An interesting perspective on kiai and audio vs. visual perception times from Tom Collings, a long time colleague of Stanley Pranin and veteran aikidoka.
Tom began martial arts training with karate in the 1960s and started aikido in the early-1970s. After earning his aikido black belt in New York, he spent three years training at the Aikido Hombu, Tokyo, and Iwama.
For 26 years, he worked for the NY State Corrections Department where his assignments included SOU – high risk parolee surveillance unit, fugitive parole violator search and apprehension, and parole officer for Level I — Violent Felony Offenders. Tom has also served as a police instructor, crisis intervention trainer, and night supervisor for a juvenile detention facility. He currently works with various security agencies in the New York area, recently assisting the Secret Service during the presidential election. He leads Aikido and Tai Chi training at the Long Island Asian Studies Center in Bellmore, New York.
I experienced an unfortunate incident in the past when a highly skilled fellow officer died after he was unable to react in time to an attack. Researching the issue of response time, I was surprised to discover the importance sound plays in reacting quickly, which shed light on how a recent aikido training injury occurred.
Research reveals that visual reaction time averages 250 milliseconds — assuming there is no freezing, panic, or hesitation on the part of the person who is being attacked. Visual perception is a relatively complex neurological process. Contrast this with auditory reaction time, which averages 170 milliseconds. Auditory perception is a more primitive survival-based sense. It is a simpler and more direct process in the brain. Seeing and hearing work best together and combined, allow response times under 150 milliseconds.
The night of the injury, I bowed in to an energetic young brown belt who is a very capable training partner. We had trained hard many times without injury. But this night, shortly after we began training, the sensei approached me requesting that I not kiai. The windows were open so “it will bother the neighbors.” I was a guest at that dojo and, like most modern aikido dojos, kiai is frowned upon. It is considered harsh and disruptive to the relaxed aikido atmosphere. I continued to train, but more quietly.
We were practicing a technique we had practiced together before safely. But this time my partner got popped — running right into my atemi. Although his nose wasn’t broken, he was seeing stars for a few moments. I felt bad and could not understand at the time why that occurred, since my partner seemed alert and attentive, and had responded safely in the past by parrying, throwing his head back, or taking a fall. Why was this time different?
Now I clearly understand what occurred. The difference in my partner’s reaction time was due to the absence of the auditory cue (kiai) to support his visual input. In other words, when both kiai and atemi were used to together, he instantly responded, but without kiai, his response was slower and less energetic.
Kiai has long been recognized in martial arts and military training as an essential tool for distracting and unbalancing an attacker, as well as energizing ki flow in the body. Anyone who witnessed or has heard recordings of O-Sensei training knows how much kiai was a part of his practice. I had never realized, however, until that incident, the importance of kiai as a safety element in our training. Now if I omit kiai from my movements, I move slower, since the reaction time of my partner will be slower.
Aikido without O-Sensei’s piercing sounds is still aikido, but understand that when you remove one element of budo, you need to modify other elements (i.e. speed) or it can be dangerous.
Aikido teachers should reevaluate their attitude towards kiai, encouraging students to kiai during training, not only because of its martial value, but also because it enhances reaction time for safer training.
A special thanks to Tom Collings for sharing his perspective and experience with the community. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please leave us a comment if you’d like to contribute to the conversation.
Tom also wrote this wonderful tribute to Stanley Pranin, founder of Aikido Journal.