The art of “taking a fall”

Massey SenseiUkemi translates as “receive through the body” or “to take a fall”. During Aikido practice, UKE (the one attacking) attacks NAGE or TORI (person doing the waza) with a strike, grab, or kick. Nage then attempts to blend with the attack and does a throw or pin. Uke must move with nage’s technique, receive it with his body, and take a fall in such a way as not to be injured. This is the initial form of ukemi, but there is a great deal more to it than meets the eye.

Ukemi is the actual vehicle through which you learn Aikido. Most Americans have difficulty with this concept, believing that you learn the techniques of Aikido by peforming them as nage. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What you receive through your body as uke is not the losing end of someone else’s execution of an Aikido technique. What you receive is the essence of Aikido itself. Bit by bit, your body and senses are learning the movement and energy of the technique as it is being done to you. You are learning what feels strong and right, and what does not. Aikido is thus transmitted directly from body to body. In order for Aikido to become effective, you must develop within yourself “good one point”, “ki extension”, the ability to maintain “weight underside” and “remain relaxed” throughout the waza. All four of these items are developed through ukemi rather than through doing the waza. As your skill at ukemi improves, your ability to perform the techniques of Aikido will likewise improve. They are directly linked.

The way you fall affects your perceptions of Aikido. If you fall with a great amount of fear and tension, your attention will be on escaping pain or injury. When you become nage, your concept of the technique will be clouded by the tension you had while learning it as uke. Often when you are attacked, you will respond by backing up to avoid the strike or simply not reacting to the attack. When ukemi becomes natural, then and only then will your focus be on learning the technique being practiced.

Aikido practice is unique in that instead of both partners attacking and competing for the upper hand in an encounter, one partner is designated attacker, the other, defender. Uke is offering himself as attacker in the practice. This must be done with full sincerity. Since both uke and nage know in advance what technique is being practiced, the challenge is to give an honest attack not altered by the knowledge of what nage will probably do. An honest punch to the chest is just that: a punch to the chest. A punch to the chest should hit nage in the chest if he stands still, and miss if he gets off the line of attack. It’s neither helpful to your partner nor is it a good practice to shy away and miss when nage does not get off the line of attack. Nor is it good training to redirect the strike in the direction you know nage is going to move in order to make it more difficult for nage. Doing so just wasted that amount of time during practice. The best approach is to pretend you don’t know what technique nage is going to do and simply give him a solid straight punch.

During practice, it is important to provide an attack appropriate to your partners ability and also your own ability to take ukemi. A beginner deserves the same integrity in an attack as an advanced student. The only difference is the speed and power with which it is done. A beginner should be hit if he stays on the line of attack, just more slowly than an advanced student or black belt. Conversely, your attack should be at the speed and power of your ability to fall. If you can safely fall at no more than seven miles per hour, don’t attack at seventy mph.

The role of uke and ukemi in the initial stages of training in Aikido are critical. The process is a cooperative effort between uke and nage. Since uke knows in advance what nage is likely to do, it becomes easy to preset your one point to stop any possible movement that nage may attempt. All this does is create ego gratification on the part of uke. It is also extremely counter productive and a total waste of time in the initial stages of training. Uke should strive to feel what nage is doing and should try to blend with the defensive movement, flow with nage, and then take a fall. Throughout the movement, uke should be focused on flowing smoothly and taking a good fall or roll to protect himself or herself.

Understand, that in this process both uke and nage are doing Aikido. Uke is practicing a strong, committed, positive beginning; nage is being receptive and blending with the attack. As nage begins to take control, uke balances the situation and becomes yielding, and receptive, taking a fall. Ukemi is therefore a practice in preserving balance, not in losing it.

An important Aikido training method involves offering substantial resistance to your partner. This should not be practiced by beginners. This is a practice in stressing the technique in order to discover weak, ineffective areas and requires nage to practice with his whole body and spirit. It takes great sensitivity, on the part of uke, to do this so that it enhances practice. Too much, and it’s a battle of wills; too little, and it isn’t stimulating. This type of practice must be done in the purest of spirits, as a gift. All too easily it becomes an ego game. The ego is quite destructive and should be avoided. Resistance practice doesn’t begin until both Uke and Nage are of sufficiently high enough rank for it to be practical and of benefit to both students.

Ukemi is an opportunity to see clearly in practice the different ways we react to fear, pressure, and pain. To take safe, fluid falls requires you to be completely aware of the motion and relaxed enough to adapt your body to it and absorb the power of the throw. Fear and pain cause you to tighten up, to withdraw when it is time to be 100 percent committed to the motion that is happening at that moment.

Always remember, you learn Aikido through ukemi. If your ukemi is poor your waza will be poor. The limiting factor on your own advancement is the ability to take fluid, rapid, ukemi. As your ukemi improves, your waza proficiency will improve. One cannot occur without the other.

Coypright: 1987 Oscar G. Medina – San Dan Hombu Aikido