The Role of Uke in Aikido Training
The role of the uke is central to the development of any real skill in the art of Aikido. Personally, I think the misunderstanding of how to be a great uke is central to why Aikido has so many technical issues when it comes to the art as a martial art. So what is the roll of the uke in Aikido training?
The uke exists to enhance the learning of the partner. Yes, he or she is learning a number of things that are specific to that role. But basically his primary role is to act as the check and balance on the partner's developing skills and to provide constant feedback to the partner.
I think that the first area of focus in Aikido training should be developing an understanding of how to organize one's body properly and how to use ones intent to give that body structure. This is done with a combination of solo practice and paired connection exercises. This part of training requires an uke that is sensitive enough to give just the right amount of energy so that the partner can "succeed" while still having to make a an improvement in how he or she is doing the exercise. Many people think that it is their job to apply as much force as they can and the partner's job to figure out how to deal with it. This way of training is detrimental to the learning of both partners.
On the other hand, any number of people simply move for their partners when they feel the direction of the energy. This is equally disastrous for training because the partner has no idea what actually works or does not. This problem is endemic in the Aikido community and frankly, many ukes have simply been taught an ukemi that makes their teacher's technique work.
So the uke in paired connection exercises must apply just enough structure and force that the partner cannot succeed when doing the exercise completely wrong but will succeed and be able to do significant repetition to "burn the skill in" when he is able to approximate the skill being taught. Very often, it is the teacher who is most capable of making this judgment about when the student has incorporated another element of the lesson and needs to be allowed to succeed for a time before the next level of difficulty is applied. So, it is crucial that every student be able to work with the teacher taking ukemi. The student can feel how the teacher applies force and gives his partner feedback and then the student himself can emulate the teacher in his role as uke.
This whole process puts a huge burden on the student to be sensitive to what the teacher is doing and especially sensitive to the level of the partner. Over application of force with too much tension and shutting down ones partner will NEVER result in the ability to relax properly and develop technique in which falling isn't optional for the partner. But being overly compliant doesn't provide ones partner with any feedback about what is right and what is not, or what changes in the intent and one's body need to be made to take an exercise that is not working optimally and make it better.
I have found that the vast majority of ukes simply do not have any idea how to attack. Many seem to think that grabbing a wrist or some other part of the body is an attack. Many seem to think that grabbing a wrist and turning the hand purple is some kind of attack. Many seem to think that the proper role of the uke is to grab and try and be immoveable while the partner tries to figure out how to move them. This is utter stupidity from a training standpoint. It provides the nage with a totally unrealistic attack (who ever heard of winning a fight by being immoveable?) and doesn't teach the uke how to attack using the same principles that nage is using to defend.
Fifty percent of one's training is in the role of uke. If you are doing something different in each role your body simply gets confused about what it should be doing. Uke and nage should be doing exactly the same thing in terms of principle so that training in each role is still creating enhanced martial skills. Somehow this got really distorted in modern Aikido. Aikido today is often about a nage striving to execute incredibly sophisticated techniques against an uke who attacks like a martially handicapped person. This fundamentally limits the level of the practice to something extremely basic regardless of the years of effort put in. What we REALLY want is to have a nage who can execute technique against an opponent who is using the same principles that he is using. From a training standpoint this is really when the practice gets interesting.
Ukes should be taught from the very start how to attack properly. Since one of the fundamental principles of Aikido is "kuzushi on contact", ukes should be taught how to grab in such a way that they can break the balance of the nage just with the grab itself, which is what you'd be trying to do if you grabbed an opponent. Nage should be allowed to try to strike the uke when he grabs. If uke's grab doesn't allow him to defend against a punch or kick from nage, it isn't being done properly. There is no way that one can move ones opponent with a grab using muscle power. If one wishes to move a partner using a grabbing attack, one is forced to use the same principles of connection being used by nage.
Then, in the training context, the uke applies the grab to touch the center of the partner but chooses to not apply direction to the connection so that nage can practice his waza. Later on, at the higher levels, he should try to use the attack to get kuzushi. Then you see whether nage can actually do his waza against a skilled attacker. But this isn't the way to learn technique initially; it is the way to train after waza is learned.
The other aspect of Aikido waza is what I call the fundamental geometry of technique. The martial side of Aikido requires that nage control the line of attack and the multiple vectors through which the attacker can apply force. When the uke views his or her role as simply taking ukemi for the nage, this whole aspect falls apart. Personally, I think that we should rethink the idea that the uke "takes ukemi" from nage. That understanding leads to ukemi in which there is no real attack and the uke comes in thinking his job is to initiate a movement and take a fall. Ukes job is to try to maintain his structure if possible, to maintain his balance if possible and if his balance is compromised to regain it as quickly as possible and to stay connected with his partner and keep the attack continuous until he is thrown or pinned. Eventually, this type of practice will lead one to the ability to apply sutemi waza (sacrifice throws) and even kaeshiwaza (reversals) which are central to real martial practice. Of course all of this still requires making it all level appropriate for one's partner.
The martial side of the practice of Aikido is about understanding "suki" or openings. If the uke is not trained to give immediate feedback when nage is "open", nage can do all sorts of fancy movements which look great but leave him totally open to anyone looking to exploit those openings. As simple an exercise as katatetori tankan, one of the first movements one learns in Aikido must be done in such a way that the uke can't strike one with his off-hand while you are turning. Since most ukes are not taught to think about that strike, most folks are totally open to being struck while they turn. This is even true of some folks with large numbers after their names. Their movement does not contain kuzushi on and is merely an "escape" from the attack. A serious attacker will strike him before he or she can complete the turn. In a properly executed technique there should be no instant in which the attacker can strike you and you should at all moments be able to strike him. That's just basic martial arts yet it is often a concept lacking in much of Aikido practice.
The uke should maintain his balance and structure and with that his freedom to move at all times and, if that is compromised, should recover as quickly as possible. Just watch the ukes for many teachers even some very highly ranked teachers. Very often you see them attack in a completely unbalanced and over committed manner. When their strikes miss because nage has moved they break their own balance even though the nage hasn't even touched them. Throwing someone who breaks his own structure like that certainly doesn't require any skill since they gave up their centers rather than forcing nage to get kuzushi. YouTube videos of Aikido are replete with examples of this type of ukemi. There is simply no way a practitioner of another martial art will allow their structures to be compromised like that. It seems to be an Aikido problem. Ukemi like that seems to be allowed by various teachers because it makes their technique look good (at least to folks who don't know what they are looking at). But it is really an example of the attacker simply "giving up" right in the middle of his attack and it is terrible martial arts. Uke's job is to keep the attack continuous until it is brought under control by the nage. This is how uke gives feedback to nage.
Once one is past the beginner level of the art, if one leaves an opening anywhere in one's technique he should either be struck instantly or reversed. In beginner practice one should point out the openings but leave out the reversals simply because if a senior keeps reversing a technique the beginner never actually gets to do it and one doesn't ever learn to do something by not doing it over and over.
We need to get rid of the notion that the uke takes falls. The fall is simply how the uke keeps himself or herself safe when nage gets kuzushi. Uke provides feedback to the partner. That is the role of uke. It takes the form of maintaining ones balance when the nage doesn't get kuzushi properly. It takes the form of striking the nage when he or she is presents an opening. And it also requires that uke NOT do anything that would be not good martial arts such as over committing, compromising one's own structure, doing anything (such as physical and mental tension) that would reduce ones freedom to move as needed to respond to uke's movements.
If all this seems far more complicated compared to what you may have thought uke's role is, you'd be right. Being a great uke is to allow success while forcing the partner to progress. It is the role of uke to enhance the learning of the partner. This is far more complex than taking pretty falls. Nage is totally dependent on uke for his progress. It is impossible for nage to get to a high level in the art with partner's who are incompetent. Asking the partner to simply collude with ones movements reduces the art to a dance. Fixing our ukemi is the single most important element in getting Aikido back on track as a martial art with some depth to it. Many years of ingrained habits have to be undone to accomplish this. I don't really know if that will happen but it needs to.