Aikido book review: 気の呼吸 (“Ki Breathing”) by 藤平信一 (Shin’ichi Tohei)

By | October 30, 2021

Kouichi Tohei (藤平光一) was a skilled martial artist who leveraged difficulties in his life to reach an amazing level of ability, and went on to established his own style of Aikido called Ki-Aikido, more formally known as Shin Shin Touitsu Aikido (心身統一合氣道). But he did more than simply practice physical martial arts techniques; Tohei Sensei focused heavily on the “Ki” (気 or 氣) aspect, to the point of developing many exercises and principles that aim to more fully control one’s mind, perform to the best of one’s abilities, and ultimately lead a better life. The organization he created to teach these things, namely Ki training including Ki-Aikido, is called “Ki Society” (referred to in Japanese as 気の研究会 or more formally 心身統一合気道会).

Tohei Sensei passed away in 2011, and his son Shin’ichi Tohei (藤平信一) has run the organization ever since, traveling around the world to give seminars on Ki principles and applying them to various domains. Tohei Sensei authored around 20 books in his lifetime (a handful of which are still available in English), and his son has continued this trend with around ten books so far.

As you might have guessed, I myself have trained in Ki-Aikido and Ki principles for a few years now, and while I have great local teachers, I like to stay in the loop with Shin’ichi Sensei’s writings. Not only does this give me a different perspective on things, but I also get to enrich my Japanese abilities (his printed books at this point are only in Japanese as far as I know).

Now that I have given a bit of context, I can focus on the book itself, which is titled ”Ki Breathing” (気の呼吸) and was released just over a month ago by Sunmark Publishing (サンマーク出版). Actually, if you read the smaller print on the cover, the full title is “Ki Breathing to use your mind and body fully” (心と体が自在に使える「気の呼吸」).

This title initially surprised me since Tohei Sensei himself had released a book with a similar title, 気の呼吸法 (“Ki Breathing Method”). In fact, you can find what appears to be a full translation of the book on Shin’ichi Sensei’s blog (in English) here. But in “Ki Breathing”, Shin’ichi explains what brought about the creation of his new book.

Earlier this year, Shin’ichi Sensei appeared in a full-length NHK program that focused on Ki principles and applying them to improve daily life. I was lucky to be able to watch it, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in streaming anymore (though I expect it eventually will be made available on places like Amazon). Shin’ichi Sensei says that after this program aired he received many requests for more information, and decided to write “Ki Breathing” in response.

It’s no secret that some of the content in “Ki Breathing” has already appeared in some form in Shin’ichi Sensei and/or Tohei Sensei’s books (not to mention much of it would be taught in an introductory Ki training class in a dojo). But what makes this book really stand out is its readability and laser focus on what I feel are some of the most important teachings in Ki Society: Ki principles, Ki breathing, and the “one point”, plus information to help you understand these things better and apply them in daily life. Like his other books, content is broken up into short chapters, each of which are usually no more than 2-4 pages, and there are a couple of nice illustrations to help explain important points about posture.

The book begins with a chapter about when Shin’ichi Sensei came to the US to teach Ki principles to the Dodgers baseball team back in 2010. While this is a story I had heard of before, some of the details were new to me, like the story of when a baseball player asked Tohei if he could strike a real baseball bat against a wooden bokken sword (spoiler: the sword didn’t break). But regardless of whether you are a baseball fan or not (I’m not particularly into baseball myself), it’s a compelling way to begin the book and show there is real merit in the teachings of the Ki Society.  

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about the “one point” (臍下の一点), which is not only our physical center of balance, but also our mental center of balance; it’s the place that we think about to calm our mind and relax our body. In a previous book of his I was a little confused by the description of exactly where the “one point” is, so I was glad to see Shin’ichi Sensei going into that in much more detail here. There is even a step-by-step exercise for finding your one point. Finally, he mentioned where your one point moves when you sit on a chair (roughly on the surface of the chair), when you sit in seiza (the same place when you are standing, a ways below your belly button), and when you take other arbitrary positions (here he says simply to not worry about it, since trying to figure that out will only cause tension in your body).

At the core of Ki principles is the idea that we are part of the universe, and by doing things such as Ki breathing and focusing on our one point we can improve our exchange of Ki with all things. When we are having a rough time or feeling sad about something, often we can get into a state he calls 孤 (ko), which can be translated as “alone” or “lonely”. This may involve becoming fixated on some idea or even on ourselves. But remembering we are part of something much, much larger will help us relax, think more clearly, and as a result we may notice things start to improve in our life. 

Yes, this talk about connecting to the universe is a little esoteric, and for people like me who tend to think about things scientifically it can be a little difficult to accept initially. But just from the handful of exercises in the book I think you can start to experience the value of Ki principles yourself. By the way, in “Ki Breathing” Shin’ichi Sensei also goes into the basics of “Ki testing” (気のテスト), one of the important differences between Ki-Aikido and other styles of Aikido. These Ki tests can be done anywhere as long as you have another person to help, and can be used to demonstrate how simply focusing on your “one point” can cause noticeable changes in your body.

Near the end of the book he goes into more examples of how people have applied Ki principles to help succeed in sports, business, or other areas. The cases of a professional climber and a NASCAR racecar driver were particularly interesting. There was also a discussion about how when practicing Aikido (or other sports), we shouldn’t strive to collide (衝突) with our opponent, but rather understand (理解) and lead (導く) them.

While I referred to “Ki Breathing” in the title as an “Aikido book”, in reality there are only a few places that explicitly talk about Aikido. But understanding and execution of the Ki principles are an important part of being able to do proper Ki-Aikido. If I had to categorize this book, I’d say it falls into the self-help (自己啓発) genre.

For those learning Japanese with a good knowledge of kanji and understanding of grammar, I think this is a good book to use for reading practice because of the straightforward writing style. I’m sure you will come across some unfamiliar words, but for the most part the words and kanji that are used are pretty common. (You may not know words like 滞る [todokooru] though, which means “to be blocked”). For those who do read Japanese fluently and are interested in learning more about Ki principles, I would suggest this as a good place to start. From what I have seen the fundamental principles in Ki Society have not changed since Tohei established them decades ago, but some of the ideas (or how certain things are explained) have gradually evolved, so it’s good to start with the most up-to-date information. For example, in this book Shin’ichi Sensei tells the story of how the English phrase “keep one point” has evolved into “set one point” because of how the former wording caused an over-emphasis on constantly thinking about one’s “one point”.

One thing that surprised me about this book was how in most places, including the title itself, the word “Ki” is expressed using the modern character “気”. This felt a little odd because Tohei Sensei himself had said that the traditional character “氣”, was more appropriate because of how it expresses “Ki” going in all directions (whereas the modern version replaces the 米 part with a メ as an abbreviation, destroying the original meaning). Shin’ichi himself used the traditional character in the title of several of his books. However, Shin’ichi Sensei does point this out partway through the book, and I’m guessing that he chose the modern character (気) because of readers’ common familiarity with it. Nevertheless, the word for Ki-Aikido (心身統一合氣道) is still written with the more traditional character throughout the book.

While I think it would be great for an English translation of this book to be published someday, for the time being you can check out Shin’ichi Sensei’s blog where he posts about many of the same topics in English. Ki Society also has a YouTube channel that has gotten some activity in the past few months. Finally, you can check out my other articles on Aikido and Ki principles, including reviews of other books by Shin’ichi Sensei and his father.

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