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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > December, 2005 - Aiki Syntax Part III: Uke
by Ross Robertson

Aiki Syntax Part III: Uke by Ross Robertson

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Previously in this series, we've observed that the cycle of an aiki encounter follows the natural pattern of breath: inhalation and exhalation. This sets the theme for many basic activities in mundane life: we bring food and drink into our bodies, we observe, listen, feel, take in information and sensation. To do this well is the art of the tori, and this is the yin principle of aiki.

The complimentary element is the out-breath. We excrete, we produce, we speak, we build, we pursue a goal. Remember that kiai (shout) is made up of the same kanji as aiki, but in reverse order. We put our energy outward into the universe. To do this well is the discipline of the uke, the yang principle of aiki. Though our art is named "aikido," we should understand that "kiai-do" is an implicit and necessary component in all that we do.

In each case, Buddha and Goldilocks would agree that balance is achieved when we do these things in the right amount and proportion -- not too much, not too little... just right.

In training, we usually speak of "uke" and "tori (or nage)" as clearly defined roles, and a person is identified as one or the other for the full duration of the encounter. This is a useful convention, but it is really an oversimplification. As I've stated before, the roles are fluid with respect to the players involved. Tori is whoever is receiving and assimilating energy at a given moment, uke is whoever is expressing energy outward. To match this flow of energy between players (and, to a significant degree, the energy of the environment) is the essence of aikido.

When any or all of the players can match the cycle of kokyu (breath) in a reciprocal manner, then aiki can happen. In other words, an in-breath may be met with an out-breath, and an out-breath is met with an inhalation, so to speak. But meeting an attacker's kiai (here understood to mean any outward expression of force or energy) with a similar yang response is likely to lead to collision. And if both players are simultaneously adopting a yin attitude, then no encounter or exchange is really possible.

The fundamental thesis of this essay is that when these energies are appropriately harmonized, an essential order or sequence may be observed. This is the Aiki Syntax.

Expression of energy outward is the defining characteristic of uke. It does not matter if we are talking about a natural predator, a human assailant, a thief, a spiritual seeker, a lover, or a student of any discipline, the steps that must be taken in the attainment of the prize are the same.


Action begins when we become aware of the potential for more favorable conditions, and we must abandon our present state in pursuit of a goal or target. This can be to eliminate a perceived threat or to obtain something of benefit. It can be opportunistic, or methodically systematic. Regardless, something has become the center of our attention, and we move along a line of attraction to close with it. We seek openings, or we seek to create them. We move in such a way as to bring ourselves into the range of something we want to obtain or control.


Once we are in range and believe we can capture the initiative, we use our energies to seize the opportunity. This is the moment for predator, the stalker, or the assailant to pounce. Here is the striking, the grappling, the tackling. Or, this is when the lover professes devotion . Or when the student progresses, gaining an insight. In all cases, the quarry is in hand, the target has been acquired, we are locked and loaded. Time to fire.


An interesting decision must now be made. Have our efforts succeeded or failed? If there has been a success, we must now take action to keep what we've gained. The hawk returns to the nest with the fish. The lion guards the kill against marauders. The assailant drags the victim to a private place. The lover, having won favor, must now act to keep it. And the student must process their knowledge to make the grade. The prize must be secured.

And if we fail? The quarry has escaped, and so we must secure ourselves. The mugger must flee the scene, the hunter must not become the hunted. The spurned lover must heal their hurt, and the student must make up for poor performance. We keep or regain our balance, we take the fall and roll to our feet, or submit to the pin if necessary.


Like the Syntax for tori, this sequence is cyclical. Regardless of the outcome, we return to the pursuit, either immediately or eventually after rest and recovery. Predation continues, loving endures despite all, learning and practicing and adapting are endless endeavors. Fulfilled or empty, we return to the seeking.


I once heard that the Top Gun Academy sought to discover the best strategy for winning dogfights in aerial combat. From World War I to current conflicts, data was analyzed from field observation, personal experience, film, and historical records. After the evidence was compiled, the best tactic for sustained aerial combat could be summed up in one word:


In other words, the more time spent in an encounter, the likelier the chance for failure. In this case, failure can mean death, not just for the pilot, but possibly for fellow combatants and civilians as well. Instead, the tactics were boiled down to essential simplicity: See him, kill him, get away. If we add "repeat as necessary," we see that this closely matches the Aiki Syntax of Uke, at least in general principle.

Of course, in aikido practice, we are not trying to kill our partners. As uke, however, we are largely responsible for driving the encounter. To do this mindfully, we need to seek actual opportunities to strike or grab, and not stupidly imitate a gesture just to get things going. If our strike should land, we should let it land, but with adequate control to educate rather than destroy. If we grab, we should grab to control. In all cases, we must learn to protect (secure) ourselves in the process, by not inviting reversals unwisely, and being ready to escape perhaps by rolling away when appropriate. We need to be resilient enough to get up and do it again and again. In so doing, we serve not only our partners, but our own learning of aikido when expressed as kiai.

Although many conventions and agreements exist in the forms of aikido training, none of them need violate the principles listed here.

Commonly, the uke will attack and tori will defend. However, at the moment that tori takes control of the attacker, the roles have reversed and the uke is now the one defending. This is perfectly agreeable and efficient training, as each player gets a turn attacking and defending in a single encounter. (By "attack," I mean striking and grabbing in the ordinary sense, but also taking of balance, twisting or locking joints, throwing or subduing regardless of how gentle or forceful.)

Alternatively, the players may maintain their respective roles throughout the encounter. Uke (so called) is charged with pressing the attack continuously until the tori can successfully complete the form. Tori "breathes in" the attacker by opening, merging, grounding, and eventually releasing. In a more sophisticated view, tori may be seen as acting as a conduit for the earth, which is the true agent of receptivity. It is as if the ground is doing the inhaling.

Or the players may engage, ready at any moment to assume whichever role is advantageous, or which best matches the energy of their partner. This is more clearly seen in jyu waza, or freeform practice, but also has its place within preordained kata training.

Finally, we cannot conclude this essay without noting the "nested" nature of these roles. Truly, there is an element of yin in yang, and yang in yin. Tori is not passive, but rather receptive. Although ready to receive energy, senses are extended and we should feel expansive. So there is a yang quality in receptivity. As for uke, we need not be aggressive, but rather assertive. In the pursuit of a goal, we take in a lot of information, fluidly adjusting our course as necessary. So there is clearly a yin aspect to the pursuit In these ways uke and tori are twins, alike in every way except which side of the balance they happen to occupy.

Finally, things are made more complex by the choice of terms themselves. Both "uke" and "tori" denote taking or receiving. For students who wish to delve deeper into this mystery, I encourage you to research the Shinto deities Izanami and Izanagi, reportedly central to O-Sensei's underlying concept of aikido. According to the on line source "Encyclopedia Mythica" the names of these deities translate as "the female who invites," and "the male who invites" respectively.

When we practice aikido technique or form, we learn to imitate the expression of aikido. This may be necessary, but it can be misleading if we think we are actually "doing" aikido. And as the saying goes, "painted cakes do not satisfy hunger." Eventually (and I say the sooner the better) we must learn to practice those things which cause aikido to happen. Then, we are no longer trying to "do" something, but learning to partake of its happening.

The Aiki Syntax is intended as a simple step-by-step guide for matching these dual energies so they need never be in conflict. Seek/Open, Seize/Merge, Secure/Ground, Return/Release. Paired in this way, in this order, you can't go wrong. Perhaps the way of reconciling the estranged lovers Izanagi and Izanami, is as easy as breathing.

... and as difficult.

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