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The Joy of Ukemi
by The Mirror
The Joy of Ukemi

This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire 2012, all rights reserved.
"Don't resist. Keep moving!"

"Don't just fall down for your partner. Make him throw you!"

What's a poor uke to do? At one extreme, people go limp, barely wave a hand in their partner's direction, and fall down at the slightest touch. At the other, they clamp down with all their strength, refusing to move for anything short of a punch in the face. From a martial perspective, there are obvious flaws in both approaches.

But more than that, I'm reminded of O Sensei's admonition to "practice joyfully." Where is the joy in either of these extremes? What exactly are the people at the extremes studying, and what does it have to do with aikido?

Any technique can be stopped if uke knows what to expect and knows he won't get hit. Kill the energy of the attack, establish a good base, and you'll be very difficult to move, but what's the point? There's no need to defend against someone who's just standing there. If I keep moving, I can continue to pursue whatever goal inspired me to attack in the first place. If I keep moving, I can avoid being a target for a strike; I can recover my balance if I start to fall.

Moving is more fun, too. Think about what first attracted you to aikido. For a lot of us, it was seeing people flying through the air and bouncing up with a smile to do it again. Quite often, the people taking the biggest falls seem to be having the most fun.

Hmm. Think about that for a second. The people who are "losing" the most spectacularly are having the most fun.

There, I think, lies the key to a more useful philosophy of ukemi. Uke is, after all, also practicing aikido, studying all the same things that nage studies: connection, natural movement, zanshin, makoto.

For beginners, the focus is necessarily on how to produce a committed attack and how to roll and fall safely. Once those basics are well established, though, there's room for a more sophisticated approach.

One way to start is by looking for openings. There's no need to hit your partner. If dojo etiquette allows, you might simply tap them gently. Otherwise, simply make a mental note. Even "just" following along becomes an important practice when you realize that there is no longer a technique to follow if nage disconnects, or that nage may not actually be leading you into the expected fall.

The guiding idea is that uke is not a throwing dummy, but an active participant, facilitating nage's training by providing a sincere, intelligent attack. Somewhere in here, too, is where ukemi starts to be fun. Making a sincere attack, seeing your partner handle it successfully, and dissipating the resulting energy safely is much more enjoyable for both partners.

Kaeshiwaza and henkawaza are natural outgrowths of this kind of practice. While one partner might initiate the attack, the natural continuation of that attack might lead to a reversal, which in turn might force the nominal "nage" to switch to a different technique. Humans are naturally competitive beings, and there's a temptation to try to "win" these encounters. Friendly rivalry can be a good thing, if it pushes both partners to get better. Just remember the rules: the goal is not winning, but better aikido. Interrupting the flow of the movement means you have failed, even if your partner falls down.

Incidentally, some people equate "good ukemi" with spectacular falls. Flying can be fun, but that isn't what I'm talking about here. Abandoning an attack to set up for a big fall is just as questionable as abandoning it to try to stop the technique. Sometimes big falls happen, and it's nice to be able to handle them, but good ukemi is about other things. Instead, work on maintaining a better connection with your partner, or attacking more dynamically. Becoming more sensitive is a first step toward realizing whatever your physical potential might be.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:

We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.
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Old 02-11-2013, 02:23 PM   #2
Linda Eskin
Linda Eskin's Avatar
Dojo: Aikido of San Diego, San Diego, California
Location: San Diego County, California
Join Date: May 2009
Posts: 335
Re: The Joy of Ukemi

Thank you for discussing the subject of ukemi. It really is challenging for me, dealing with exactly what you described at the beginning – much of what we are told seems to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Of course it's not, really. We can be not in resistance, and also not just falling down. It's hard to find that right combination though! Something I'm continually working on, and probably will be forever. :-)

Linda Eskin - Facebook | My Aikido blog: Grab My Wrist

"Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train." - Morihei Ueshiba
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