The loud thundering scream often heard from martial artists while executing a technique or attack, and portrayed in films and other media, is more than a mere form of theatrics.
Much like the technique, discipline, and mastery of the style, the brief forceful yell that emanates from the contraction of the diaphragm plays an integral part in many types of martial arts.
Japanese martial artists practicing aikido, karate, kobudo, kendo, or judo refer to it as the Kiai. Students of the Korean styles such as taekwondo call it Kihap, while muay Thai practitioners use the sound Aish. Iconic kung-fu legend Bruce Lee was also known for his screams during powerful attacks.
While Kiai is a compound of “ki”, meaning “energy or mood”, and “a”, “an emphatic marker”, Kihap is a compound of “ki” being the energy and “hap”, meaning “to join, to harmonize, or to amplify.”
Although its name may vary, the concept and application of the shout share a lot in common across the different disciplines.
Here are just some of the main concepts of the technique, known in the west as the Spirit Shout:
Usually delivered in one (“Hai!”) or two syllables (“Hiyah!”), the shout must emanate from the diaphragm instead of the throat as it supposedly helps in preventing damage to the stomach by tightening its core muscles. The technique is believed to provide extra power in offensive and defensive motion.
As with any form of heavy physical activity, martial arts require energy and more oxygen. The shout allows the student develop proper breathing technique when attacking, involving a forced and trained rapid exhalation of breath. Such technique is later adopted by foreign martial arts as well as other combat sports.
The shout also aids in providing focus and channeling inner energy, allowing the student to impart more power to punches and kicks.
Just like a battle cry, the shout also serves as a fighter’s declaration of confidence, meant to either startle an opponent, intimidate or express a fighting spirit. Letting out a fierce Kiai or Kihap with a proper stance indicates that you will not back down.
Despite advantages in applying such focused yelling, many Chinese kung fu styles, and other combat sports such as boxing, do away with the practice. This is due to the methods they employ involve long explosive movements, requiring several techniques to be performed with one breath. As combinations in boxing and some kung fu are executed in quick bursts, yelling would prove to be counterproductive.