Why Ukemi Is Impossible, Part 1

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido. Keep an eye open for part 2!)

Why is ukemi impossible?

Of course, this is a trick question.  It’s actually not that ukemi is impossible: the problem is, aikidō is impossible.  But for now, let’s just focus on the ukemi part.

What do I mean by “impossible”?  Ukemi can be described as the intersection of several sets of mutually-incompatible criteria.  To begin with:

1)  It has to be done right, or nage won’t be able to practice the technique.  No ukemi, no aikidō.
2)  It has to be realistic: it has to begin with a “committed” attack.
3)  But it can’t be too realistic.

Learning about ukemi is partly about giving a realistic attack, in the sense of some actual threat of controlling or injuring nage.  At the same time – and this is very difficult to learn – it’s slowed down a little: enough that nage can respond to it and (ideally) perform the technique.  Giving a fully-committed slow-motion attack is an art, and there’s a lot to learn from practicing that art.

But ukemi is also unrealistic.  Typically, it’s just one attack, rather than a series of strikes or kicks.  And some of the attacks aren’t terribly effective.  As a tactic, hitting someone on the top of the head with your bare hand isn’t actually a good idea, especially if you put your whole body weight into it so that when they step out of the way you over-balance.  As a tactic, grabbing someone’s wrist and then hanging on without trying to do anything else is more likely to be used between kindergarteners than in any realistic combat scenario.

Still, at least in early training ukemi is fairly straightforward.  You deliver the attack, and then you try to – to, um, what?  Figure out what you’re supposed to do, basically.  Fall down?  Oh, I can do that!  And you fall down.  Which isn’t actually helpful for your nage: because they’ve learned precisely nothing about whether they were any part of the reason you fell down.

So gradually you learn that you’re supposed to try to keep your balance.  Sort of.  Because at the same time, you’re still supposed to end up falling down, or rolling, or tapping out.  Just that you have to be involved in the experience, so that if you actually wouldn’t fall down in real life, your nage realizes that.
One important point of training in aikidō is that your nage can learn from whatever you do.  Which is part of what’s so wonderful about the training.  As Aaron Ward sensei puts it, if what uke is doing stops the technique from working, there’s a simple question to ask: Why did uke do that?  Answer: because they could.  Not that they wanted to, or that they’re making nage’s life difficult – just that nage left that opportunity open to them, and they instinctively took it.  And nage needs to understand that, and work with that (frustrating and humbling) reality.

So if you as uke keep your balance in some unexpected way, and nage doesn’t figure out how to deal with it, that’s a valuable part of nage’s training.  Just that you can’t expect nage to realize that, or appreciate it.  And meanwhile, it’s perfectly possible that nage will get frustrated by that: possibly enough to muscle you; which can lead to injury.

And that means we tend to fall back on the basic strategy of “falling down when nage expects us to,” which is the safe thing to do.  Just that it actually isn’t ukemi.  And therefore, it isn’t aikidō.  But at least no-one gets injured; which is enough.  In the beginning.

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