breathe in, breathe out

As an atheist, rationalist and all-around humorless asshole, I don’t go in for a lot of Eastern mysticism. I don’t think much of reiki. I don’t believe in the healing power of crystals, or cranio-sacral touch, or reflexology. I think ear candling’s a dangerous fraud. I don’t trust acupuncturists or chiropractors.

So you wouldn’t think I’d be big on ki.

Watching Vlad promote to black belt at jiu-jitsu this past Saturday, I took a moment to revisit my thoughts on ki. Vlad’s built like a linebacker – big but fit, in full control of his mass. But he moves with a fluidity that speaks to incredible control over his own body. When Vlad throws you, you don’t feel the tension of exertion behind it. You feel a smooth, continuous projection, like a roller coaster cresting a hill. That’s the kind of energy it takes to toss someone to the ground using only your hands, or to break through a stack of boards with a single chop while kneeling in front of them.

The human body is a pretty efficient machine for directing force into one fine point. Think about it: your body has enough fine control to turn a deadbolt, enough raw power to lift a box of books, enough coordination to ride a bicycle and enough balance to descend a staircase. That’s a remarkable variety of tasks. But too often, if we’re using our body without training, we dissipate that force. We lift heavy boxes by bending at the back instead of the knees, or we try to turn a deadbolt while holding four bags of groceries. Instead of directing our muscles to their most precise use, we let them run wild.

It gets even worse in a fight, when adrenaline ramps up our reflexes. Our arms flail in crazy windmills. We hold our breath, filling our body with tension, and lean forward on our toes as if to spring. We swarm and crush, but we don’t fight effectively. How much better to dispel that tension – forcing your body to relax, directing energy from where it’s wasted (keeping the entire body rigid) to where it’s needed (the hand, the leg, the arm, etc).

Think of the incredible coordination required for Dwight Howard to dunk a ball from nearly the free throw line. Every muscle must be working in unison to that goal alone – legs, torso, arms, hands. He couldn’t pull that off if he just had a powerful jump, or merely had good ball control. It takes athleticism, coordination and practice.

That’s ki. Strip it of the mysticism, and ki is shorthand for the control and awareness of one’s own body that comes with years of practice at a given task. It’s what lets me push away an opponent half again my weight when I couldn’t bench that much, even on steroids. It’s what lets the world’s greatest athletes perform in the clutch. And it’s what carried my friend and fellow instructor Vlad through his black belt test this past Saturday.

Call it what you’ve like, but I’ve seen it. It’s real.

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