It’s been around a year and a half since I’ve started training in a martial art informally called “Ki Aikido” that was created by Koichi Tohei (藤平光一). It is formally named “Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido”, and written in Japanese as 心身統一合氣道, which literally means “Aikido of Mind and Body Unification”. The casual term “Ki Aikido” is a bit odd since “ki” is already inside of the word”aikido”, but it’s short and easy to remember (not to mention it highlights the emphasis on Ki) so it’s nonetheless appropriate.
While I train with a group of extremely skilled and experienced teachers, for some time I have been curious to read a book about this style of Aikido in its original language, which is of course Japanese. But for various reasons––including concerns about the difficulty of the book and juggling my time with reading Japanese novels and translation projects––I had put it off for quite a while.
It was two things that finally got me to read one of Tohei Sensei’s books: the fact my wife had already purchased one of them, plus a trip to Japan where I had scheduled to attend an Aikido training session in a dojo there (not to mention that I would have a lot of free time to read on planes, trains, and buses).
It turned out to be an great experience in many respects, easily one of the best books I have read in years (in Japanese or English).
As you can guess from this book’s title, “The Power of Ki”, it focuses on the mysterious thing called “Ki” that can be a little tricky to describe, but perhaps one of the simplest definitions is “the energy of the universe”. The word Ki is written in modern Japanese as 気 (although Tohei Sensei uses the character 氣 and provides detailed explanation why), and is a very integral element of the language; I don’t have an exact count but there are easily over 100 expressions or words that are about “Ki”. A few years back I wrote an article about a few of them here.
It may be a bit surprising to learn that this book actually doesn’t talk about what “ki” is in too much detail, though this is probably because the word is already intuitively understood by Japanese people (at least to a certain degree). What the book does talk about is the system of principles that Tohei Sensei established that relate to “Ki” in some way or another. All of them focus on the coordination of mind and body to achieve an improved state of being.
One of the key principles is as follows:
(seika no itten ni kokoro wo shizume touitsu suru)
This can be translated (somewhat literally) as:
“Calm your mind to a point in your lower abdomen and unify it”
However, this phrase is commonly translated into English as simply:
“Keep one point”
I am not going to go into the details now as why this translation is used, but maybe someday in another post I will.
One of the other key principles is:
氣を出す (ki wo dasu)
Literally this means something like “Put out Ki” or “Send Ki”, however the translation that is commonly used is “Extend Ki”.
With these two examples, I’m guessing you can start to see that some of Tohei Sensei’s rules are not exactly what you could call intuitive to English-speakers (at least not to me). How do you “Extend Ki” anyway? But it’s the challenge in grasping these concepts, and the great potential rewards in doing so, that makes this stuff so interesting.
The introduction of his fundamental principles are only a small part of the book. Roughly half of the book is made up from real-world examples of using these techniques, everything from his own personal experiences on the battlefield, to helping baseball players break new records, to those who have managed to overcome great disabilities as a result of said principles (and related techniques). While some might consider these stories anecdotal evidence, there’s a great number of them, several people who were involved went on to become famous, and I found most of them quite compelling––especially the case of Tohei Sensei himself who was a very sickly child and managed to become strong in body and mind.
Tohei Sensei also spends a good amount of time explaining some of the techniques he has created (or refined) to better grasp his principles. These include things like tests that help show if you are coordinating mind and body (and, accordingly, “extending ki”). There is also a section on an important breathing technique that aims to improve mind/body coordination. Most of the techniques have photographs that help to understand the exact postures or gestures involved. I especially appreciate the Ki tests because of how they add a (mostly) objective element to what is otherwise internal and abstract.
“The Power of Ki” also has a long section detailing Tohei Sensei’s experiences that helped him realize and refine upon his fundamental principles and techniques. The book doesn’t only talk about his interactions with Morihei Ueshiba (植芝盛平), the man who established Aikido, but also Nakamura Tenpu (天風中村), a man who spent a lot of time trying to understand mind and body unification.
Tohei Sensei also talks about a harsh type of traditional meditation called “misogi” that helped him make important connections leading to the establishment of Ki Aikido. Tohei Sensei was clearly a person of amazing ability and intellect, and made many new discoveries, but I was glad to see that he gave credit where it was due regarding where he got certain ideas of techniques from.
Having done a good deal of training in this style of Aikido already, I already knew much of the principles and techniques introduced in this book. But not only was there new content that filled in some questions and gaps I had, learning about things in Japanese that I had already learned in English was an educational experience.
While the book was written with pretty straightforward Japanese and clear wording to convey the central concepts, there was enough difficult Japanese to make me hesitate to recommend this to students who have less than a few years of Japanese study. In particular, the parts about Tohei Sensei’s time in the war and about baseball contained some unfamiliar words that I had to look up. Frankily, neither war nor sports are favorite topics of mine, but they were both very relevant to the content to this book, so I didn’t mind reading through those parts.
This book was originally published in 1990 and became a best seller in Japan at the time. The copy I read was an E-book version of a newer 2015 publishing, roughly four years after Tohei Sensei’s death in 2011 (he lived to 91). The end of the book contains a few notes and clarifications from Tohei Sensei’s son, Shin’ichi Tohei (藤平信一), who is now the head of the organization that Koichi Tohei established.
Despite the fact the book was first published nearly 30 years ago, much of the content is nearly the same, if not identical, from what I have learned in the Dojo here in Oregon. I think that is actually a good thing, since it shows how well the information has been preserved, even across language and cultural boundaries. There are some minor differences I have noticed, and over time I may investigate those to see how and why things changed.
Unfortunately, “The Power of Ki” doesn’t seem to have been translated into English. This is bad news for those that don’t read Japanese, however it makes this book even that more rewarding for those who can.
If you can’t read Japanese (or not well enough yet), you still have the option of reading one of Tohei Sensei’s other books that has been translated to English. This is one such book that I have seen recommended, though I haven’t read it myself. I have a feeling that much of the content in of “The Power of Ki” is already in the books that have been translated to English in one form or another, except maybe some of the details about Tohei Sensei’s life and how he came to develop his fundamental principles. You can see a list of Tohei Sensei’s books that have been translated to English here.
The book “Ki Breathing Methods” (氣の呼吸法) seems to share some of the content about Tohei Sensei’s life and some of the athletes he helped succeed. You can see a summary of that book here, on the blog of his son Shin’ichi.
For me, it was very rewarding to tighten the link between two of my biggest hobbies: Japanese and Ki Aikido. If you are interested in Tohei Sensei’s style of Aikido and can read Japanese, I think this book is a must read. Even if you have never trained in Aikido before, I think this book has a lot of compelling and interesting parts that may still catch your interest. In fact, even if you can’t train in Aikido for whatever reason (no dojo nearby, etc.) I think this book is still a worthy read. Ironically, while the content of “The Power of Ki” is tied strongly to Ki Aikido, the book doesn’t assume you know anything about it.
The reason this book can be enjoyed standalone is tied to one other fundamental thing that sets apart Ki Aikido from some of the other styles of Aikido. The ultimate objective of all the studying, training, and meditation is not to be able to do showy techniques on the mat (although that is still fun)––it is to apply what you learned to everyday life and ultimately improve your quality of life with respect to pretty much everything: business, interpersonal relationships, you name it. An important element of this book that Tohei Sensei mentions several times throughout is how his principles (especially “extend Ki”) are tightly related to a positive (or “plus”) mindset, something that I think most of us need more of. That’s why I feel that the time and effort put into learning his teachings is very likely to be a worthy investment, at least for me personally.
If you are interested in reading this book in English please leave a comment on this post. Maybe someday we can get one published.
(Note: the book itself contains the subtitle “The Great Power of Ki”, however several places online refer to the book as “The Power of Ki” so I have used that title in this review. Personally I prefer the former title, though.)