It Had To Be Felt #63: Sugano Seiichi: "Alive Ukemi/Dead Ukemi"
I once asked Sugano sensei what correct ukemi was. "There is alive and there is dead," he replied. When I asked him what he meant, he said, "Uke is to move, receive technique, become technique. O-Sensei broke from traditional martial arts. Aikido is about life. Ukemi is rolling. Uke moves, receives energy, body becomes technique." He said that in older martial arts, they were about fighting and killing, so the person took falls. "When person takes fall, that is not ukemi. That is death. They are dead. Older arts are just killing. Ukemi is rolling because person is alive and continue. Aikido is circle, like life. Ukemi is to live not die."
He held up his hand. "This is correct ukemi. Uke like air around hand. You feel nothing, but they are there." He moved his hand. "When you move, hand feel the air then. Same with uke. O-Sensei wanted uke like water, light and moving. Correct ukemi is to move, be light, in contact with nage."
Sugano sensei told me this because, as an uchideshi in the New York Aikikai, ukemi was a particular bedevilment of mine. I have always had a weight and gravity to my frame and movement (or lack thereof), even when I was at my lightest. For about the first year of my nearly three years as an uchideshi, I was terrible, usually simply standing there unmoving for a technique. Yamada sensei stopped using me because I was so bad ("BRIAN!" he would shout—about a lot of things—but particularly my horrible ukemi), and would go on to select others. Sugano sensei, however, kept calling me up. He would give me two or three warnings, and finally drive through me like a tank, sending me smashing into the mat so hard other members would wince. Sensei would always be highly amused, eyes bright and laughing, as I put myself together again. Sugano sensei would counsel me, over and over again: "Must Move! Move!"
Things came to a head when a group from Japan came on a visit to New York Aikikai. They were doing an article on the dojo, and had a photographer taking pictures of the classes. Sensei called me up, and there, in full view of the photographer taking pictures, I was caught full face with one of Sensei's techniques. As I flew backwards with an arch of blood coming from my nose, even Sensei looked surprised. So, so terrible.
Sensei said nothing about the debacle, but he was not happy. I went to him after in misery and apologized. "Must take ukemi. You are uchideshi." he told me. I asked him, "What can I do to learn ukemi, Sensei?" He shook his head. I asked him again, "There must be something I can do to improve, Sensei." He told me, "Take only ukemi. One month." I didn't understand what he wanted.
"Practice after class ukemi for one month?"
"No. No technique. Only taking ukemi. One month." Yikes.
It was a hard month doing three, five, sometimes seven hours of classes a day, while only taking ukemi. When the New York Aikikai people found out Sensei set me this task, it was open season. Everybody wanted me as a partner, as it was "beat-a-deshi-time." Long month.
Taking me to lunch during that time, Sensei told me how there was no learning ukemi when he started. For the first several months as uchideshi, they were only thrown around and had to learn how to fall on their own. "No one teaching! Just do!" He said that ukemi was only front rolls and back rolls. I asked if it was not good to practice ukemi as we do not grow up learning martial arts like he had in Japan. He said perhaps I had a point, but such practice makes many people take unnatural falls. "Throwing selves! No good!!" he laughed. I said that it seemed natural for me just to stand there and not move at times. He laughed at this as well. "Something comes at head, move head. If don't then natural get hit!" Good point. Sensei said that perhaps there was a place for ukemi practice, but the best was working with a partner.
Finally, I went to Sensei. "I have finished my month Sensei. Thank you very much. I have learned a lot. Gassho Sensei." He looked at me and shook his head. "No. One more month." Dear God in heaven...
I never completed the second month, but only got through two weeks of it. I could not find one single person in all of the students in New York Aikikai who would practice with me. Not one. Almost every person I practiced with was initially happy just doing technique, but halfway through class they would ask me to take ukemi as well. And I would tell them no. A deal was a deal. There is a natural rhythm to throwing and receiving that is broken with just doing technique. When people asked me if I was still doing just ukemi, they refused to work with me.
Sensei was highly amused when I told him I could not finish the month because no one would work out with me. "No excuses! No excuses!" he laughed. I failed in my mission, but learned so much doing so.
Sugano sensei said the job of uchideshi is to take ukemi. This is at the heart of being a student as well. Ukemi is learning the soft internal side of aikido, to be inside the technique like a surfer riding through a wave as it crashes down. Ukemi is a critical part of aikido and of life. Ukemi is having connection with the forces that move with and around us. It is also how we learn to make technique work. Ukemi must be fast, yielding, subtle and alive in order to be able to transfer these understandings to the heart of what it is to do technique. Because the truth is no aikido technique works as it is done in the dojo. To make technique work in real situations, you need the hard application that technique gives, combined with the second by second awareness and fast movement ukemi teaches. If one does not train in ukemi, one cannot hope to make aikido technique work. But as well as feeding technique, it must be practical and something that works in real life.
Sugano sensei's aikido was different from any other that I have experienced. There was an ineffable quality to it. It was difficult to see what he was doing with his movement, even though he was a large man. When you attacked him, he had the quality that many people ascribed to O-sensei—he seemed to disappear. When he reappeared—wow! Donovan Waite sensei described it once by saying, "You attack and suddenly there is nothing, like you fell in a hole. And just as you are climbing out, a tank drives over you." Jim Soviero was even sent by his teacher, the late, great sensei Rick Stickles, who told Jim, "I don't get that stuff Sugano's doing over there." A European student of Chiba sensei said of Sugano, "When you look at him, it is like there is a cloud in front of him. Like a blur. It is difficult even to see what his stanceis, much less the technique he is demonstrating."
He technique felt different to each person he trained with, however. Sugano sensei would simply smash me at times. He threw me so hard I really thought my bones had broken, and I was amazed to be able to get up again. Yet I was never seriously hurt. Some Belgian students I spoke to remembered him breaking a student's arm when he first arrived in Belgium. They were so afraid of him they were shaking. For others, however, he was extremely gentle. Some of the students that were with him for the longest time were amazed when I called Sugano's throws ‘soul throws,' because my body would hit so hard my soul would seem to slightly leave my body. They said they had never even seen Sensei throw a student hard—that he had always been gentle.
Sensei was always uniquely in the moment, doing exactly was required with each person. He never had one way of doing anything, but rather, moved between the moments. I suspect he threw me hard because I was a hardheaded student, and needed such physical reinforcement to learn ukemi.
This Is Ukemi
I was on patrol as a US government civilian, working with the Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan. We had been trying for several days to get into this area, but stopped each time: first comms were down, and then there was the risk of IEDs. Finally, we made it to the area bordering Marjah proper, and we were ambushed. As the bullets raked through the foliage to the left of us, with one body, the Marines and I went down. As I went down, I clearly saw my partner and interpreter still standing. This was the second time I watched him react slowly, and I was amazed he was still standing while gunfire raged around us.
This Is Ukemi.
My wife and I were going somewhere. "You pull out and lead the way since I don't know where this place is." I get into my car; she into hers. I pulled out behind her to go forward and suddenly she reversed backwards. I sensed her car moving toward me and reacted by reversing backward, making space for her vehicle. She pulled backwards and then got out and said to me, "What are you doing?? I told you I don't know where this place is so why are you back there?" Heart beating. I explained to her that she almost T-boned me and nearly destroyed both of our cars. Had I not instantly seen her movement and reacted, we would have had a disaster.
This Is Ukemi.
I was living in Chiba Sensei's dojo for a summer between college semesters. An uchideshi living there had a motorcycle, and we went to get Mexican food at a local place. As we hit the street, he suddenly accelerated and crouched down low. The full blast of the wind hit me for a moment, and then I followed his lead and crouched down against the wind. Eating in the little diner, I said I had failed the test he set for me. He responded by saying, "When you take ukemi, you move as Sensei moves. If you don't Chiba sensei will hit you, and it won't be just wind in your face." He told me that Chiba sensei told them about serving O-sensei. That when Chiba sensei had been otomo for O-Sensei as he traveled and taught around Japan, he would lose twenty-thirty pounds from the stress of always being attentive to O-sensei every second. When O-sensei would awake at two in the morning to go to the bathroom, Chiba sensei would have to be awake, have his door open, and be sitting if he needed anything. Chiba sensei told them that taking ukemi was the same way. Total observation, total commitment. Chiba sensei told them that he would accompany O-Sensei up a mountain with many steps, and he would walk behind him, hand at his back. Chiba sensei and the other uchideshi would walk this way up the steps to the shrine at the top. If the student wavered in his connection to O-Sensei or bumped into him, O-Sensei would not use the person to go up the mountain again.
This Is Ukemi.
When Chiba sensei's senior student, Juba Nour, was looking for a place to establish his dojo, he knocked on the door of a building that had a rent sign. Suddenly, without knowing why, he threw himself backwards off the steps he was standing on. Just barely missing him, an enormous fan crashed down where he had been standing. Apparently, the owner was working in the upstairs loft area of the building, and hearing knocking, leaned over the old industrial fan in the window to see who was there. As he did this, He knocked the fan loose from its mounting and it fell. He rushed down, expecting to see that he had injured or killed someone, and to his amazement, he saw Juba unhurt, looking up at him. He was so impressed he immediately rented the space to him at a considerable discount, becoming his first student. Juba had trained so intensely with Chiba sensei that even without seeing the fan falling, he had reacted.
This Is Ukemi.
Jamie Kahn, a fellow New York Aikikai uchideshi, of all those of my generation, got the most of what Sugano sensei said about good ukemi being like air that flows around one's hand. He had what some of us called a ‘ghost ukemi,' where he simply seemed to vanish when one threw him with power. This ghost ukemi showed itself once when he was in-line skating in Central park. As he rounded a corner, a guy was there swinging at him. Jaime reacted instantaneously moving around and under the swing avoiding the attack meant to take him out. And then he was up facing the attacker, immediately throwing him in irimi-nage. That is real ukemi.
Ukemi must be alive, connected and moving with nage. The uke receives and makes form out of something that is formless and invisible until uke becomes the technique in action. If they freeze, resist or fight, this is dead ukemi. Or simply dead, whether it was from the industrial fan falling, the bullet one should have avoided or the crashing car. That which is alive moves. That which doesn't is dead, and cannot hope to make technique work.
Eight Principles of Ukemi
Make everything a roll.Sugano sensei taught that ukemi should be a front or back roll. This even applies to koshinage. Unless nage does a pinning technique, take the energy from the hand, arm, foot and pushing it across the body, turn everything into a roll. Donovan Waite's kaiten-style ukemi is excellent for converting break falls into rolls. One should always try to spread the impact to protect the body and use the energy of the technique to escape.
Make proper distance. When Sugano sensei would throw, he would kick into uke's face or use atemi to knock uke back, saying: "Make distance, make distance! Escape away." Ukemi, like technique, must be functional. If a person defending himself/herself, or even riding a bike, is knocked down, s/he must escape away from that place of danger. In technique, unless otherwise directed, one should roll out of the dangerous ma-ai and then get up. (On the other hand, I spoke to Sensei on this point of escaping with ukemi, asking something relating to it and self-defense. His eyes got huge, "What? You escape away to make defense?? NO! You learn so you throw them, you never be thrown! No one ever supposed to throw you!!" Again. A good point.)
Blocking atemi blocks ukemi. This is the most wide-spread problem that makes bad ukemi. Uke should be protecting himself/herself by keeping proper distance from nage when attacking. They should not defend themselves with the opposite hand unless the technique calls for it. Blocking the atemi fixes uke where one receives the strike—this is why we sweep attacks away rather than block in aikido. In order for a block to be effective, uke must put force into the arm which, on contact with atemi, freezes one's movement. Still uke always has the right to raise one's arm to protect oneself if someone is practicing in an unsafe manner. In fact, aikido atemi should not hit uke, as it is abusive for a teacher or senior to hit a student.
Don't break contact. Uke must follow the energy of the technique to whereever it leads. Uke should only release when falling away from nage as the technique directs.
Hand connects, center moves. When one raises their hand to hold a cup or when the arm hangs naturally by one's side, there is a certain distance from hand to shoulder. This is the natural distance that needs to be maintained in ukemi. If the hand/arm folds inwards, resulting in uke and nage getting too close together, nage must use atemi to push the person back. If uke's hand/arm is stretched too far from the body/center, one risks injury when the technique is applied. Center and hand should be connected as if by an invisible elastic rope.
Move to where there is the possibility of reversal/escape/attack. In taking class with Clyde Takeguchi sensei, he once made a statement that stayed with me, "At the end of every technique is a reversal." That understanding changed my approach to ukemi. Uke should follow the technique, always searching, feeling where there are openings in the other's technique. Unless specifically engaged in such practice, one should not reverse another's technique, as each person must be their own teacher in aikido, (each person making their own path), but one should be aware of the possibility of such reversals: always aware. This searching allows one to find the correct position for ukemi, and allows one to better judge where their openings may be in their technique that allows for reversals or counter-attacks. This style of ukemi, of turning toward nage, implying or being conscious of the possibility of reversal, keeps nage honest in their technique. If a teacher chooses to make a light, flowing aikido in their school that is their business but to me there must be a martial grounding in all we do. Reversal is important at all times. I was teaching a class where a black belt from another style was with us. In explaining a technique, he suddenly reached forward and slapped me. I immediately smashed him to the ground, but it was a good lesson that caused me to look at my openings. If a person can punch you, your technique is incorrect, and must be re-examined. Nothing teaches this better than seeking another's openings. Our aikido must be honest.
Always awareness. If one is trying to understand what the correct positioning is to be with any ukemi, if one is to take forward or backwards rolls, if one is to discover how one is to react in a situation, one always finds the answer in awareness. Uke should always face nage or seek to turn towards them. If a person turns away in ukemi so that their back is to nage, they are both open and unaware of nage's movement. Uke must be looking toward nage—not turning his or her back.
Humility. To be a good uke requires humility. As I attack, I am saying, "I give you my body for your practice—your learning of technique. Please do not abuse or misuse me." Ukemi is an act of humility. One is giving themselves in trust to another so they can learn technique, instead of struggling against them, forcing one's ego and needs on another. This is important because aikido is not just fighting, but a spiritual path, if one chooses to walk it. One should not resist, fight, wrestle or try to teach another, but work to correct one's own errors before correcting another. Each of us has a lot to work on before we correct another.
The greatest example of humility I have seen is Harvey Konigsburg sensei. He is Yamada sensei's most senior student, having practiced for over 50 years. Yet when he was a sixth dan and I still a kyu rank, he would take Sugano or Yamada sensei's classes and practice with me, taking ukemi from me just as he would one of the shihans. He never corrected me or sought to change me, though I was so infinitely his junior, but instead followed humbly, quietly working on his own path. I saw this clearly after a party at summer camp where he was the most senior person in the room, the center of attention, with all the other yudansha and senior instructors bringing him drinks and food. I was cleaning up when the others had gone. Rounding the corner, I saw one person—one single person—staying to help me. Harvey. I was surprised and immediately tried to take the dirty plates out of his hands, saying I would do it. He just smiled, and shook his head, saying, "No. Let's clean up together." When I watch Harvey teach, I know there are layers on layers of hard, hard training and humility that have made him and his aikido continue to be more and more beautiful over the years. Good ukemi embodies humility and concern, with love at its center. If one does not somehow have humility, one cannot do good ukemi, nor can they do good aikido, because in the end, aikido is about being guided to assist others and make a better world. This understanding begins with ukemi.
For some years I have wrestled with quoting Sugano sensei on things I talked to him on. During the time I was uchideshi in New York I took no notes of my conversations. Seeing a visiting Australian student taking exact notes after Sensei's class I asked him, "Should we also be taking notes Sensei?" He shrugged and said, "Learn and forget. Learn and forget. Learn, forget..." Because of his instruction I never took any notes despite the very long conversations I had with him.
As a consequence, I have one abiding regret. A group of us went out with Sensei to his favorite restaurant Souen, eating, drinking at a large table on the second floor, and Sensei started speaking spontaneously on aikido. Buzzed from a few bottles of sake making my way down the spiral stair case after Sensei's talk, I clearly remember thinking to myself, "If what Sensei said just now is not the secret of aikido and perhaps life itself, then I don't know what is." It was so tremendous, so wonderful that I kept it within myself, repeating it as a mantra over the next several days, perhaps even a week. I thought I would remember every word for the rest of my life. Yet reaching into myself sometime later, there was nothing there, but the memory Sensei said something tremendous on aikido. To this day I deeply regret not writing what he told us that night
Other things, though, fortunately remained clear from that time. After I became uchideshi, living and studying in New York, I started to record conversations with Sensei. Concerning the quotations within this essay, I have returned to them to check the accuracy of my recollections on what Sensei said to me.
A question remains on what to do with the truths he gave me that I kept in my head without recording them. I have tried to be as faithfully accurate on what Sensei told me to preserve the knowledge he passed on to me, but it should be clearly noted that though I quote him here, our conversations occurred many years before. The words may be somewhat different, but the central points are as accurate as I can possibly make them. I have recorded them as faithfully as possible for the future legacy of aikido as Sensei was one of the faithful inheritors and transmitters of our art.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Brian Ericksen, Head Instructor , Godan, Shidoin - Ericksen Sensei has 30 years of experience in Aikido. He was uchideshi to shihan Yamada Yoshimitsu 8th Dan, Chairman of the USAF and direct student of Ueshiba Morihei. Shihan Sugano Seiichi was a mentor. As well as teaching at USAF HQ, he taught in Annapolis Maryland, and was the first person to teach aikido in Iraq, instructing Iraqi and US military. He also taught aikido in Afghanistan to soldiers and Marines.
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