The Benefits of Kiai for Sharpening Focus & Form for Breakfalls (or Anything!)

Recently I was working with Rick, my stellar 65-year-old Jiu-jitsu student, on a couple of his higher impact breakfalls (breakfall #8 and #9 in Can-ryu). He had been working on improving them diligently for over a year now, trying to overcome his fear of falling hard. Being an older guy, he is naturally a little scared about hurting himself. As a result, he has always found himself holding his breath, tensing up and resisting the flow of energy when doing these higher impact falls, when what he needed to do was quite the opposite; he needed to breathe out and relax to take the edge off the impact, and go with the flow so his body could naturally turn into the ideal falling position.¬†For months we gave him the same type of feedback, making very gradual progress all the while, but then he reached a plateau and he wasn’t making the jump he needed to really “get” the breakfall.

Then we added the kiai.

I could see that he knew all the feedback and was always trying to put it together, but it always seemed like one factor or another would get left out. Last week, I got some time to work with him one on one and I told him to try doing a kiai as he did his breakfall #9. At first, it was a bit awkward, mostly because he was timing the kiai as he initiated the fall rather than when he made impact, but then it all came together. He started to breathe in as he initiated the movement, then made a strong kiai as he hit the ground. And it was decent! When I asked him how it felt, he told me it felt good too. I knew we were on to something so I got him to do it again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Again, he did the fall well. Then we tried the same method with breakfall #8 (a similar fall, but a little more difficult). Again, the performance was repeated. We were both smiling ear-to-ear. I then gave him a double high five and a big hug, gushing about how happy I was that he got it. Check out the video below to see Rick taking falls.

Rick explained to me how the kiai helped him. “When I added the kiai, I stopped thinking. I was in the moment and just letting it all come together.”

The kiai, is not simply a tool for distraction and gaining witnesses or a way of increasing your power, it’s also a way of bringing everything into focus into one moment, the one that counts. It helps you get rid of all the junky thoughts you think in your head that hold you back, bringing you into that one moment in time so you can just let your body do what it’s been trained to do. Of course, having a good kiai on its own won’t make you good at something you haven’t learned and trained, you still have to put your time in. Rick put in many months of work on those breakfalls, never giving up even though his learning has been far more incremental than it has been for other students 20-40 years younger than him. Adding the kiai though helped him forget all his fears and about making a conscious effort to do it, so he could bring all that training together into his fall. And we’re proud of him for it. It gives us all hope that maybe we don’t necessarily have to slow down so much when we hit our senior years. Rick only started his training in his 60s, so that means if us young whipper-snappers keep it up, we should be just fine when we get to his age.

Have you got any stories of how a kiai was used to help you do your best in a particular moment? Please share in the comments. Need help with your kiai? Read Kiai: What It’s for and How to Do It.

4 thoughts on “The Benefits of Kiai for Sharpening Focus & Form for Breakfalls (or Anything!)

  1. I can understand not wanting to be fall. After I sprained my ankle and started training again, I was afraid of being thrown: I’m starting to get over the fear though. It can definitely make breakfalling a lot harder if you’re scared/tense and don’t relax.

    Also I like that you reference previous blog posts in current ones.

  2. Fantastic post! One of the joys of teaching is when a struggling student “gets it” after spending considerable time on something as with your 65 year old student and his struggles with breakfalls. I have a 78 year old student named Alan who has been training with me for 3 years and he’s a joy to work with. A Scotsman with a wonderful accent and great life stories. I look forward to each private lesson with him.

    Keep up the great work!

    BTW, is your blog optimized for mobile devices?

  3. He showed clean form, it’s still a little rough around the edges but I’m sure he’ll improve even more as he progresses in his training: kudos to him. Falling isn’t something that comes natural to the human animal and most people (including myself) initially have problems with it, especially the front roll. Once I even hit the mat head first resulting in a bloody nose… The stain couldn’t be washed out and unless they changed mats in the meantime my blood still forms a warning against bad breakfalling (lol).

    As the kiai: using one’s breath correctly can increase one’s focus and power so it’s a useful tool, in general we don’t make much use of the traditional kiai (an audible shout as in traditional martial arts like karate or taekwondo) but we lean more to the kick/thaiboxing way of expelling air (hissing) with each punch or kick. This is much easier when using combinations (which you should always use, for obvious reasons) and we don’t put much stock in the karate philosophy of ‘hikken hisatsu’.

    I’m glad you still find joy and satisfaction in teaching, keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *