Aikido practice should encompass 100% of our training. That means that we need to focus on the ukemi component of our practice for half of the time that we spend training. I would venture to say that most of us do not put that much focus and attention toward our ukemi practice. Ukemi practice is so important that traditional training in Japanese martial arts has the instructor serve primarily in the role of uke. I would like to use this month to look at this important aspect of our training.
Ukemi is mistakenly viewed as taking rolls when we are thrown in Aikido. Ukemi is simply the act of receiving forces directed at our bodies by an attacker. What we do in receiving these forces and why we do what we do are important questions to ask in our training. I view ukemi as having at least three potential levels to it. The most basic level of ukemi is taking incoming force and using this force to allow yourself to create a safe space between you and the attacker. This can take the form of changing levels (heights of orientation), changing the space between you and your attacker, and changing the shape of your body. Most ukemi in Aikido takes the form of rolls. Rolls enable us to change our height level and space between us and our attackers. The next level of ukemi is receiving the incoming force and neutralizing the force so that you are not off-balanced. You are free to be able to move and respond to forces in a coherent manner. The highest level of ukemi is being able to receive incoming forces and immediately use those forces to execute techniques. You are not reacting to and reversing a technique, but using the incoming force to dictate the techniques that you engage in.
I believe strongly that it is important to be sensitive to what is going on around you in order to do good ukemi. That means that simply throwing yourself into a roll before you need to is as foolish and unhelpful as seeing how tough and unmovable you can be. Neither of these responses help you to develop sensitivity and awareness to what is going on to you and around you. The sensitivity to and awareness of what is going on should ALWAYS be firmly entrenched with martial sensibility. The link demonstrates sensitivity to what is going on around you, but is absolutely DEVOID of any martial common sense. I do not believe that teaching people to over-react in a manner that makes you move vulnerable to being injured contributes anything positive to a person’s martial arts abilities.
If we are sensitive to receiving incoming force, we can “listen” to our body, incoming forces from the attacker and your environment so that you can respond appropriately. If you are working on your rolls, being soft and sensitive to your environment is important. The surface that you will be landing on will most likely be harder than you are. Tension and stiffness in your body will become quickly apparent to you when you meet the ground. The value of rounded shapes will also be come readily apparent. There will be times where remaining in a rounded shaped will not be advantageous to you and your lack of pliable body and sensitivity will inform you as to how you should change and adapt. Aiki skills are important components in enabling your body to remain integrated (at a physical and energetic level) and connected so that your rolls (or other options) are not forced, floppy or haphazard. These skills enable your body to respond to changing conditions in a manner that keeps you still able to respond to further actions by the nage.
Aiki skills are necessary components in being able to neutralize incoming forces while being able to remain connected to the person without becoming unbalanced in the process. Specifically, this involves In-Yo-Ho. Incoming forces are received with a receiving connection in one place (lets say left side) while you maintain an active connection in another place (right side). I work on this skill set on a daily basis in teaching. it is very important to feel how the students are executing waza. I want to maintain a clean connection with them from start to finish. Maintaining this type of connection also helps to minimize the possibility of being accidentally injured when all types of waza are being executed. For my own education, this type of connection helps me to develop an ever increasing awareness of where and how I can execute waza at any point in this process without the nage being aware of what I can do until it is too late. This is a valuable feedback mechanism for the nages so that they remain cognizant of exposing themselves to being reversed or attacked. This type of practice should be done with the EXPLICIT understanding and acceptance from both people. The last thing that anybody needs is to have someone misunderstand what you are doing and mistake you for being a passive-aggressive jerk. This can and will happen which necessitates the overt communication between training partners. Far too often, nages do not expect this type of response when the waza is simply too full of holes to be genuinely effective. The initial response is to project the problem onto the uke, rather than accepting responsibility for the failure to properly execute a technique. This is a common problem when the practice to too collusive and that is too little overt communication between the partners. Good communication should be hallmark of cooperative and instructive practice. This is a mandatory component of training in my school.
As one’s ukemi and aiki skills become better developed, you become aware that besides grounding out, or reversing a technique, you can begin to execute techniques based upon the person executing techniques on you. This is high level ukemi practice that helps you as nage as much as it helps you as uke. Your ability to regulate and control incoming and outgoing energy in a dynamic and active environment, while remaining centered is the hallmark of an excellent martial artist. This type of practice should be agreed upon ahead of time. This is clearly cooperative practice; anything else would begin to resemble a push-hands contest. This stage of development is where the spontaneous execution of techniques occur. I wish us all the best luck in getting to this place through a lot of hard, honest training.
Train safely and with sincerity and respect for yourself, your partners and your teachers.
Marc Abrams Sensei
(Original blog post may be found here