The Ki Component: Internal Energy Development Strategies for Karateka

Every few years, I reach into my martial arts library and pull out The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. I re-read it cover to cover as a refresher in the core philosophies underlying karate as a martial art and a way of life.

My recent read reminded me of the book’s recurring references to internal energy development in karate training. The book recounts how the Chinese and Okinawan masters emphasized the importance of cultivating energy – ki in Japanese, qi in Mandarin Chinese – to maximize the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of training. The Bubishi reminds us of the importance of energy development from two perspectives: increasing the effectiveness of karate technique, and fostering long-term health and vitality.

The concept of ki shouldn’t be foreign to karate practitioners. After all, the word “kiai” begins with the word “ki,” denoting the martial artist’s vocalization and use of internal energy to power a strike and – more broadly – to convey maximum focus and intent in combat.

There are many popular examples of applied internal energy in the martial arts. Okinawan Kiko (Japanese for qi kung) masters show the ability to withstand full-force strikes to their most vulnerable areas by channeling ki to those locations. Breaking experts demonstrate how to summon their ki to power through multiple stacks of boards or bricks. Aikido masters show how to keep completely unmovable – while others try in vain to lift them! – by remaining physically rooted through ki.

3 ways to Develop Internal Energy

So how can you introduce energy development into your karate if you don’t do so already? Here are three ways before, during and after training.    

  1. Before: Warm up with kiko/qi kung “tapping” – Add this to your preparatory routine. This simple technique involves gently tapping the acupuncture points that run along the arms, legs, and back in order to activate the body’s “meridians” – the channels through which ki flows. Karate kata are derived from Chinese animal styles (eg, Fujian White Crane), which feature orchestrated movements designed in large part to generate ki. Similarly, during kata, ki cascades through the body. Making tapping a part of your warm up exercises can help maximize ki flow during kata and other technique-based exercises.
  2. During: Perform a kata at Tai Chi pace – Try a kata at the same slow tempo as Tai Chi. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing as you move through the form, inhaling through the nose when chambering and then exhaling through the mouth on the strike or block. Try to eliminate bodily tension (excess tension restricts the flow of ki). Keep the body loose and flexible. Ensure that you maintain correct posture, as you may be challenged from a balance standpoint at first. Choose whatever kata you like, and try to visualize and sense the ki moving through your meridians as you slowly execute the form.  
  3. After: Practice “standing like a tree” – Zhan zhuang is the Chinese practice of standing qi kung. In this exercise, you adopt a standing pose with corresponding hand position, along with deep diaphragmatic breathing. You remain completely still … like a tree. Yet ki is streaming through your meridian “root system” and thus nourishing your internal organs. (The Chinese refer to this as “movement through stillness.”) Zhan zhuang is a great way to end a karate workout – settling the body and mind, while further fostering ki. It is essentially a meditative exercise, and breathing-focused meditation is another traditional component of the martial arts. Consider why the samurai embraced Zen meditation as part of their budo training. Their goal was to learn how to calm their minds and be completely “centered” in battle, where any loss of focus could result in instant death at the hands of a katana-wielding opponent. Meditation and energy development go hand-in-hand. One can say they’re two sides of the same coin.

Getting Started

For three years, I cross-trained in Pa Kua Chang in order to integrate qi kung exercises into my daily karate practice. Pa Kua is the internal martial art Master Chojun Miyagi studied in China, which he later incorporated into Goju-Ryu karate, as evidenced by the style’s soft, circular techniques.

Let me emphasize that I am not a qi kung expert. For those serious about learning internal energy development techniques, it’s advisable to seek out an experienced sifu/sensei who can teach you the effective and safe practices of qi kung. For those who want to learn the basics and try the tapping and Zhan zhuang practices outlined above, search the many educational videos on YouTube. There are also countless books on the subject.  

My friend and one-time acupuncturist, Dr. Richard Ming Chin, has published a new eBook, The Power of Qi Kung: Maximum Energy for Life. It’s a comprehensive introduction to qi kung by an internationally renowned martial arts expert who holds an 8th degree black belt in Shito-Ryu karate and master-level rankings in Jow Ga kung fu, and Tai Chi Chuan.

Some say martial arts training is eminently incomplete without energy development work. And, clearly, many contemporary dojos are lacking in this traditional aspect of training.

I believe that many advanced karate practitioners already know the basics of energy development. Indeed, The Bubishi sets forth the notion that energy development is inherent in all styles of karate. It follows that there are, most likely, internal energy exercises within your system. It pays to look deeply for them.

By recognizing that ki development is a key component of karate training, you can immediately begin to benefit by it.

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Sensei Mark Clemente, Glen Rock, NJ, has been training in Goshin Kagen Goju Karate-Do under Shihan Ed DiNardo since 1998. He has additional training in aiki-jujutsu and Ch'iang Shan Pa Kua Chang.