How the awareness and practice of Plus Ki can help our aikido and our daily life.
The word Ki has many meanings. In the context of aikido, we need to be aware of the meanings that are relevant to our practice.
Ki can mean the source of life—one’s vitality—that maintains us from birth to death. There is no medical correlate to this meaning, as western biology and medicine have not yet figured out what ultimately drives life’s processes.
Ki can also mean one’s energy—one’s ability to do things. Scientifically, this is explained through the processes of nutrient metabolism in the mitochondria and the subsequent oxidation in the muscles. However, in budo and aikido, this meaning of ki also relates to one’s awareness and one’s ability to focus energy to create power in movement.
A third meaning is one’s attitude, or emotional state, which in western psychology is said to be determined by conscious and subconscious beliefs. Thus, a person’s ki determines how they respond to a situation, whether effectively or ineffectively.
The thing with the Japanese language, as with other rich ancient languages, is that the “different” meanings are ultimately related. Our challenge is to come to a profound understanding of the root meanings of these words.
This is particularly challenging for those brought up in a western Positivist worldview, that is, the scientific worldview that is currently accepted as the “right” one. It is frustrating for such people to be presented with nebulous, apparently unclear, concepts which cannot be defined precisely. There is a reason for this. Didn’t Lao-Tze, in the Tao Te Ching, say “the Tao that can be defined is not the Tao, the Tao that cannot be defined is the Tao”? This means that true understanding is not simply gained by definition; it is gained by the work of internal contemplation, and subsequent insight.
Koichi Tohei, one of the early students of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, and the leading teacher to spread it to the west, tried to explain Ueshiba’s worldview in simple language. Tohei believed that, to understand and perform aikido to the highest levels, the worldview was as important as the technique.
Plus ki and minus ki
Coming back to the third meaning of ki given above—that is, attitude—Koichi Tohei considered that this meaning was not only important for how effectively we learn aikido, but for how we effectively we navigate life and the many scenarios it presents us.
While many are attracted to the martial arts and aikido in order to protect themselves from violence in the streets, the fact is that we meet most conflict and challenge in the daily course of our lives. How well do we cope with those conflicts? How well do we “do life”? In short, how happy are we?
Thus, having the right attitude, or being in the right state, creates more ideal results in our life. This is what Tohei called “Plus Ki.” And of course, the opposite of that, “Minus Ki,” brings less-than-ideal results. This is talked about in New Age literature as “being positive” and “being negative.”
My problem with the New Age approach to “being positive” is it ended up being merely a mental exercise, for example, pepping yourself up by affirming to yourself, “it’s ok, be happy.” As someone who tended to generally be unhappy, it didn’t work well for me.
Plus Ki is not just a mental state; it is an energetic state. Or, more correctly, it is a whole-person state. You could visualise it as a state where everything flows clearly, smoothly, and strongly. This brings not only mental clarity and confidence, but also ease of movement and good health, and emotional balance. Everything is “in the Zone.”
The opposite, “Minus Ki,” brings mental confusion, lack of confidence, victimhood, anxiety, and depression. It brings emotional swings and predominantly “negative” states of ineffectiveness. It brings lack of energy, poor metabolism, and ultimately, declining health.
I became aware of this dichotomy, this Yin-Yang of ki, when I resumed my aikido practice after a 25-year hiatus. I was determined to apply my ki learnings of the 80s and 90s to my aikido, even though the club I practised in did not explicitly emphasise ki. My state started changing; years of depression, a sense of victimhood, and feeling barely half-alive lifted, and I started regaining control of myself.
On re-reading Tohei’s Ki in Daily Life recently, I realised the following:
There is only Plus Ki or Minus Ki, there is no in-between neutral state.
They are discrete, like life and death. Either there is a flow or there isn’t.
The state I am in is a constant choice.
In my life I had let Minus Ki creep up on me because I had failed to choose Plus Ki. My failure to choose resulted in feelings of victimhood—of being trapped. But it was a trap of my own making! It is very difficult to point this out to victims, because they don’t realise the trap they have created.
The only way to break out of this Minus Ki trap, I think, is to lift your energy, to rebuild the flow.
So I decided to do a regular practice. By practice, I don’t just mean practising on the mat, I mean a daily practice of awareness. Only by building a habit of awareness can we see what state we are in, and change it if it is not ideal.
This is what I did as part of my practice, especially over the lockdown periods of Covid.
Physical movement - daily stretching, regular walking, aikido practice.
Energy awareness - doing the above while visualising or feeling flow of ki.
Breath awareness - slow, deep breathing, with awareness of flow of ki.
Good eating - eating freshly-made food, quality ingredients, high-water content foods, less refined sugars and starches, and eating smaller quantities.
Meditation - creating mental space, clearing the mind.
Emotional and spiritual nourishment - connecting with nature, being creative, more social interaction.
Of course, different people will have different ways. I think the main idea is the almost-constant awareness and choice-making. Eventually it becomes a habit. I tried to practise keeping my centre (Keeping One Point), and extending ki in everything I did.
Initially, I did not specifically practise cultivating “Plus Ki.” This is because, previously, I had thought the concept of Plus/Minus Ki was quite simplistic and childish, and I had dismissed it as superficial. It is only in the last few weeks, on re-reading Ki in Daily Life, that I realised that is what I had actually been practising over the last three years!
I believe the teachings of Koichi Tohei have been dismissed by many of his fellow teachers and their students, because they did not realise the significance of what he was offering. Some of them believed he was straying from the “true” teachings of aikido. On the other hand, if a teaching is based on universal principles or even laws, it can only support the learning of aikido, because the founder presented aikido as based on natural laws.
How does Plus Ki help aikido practice?
If one is to accept Ueshiba’s teachings, I believe that Plus Ki is foundational for aikido practice. This is because aikido was Ueshiba’s life; and his worldview—also his life—included a profound awareness and understanding of ki. His worldview and his aikido cannot be separated, as many teachers and practitioners have tried to do.
Here is how Plus Ki affects aikido practice:
Plus Ki determines the learning attitude.
A sceptical, distrusting mind (Minus Ki) is not an ideal receptacle for learning, while an eager and open mind (Plus Ki) absorbs learning like a sponge.
Plus Ki in the teacher instills Plus Ki in the students.
I always enjoyed my teacher’s classes and came out of them buzzing with energy and new insights. For some students, their aikido practice can be a vital source of Plus Ki in their lives.
Plus Ki is protective.
In a class with Plus Ki, there are never any major injuries. Even in a class of 100, people roll and miss each other by inches.
When you extend Plus Ki, your response to attack is instantaneous.
With Plus Ki, you feel the attacker’s intent as soon as they commit. Response then flows smoothly with the attack.
With Plus Ki, aikido is effortless.
With Plus Ki, you have relaxed power that blends with the attacker. You surprise yourself with your techniques!
With Plus Ki, ukemi is exhilarating.
The attacker (uke) feels light, balanced at all times, and can do ukemi almost all night long!
With Plus Ki, you discover the essence of aikido.
As you relax more, you become more sensitive and aware, and you start to understand the techniques and their principles. With deepening understanding comes spontaneous response and vast reserves of power. This is what is called embodied learning.
We try to look for complex solutions to the issues in our lives, and we often tend to overlook the simple solutions because they appear too simple—how could they possibly work? I overlooked the idea of Plus Ki for almost 30 years, dismissing it as too simplistic and unsophisticated. However, by embracing the concept of Plus Ki, and working with it, we find that it involves all aspects of our lives. I believe it helps make us aware of tidying up the strands so our energy feels more integrated and whole.
When we get beyond the techniques, aikido is very simple. We move from the simplicity of the beginner, to the complexity of the student, eventually to the simplicity of mastery, which in itself is a lifetime project. In my own experience, the journey of aikido and Plus Ki have been the same.
Reference: Tohei, K. (1978). Ki in Daily Life. Ki No Kenyukai, Tokyo, Japan.