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Home > Columns > "The Grindstone" > October, 2005 - Uke is Never Wrong?

Uke is Never Wrong? by "The Grindstone"

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This column was written by Tarik Ghbeish.

"Uke is never wrong."

Have you heard that expression? I've certainly heard it many times, and even used it myself. I used to live and train by the ideas espoused behind this phrase.

As nage (or tori, or shite, depending on the system in which you train), I have spent many productive hours learning how to work with uke, engaging them into moving correctly so that I could practice the technique that sensei had presented. I tried many things, connecting, enticing, showing openings, goading, or luring, sometimes even using words. As I gained experience, less and less did I try to stick to the presented technique and more and more would I respond as seem dictated by uke's movement and energies. This, to me, seems the ultimate expression of aikido.

The idea offered by the phrase, "uke is never wrong", is that nage should be able to adapt to the moment, finding technique appropriate to the attack and ukemi offered, diverting and protecting our partners. With experience, a nage should even be able to find the technique they are supposed to be practicing.

Adaptable, connected, listening with eyes, body, and mind to the connection between partners, and knowing how to lead it into the desired technique. Uke is never wrong. A wonderful expression of our training; of nage's training.

Yet now, with the sweat and grime of experience, I see things a bit differently. There are many levels to practice.

Is uke never wrong? Of course, uke is capable of being wrong.

Do we not correct uke's attack? Do we not teach them how to fall? Don't we teach them the same skills we teach nage, skills of connectedness, balance, lowering of center, to RECEIVE the technique instead of to TAKE the fall?

If uke is never wrong, why do we engage in teaching uke anything?

We teach uke how to attack in order for uke to offer us a problem to study and solve.

We teach uke how to fall for their own protection, so that they can get up and present us with another problem.

We teach uke to be connected and to receive, truly receive the technique because it is the first step in learning kaeshiwaza (reversal techniques).

If uke can do no wrong, then ukemi is not truly a study worth engaging in. Yet we practice and study ukemi and pursue it's practice as the other half of our study of aikido. Some teachers even offer that only in the study of ukemi are found the real secrets, a real understanding of aikido. I, with my limited experience agree with this conclusion.

An excellent uke would be the best teacher a student of aikido could ever have. Yet one cannot arrive at this place, with this quality of ukemi without having been wrong a great deal in the process of learning and understanding their ukemi. Without learning.

As uke, listening with my eyes, body, and mind to the connection between my partner and myself, I am able to learn, REALLY learn about aikido.

As uke, I must learn to provide very clean, very clear attacks so that my partner can succeed, succeed as often as possible, with as correct form as possible. An uke who's attack would only allow the technique currently being studied to be practiced is an ideal uke. An uke who's attack is more amenable to a different technique is doing their partner no immediate favor.

If, as uke, my attack is not clean, sincere, and absolutely correct, I will begin to create habits in my partners movement, in their technique, that instead of aiding their study of aikido, will instead inhibit their study, build bad habits, pattern movements that may only by chance be educational and useful to my partner.

Even when I engage in active resistance, the quality of that resistance must be educational. It can frustrate my partner or it can inform my partner. To kill my center and resist my partners movement may have it's place, but the more I train, the less significance I lend to that method of practice.

As an experienced uke, I cannot simply choose to escalate our training into a competition, forcing my partner to resort to bad habits such as using too much of the wrong types of strength to throw me down.

Yet if I truly receive what my partner has to offer and make a sincere attempt to recover my balance in a predictable, yes predictable, manner, then my partner has all the opportunities I can offer them to study and understand the techniques we are engaged in studying.

At the same time, I am able to study the openings inherent in my partners form, preparing for other practices such as kaeshiwaza or randori. As my experience grows, I can find more options for recovering my balance and utilize those openings when our practice changes. As my partner's experience grows, I can begin to challenge them by altering my attacks, altering my recoveries. Yet still, I will not kill my center and simply stand in place.

Ukemi is the other half of aikido, arguably important, and yes, uke can most certainly be wrong. It is much more than simply falling down for your partner, much more than surviving.

I have trained with people who perceived ukemi as failure, telling me, "you won," when I throw them. No, I did not win, but they did lose.

Education itself is a study of failures and successes, with those who willingly fail the most and who study that "failure" usually becoming the individuals who learn and grow the most as well.

Seek out that "failure". Revel in it and become comfortable with it and teach your partners how to make you "fail" in the most enjoyable way and your attitude toward ukemi may change. Your attitude toward failure may change.

We must not ignore either ukemi or failure in our practice. Sometimes it is not the specific practices we engage in that mislead us, but instead the fundamental logic or attitude we use to motivate our practice.

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