanced level practitioner attempts to “cause a movement in the mind of [his or her] opponent without producing any outward sign” (33). In the place of outward feints, the advanced level Kendoka disturbs the Ki of his or her opponent by projecting his own Ki onto the opponent. It is for this reason that most people actually find Kendo quite boring to watch. The two advanced level practitioners may stand facing each other, their shinai crossed at the tip only revealing minute motions for extended periods of time with no dramatic movements at all. Then suddenly there will be a flurry of movement, some screaming, and a point scored. While no overt action was visible during their initial stillness, a big battle was actually occurring in the minds of the two opponents. They were sensing each other’s intentions, intimidating each other, fighting a battle of Ki. “The most important combat takes place in this not particularly dynamic-looking exchange,” says Tokutsu (35). Only at the moment when the Ki of one Kendoka overwhelmed or disturbed the Ki of the other, did the first land his attack. Tokutsu quotes the famous Kendo proverb: “Do not win after having struck, but strike after having won.”

In the sport of WTF Taekwon-Do sparring we find an unarmed counterpart to Kendo. When novice players spar each other their match is much more dynamic than when advanced players spar. Novice players seem to kick wildly and powerfully, often shouting ceaselessly. A bout between experienced WTF players looks quite different. The two opponents will face each other in a tension filled silence. Like the little movements of the shinai tips in the Kendo match, so the advanced level WTF competitors move only a little; bouncing in their knees or demonstrating careful, almost nervous, footwork. The non-WTF onlooker looks at the match with frustration as nothing seems to happen. Just little nervous jolts in the players’ bodies as each anticipate the movement of the other. Then suddenly a flurry of powerful kicks and counter-kicks are exchanged with deafening gihaps. Like with Kendo, in advanced level WTF Taekwon-Do the real combat takes place during the time before the exchange of physical attacks occur. WTF has mastered the art of counter-attack so a foolish opening attack is sure to lose you a point. Instead the player has to make feints, and intimidate his opponent, disturb his Ki, to create an opening. Only then dares he attack.

Both Kendo fencing and WTF Taekwon-Do sparring are ideally set up for developing sensitivity to Ki. First, both Kendo and WTF Taekwon-Do uses protective armour. The armour takes away some of the fear the practitioner may have of being hit and in so doing helps the practitioners to be more relaxed. Being relaxed is crucial to sensing Ki. Seeing as the practitioner is not constantly in a “closed” defensive posture, he or she may be more “open” to experience Ki. Second, both Kendo and WTF Taekwon-Do have a very limited target area. Since practitioners need not worry about too many targets on their person being attacked and since the limited target areas also narrow down the scope of possible attacks from one’s opponent, practitioners can spend more psychological energy elsewhere. This freed up psychological energy can be used to anticipate the opponent’s intention instead. Third, the initial space between the practitioners is also big enough for them to feel the energy between them better. Tokitsu suggests that in a martial art like Judo where there is no initial separation of physical contact, there is hardly any opportunity to “grasp the intention of your adversary across the space that separates you” (40). Similarly, in full contact Karate or ITF Taekwon-Do sparring matches “the combatants anticipate violent physical contact from the start, and this tends to galvanize ki inside the body and prevent its diffusion outward. Therefore the possibility of opening to the sensation of ki is limited” (41). It is not that ITF Taekwon-Do cannot develop sensitivity to Ki in sparring; in fact, one often sees the same kind of sensitivity in ITF Taekwon-Do among the elite competitors who also seem to “wait” more during sparring bouts. However, in WTF Taekwon-Do such “waiting” and anticipation of one’s opponent’s movements are practically expected, while in ITF Taekwon-Do’s sport sparring “waiting” is often reprimanded by centre referees giving warnings to “inactive” fighters. In order to make ITF Taekwon-Do more spectator friendly authorities are forcing competitors to be more active in their sparring. One of the reasons WTF Taekwon-Do has come under review by the Olympic Games Committee is because it is not spectator friendly enough—there’s not enough visible action. Those periods of inactivity are too boring for spectators that do not comprehend the mental battle happening before the physical battle occurs.

As an ITF practitioner I am quite interested in how such Ki sensitivity can be achieved in ITF Taekwon-Do. Following I will discuss four possibilities: breathing and stretching exercises, patterns, step-sparring, and focussed free sparring.

ITF Taekwon-Do focuses a lot on its “short sharp breath” used with fundamental technique training. While this way of breathing has many valuable functions, it is not the type of breathing typically employed for Ki training. Breathing exercises used for Ki training tend to be more relaxed and smoother. There are different systems known for Ki development, the most famous is probably Qigong (the Korean is Gigong or Hoheup Jojeol; the latter literally means “controlled breathing”). Qigong exercises involve controlled breathing usually focussed on energising the body with Ki. The most famous Qigong set is the Baduajin, known in English as the “Eight Section Brocade” or “Eight Silken Movements.” The movements, which originated in China c. 1150-1300, are yogic stretching and breathing exercises reputed to increase Ki with a focus on health improvement. While I believe Qigong exercises like the Baduajin, which I practise on occasion, to be a good method for developing Ki, Qigong training is not without risk. There have been cases of psychosis caused by Qigong training (usually Qigong meditation), especially among people with a predisposition to mental disease. If meditation is followed as prescribed in the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia, not involving a “total divorce from the world, like a dead body, but rather an active moment to reflect on our past mistakes in silence and in the privacy of our thoughts, and through penitence, to continue our self-improvement toward becoming better men and women” (Volume 1, p. 58), then I doubt it could be harmful. A person need not become a serious Qigong practitioner to enjoy the simple benefits of stretching and controlled breathing. When emphasis is put on breathing and relaxation, some of the typical static stretching exercises performed before or after a Taekwon-Do session can be adapted for Ki training. Emphasis need merely be placed on relaxed, controlled abdominal breathing, with practitioners becoming aware of the sensations in their body while stretching and breathing properly. This will result in a natural flow of Ki and may cause a natural awareness of Ki to develop.

Patterns are also a method for developing sensitivity to Ki. The soft style martial art Tai Ch’i Chuan (Tae Geuk Kwon in Korean) is basically Qigong in continuous motion; Tai Ch’i Chuan is sometimes referred to as meditation in motion. While I personally am yet to sense Ki through patterns (I’ve felt it doing stretching and Baduajin), some family and friends have confessed becoming aware of Ki while training the patterns. My brother, whom is also an ITF practitioner, has shared with me that he experienced a sensation of energy flowing from him, especially in his hands, sometimes while doing patterns. A friend, whom has black belts in ITF, WTF and Hapkido, also admitted to Ki-sensations from time to time when practising the ITF patterns. While I have not yet experienced Ki during pattern training, I can understand why the ITF patterns are quite suited for it. Patterns performed in other systems of Taekwon-Do (WTF and other Chang-Hon systems) are usually performed with much tension and muscular power. Any objective viewer would immediately identify them as representative of hard style martial arts. ITF Taekwon-Do, however, has become much more relaxed because of its iconic (and often misunderstood) sine wave principle. The sine wave motion, when performed correctly, requires that the practitioner be completely relaxed, except at the moment of impact. The tempo of ITF Taekwon-Do patterns have also slowed down over the years. With a few exceptions, the tempo is generally never rushed. ITF Taekwon-Do has also moved away from the stocky Karate motions of its past. The preliminary motions in ITF Taekwon-Do have become more circular contributing to more fluidity in technique. In this sense, patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do have moved towards a more soft style approach with normally more relaxed and fluid movements, and a slowed down tempo. This way of movement is more conducive to Ki training.

While breathing and stretching exercises and patterns can help you become aware of Ki in yourself, it does little to hone your skills for sensing the Ki in other people. One part of Taekwon-Do training that I believe can help with developing sensitivity to the Ki (or intention) of one’s opponent is prearranged sparring. Prearranged sparring usually involves two practitioners practising together. The appointed attacker attacks with a set number of movements. Often the defender knows exactly how the attacker will attack. For instance, Three Step Sparring usually involves that the attacker steps forward with three walking stance punches. The defender is then required to defend against these set attacks by blocking each punch and finishing the sequence with a counter attack. Or Two Step Sparring may involve two attacks, likely a hand attack first, followed by a foot attack second. The defender blocks the two attacks and finishes the exercise with a counter attack. The main purpose of prearranged sparring is to acquaint the practitioner with appropriate angles and distances for various offensive and defensive manoeuvres. It also gives the defender the opportunity to try out a variety of different defensive and offensive manoeuvres. If the defender knows exactly what the attacker will do, prearranged sparring will add little for Ki development; however, a slight modification can change prearranged sparring into excellent reaction and Ki-sensitivity exercises. If the prearranged sparring is performed with the number of attacks known (be it Three Steps, Two Steps, or One Step), but the type of attacks are unknown, the exercise suddenly requires the defender to anticipate how his partner will attack. This makes the exercise similar to a real sparring match in that the practitioner knows that an attack is coming, but does not know in what form it will come. The defender is required to act reflexively. The novice practitioner often waits to see what attack is coming; advanced practitioner relies less on sight and more on an intuitive feeling—a sensitivity to their partner’s intention or Ki.

Free sparring, if approached with Ki training in mind, is also applicable for developing sensitivity to Ki. When the sparring session is focussed not on kickboxing-like brawling, not on overwhelming the opponent with a barrage of attacks, but rather on fewer focussed techniques, then we move to sparring more geared to Ki sensitivity development. Of course, this type of free sparring is actually what we see with advanced level ITF Taekwon-Do competitors—techniques are focussed and deliberate; the game is as much psychological as it is physical; the competitors react to attacks in an intuitive way, as if they anticipated the intend of their opponents. One way to encourage this type of sparring is to practise with light contact, or alternatively to don protective armour. This may help practitioners to be more relaxed. Point sparring, instead of continuous sparring, can also instil in practitioners a sense of more reflexive sparring, rather than brawling. A possible argument against such training for Ki sensitivity is that it does not reflect real life; that fighting in real life is closer to the kickboxing brawl than the nervous waiting one sees in WTF sparring. That is probably true. However, real life combat often happens unexpectedly or many times opponents in street fights would square off, do some posturing and partake in mutual name calling before one suddenly swings the first punch. A person practised in sensing the intentions of other people may actually have an advantage in these situations. Furthermore, someone adept at projecting his or her own Ki can send a clear message to any would be opponents that you will not be an easy pushover, showing them an inexplicable and intimidating calm strength. Keep in mind that for the ITF practitioner these varied sparring exercises functions merely as training tools with specific purposes in mind, and should not replace conventional sparring or proper self-defence practise. 

Developing sensitivity to Ki is certainly useful; however, it is not the be all and end all of a martial arts training regime. I once had a discussion with an MMA instructor who criticised traditional martial arts’ use of training methods such as patterns and prearranged sparring. His argument was that training in these is useless because they contribute little to real fighting. What he failed to realise was that training in patterns and prearranged sparring is not intended to precisely mimic “real fights.” Instead these exercises are abstractions of the combative encounter, zoomed in on very specific points and practising those alone in order to hone specific skills. The purpose of prearranged sparring is to acquaint the practitioner with angles and distances specifically, not to teach fighting in general. This MMA instructor was blind to see that in his own system he does similar things, like jumping rope and shadowboxing. Apart from the fitness, one of the functions of jumping rope is that it teaches footwork; it is not intended to teach fighting, although it may improve one’s fighting ability. Shadow boxing is similar to pattern training. My encounter with this MMA instructor did make one point clear, that we should not confuse these exercises with real fighting. The same goes for Ki sensitivity training. Training focussed on developing sensitivity to Ki is useful, but ought not to be the only focus in martial art training. On the other hand, neglecting it may leave your martial art experience less than it could be as it may enhance both your defensive and offensive capabilities.

Richard Strozzi Heckler is a doctor in psychology and also an Aikido practitioner. In his book The Anatomy of Change: East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy, Heckler talks about, what he calls, “contact”—what I have revered to as “sensitivity to Ki.” Heckler affirms that by “training the perceptive and intuitive aspects of the body, we can ‘read’ or sense [Ki]. This type of perception is like that of the experienced sailor who can ‘read’ the conditions of the sea. There is nothing particularly mystical or magical about what he can see and sense; it is simply a matter of experience . . . Through certain practices, especially in the movement and contemplative arts, this type of perception can be developed so that sensing qualities of [Ki] becomes second nature” (120). In a sense, this quote summarises the point of this essay, which is that attaining sensitivity to Ki is indeed possible through training in certain practices. I’ve suggested breathing and stretching exercises, pattern training, adapted step-sparring and focussed free sparring. Since these practises are already part of the typical Taekwon-dojang, they can easily be adjusted to also enhance the development of Ki sensitivity.

Choi, Honghi. ITF Encyclopedia. Volume 1.
Heckler, Richard Strozzi. 1984. The Anatomy of Change: East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy. Boulder: Shambhala.
Tokitsu, Kenji (translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn). 2003. Ki and the Way to the Martial Arts. Boston: Shambhala.