When I was training in Aikido, our head instructor, Sensei “Koa” Kimura was an older (actually, only in his mid-fifties) local Japanese man. He was solidly built, with thick muscular wrists and forearms…this was apparent to me, a frequent “attacker” who had to grab his wrist or arm or gi before getting slammed into the mat. My dad told me that Kimura Sensei worked in a car repair shop as a “body and fender man”, which explained the strength of his upper body and arms. His primary teaching method was to demonstrate technique by throwing or taking down an uke and have us copy him (typical Japanese methodology). His explanations/exhortations were pretty much limited to: “Yoop! Yoop!” (his form of kiai), “Shoulders down!”, and “Focus on One Point.” When we did the technique with some semblance of correctness, he’d exhort in rapid fire fashion, ” You see! You see! You see!” If we did it wrong, he’d say, “Chikara…No good!”. Chikara, of course, means bodily strength and in Aikido, we were trying to develop technique and reliance on mysterious Ki force versus using physical power. Ironically, on one of his frequent trips to the islands back in the 1960’s, I overheard Tohei Sensei (then-top disciple of O-Sensei) gently scolding Kimura Sensei for using too much chikara in his techniques.
In those days, I was the same height as today, but about 40 pounds lighter. I was a skinny teenager and one night, I asked the assistant instructor his opinion of karate, which one of my friends was taking. He said that all martial arts were good in their own way. Then he said something that was to stick in my head…”If I were younger, I’d take up karate, heh heh.” While Kimura Sensei was a powerful figure of a man…he was kind of an anomaly in our dojo (I suspect his physique was due to his livelihood). Over time, I noticed that many of the excellent senior aikido practitioners might be clearly overweight, especially in the belly (more mass in the One Point?) or rather flabby…testament to their emphasis on Ki versus strength. By comparison, the long-time karate practitioners I saw, all seemed to be in pretty good shape, physically. Being young and somewhat vain, I thought that if Karate training meant looking leaner and more fit instead of soft when I got older, that was a better art for me, haha. Not long thereafter, I decided to begin training in Shotokan.
Today, there is ongoing debate about the value of Ki/Chi, and whether this force actually even exists. I don’t know the answer, although I have experienced some amazing demonstrations of power that were explained to me as such. What I do know is that the years I’ve spent training and teaching karate-do seem to have kept me in decent physical shape. Especially the purposeful use of kime in exercise, coupled with stretching for flexibility, which I think have helped me maintain better musculature well into my fifties than I deserve.
There’s no real secret as to why serious karateka often look lean and hard well into their sixties and seventies…there’s a lot of physical training that involves strong kime of muscles throughout the body. While we do extensive stretching, and the drills help build up internal conditioning, it’s the hundreds/thousands of times one kimes during the course of each training that helps tighten/strengthen the body’s muscles. Karate involves proper timing in the use of relaxation and kime. Relaxation here refers to the lack of tension, enabling one to move the body and limbs at maximum speed…followed by powerful contraction of muscles throughout the body during the split second of impact, penetration and thrust – kime. If I were to generalize, most men enter karate training with too much kime and have to learn to relax. By contrast, most women face the challenge of learning how to kime.
The basic techniques and drills are meant to develop kime, and not just in the striking arm or leg, but coordinated throughout the entire body. Due to this emphasis during basics, white and color belts often develop a long, hard kime. Even their kiais will often be long in duration. However, as training continues, the students become exposed to multiple combinations and stutter-step. These advanced techniques rely more on timing, speed, and accuracy than was required early on. As a result, the length of kime shortens, becomes more precise…in “short”, becomes sharper.
So, while I enjoyed my Aikido training and agree that being able to do more with less is an excellent philosophy of life, I really do appreciate the two major benefits that kime have given to this old guy: learning to make judicious use of power through sharp kime, and helping slow down muscle loss. Maybe if I keep it up, in fifteen years, I’ll look half as good as Sempai James and Kohai Warren, who are both in their seventies!