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.

Answers and Questions

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

The people we learn the most from in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones who teach us facts, or even a set of skills – how to ride a bike, study for a test, cook an edible dinner.  They’re the people who help us find ways to achieve more in our lives, reach goals that require art: to discover the ability to navigate a relationship, or to age gracefully, or to care about other people’s feelings and understand our own.  But these aren’t arts you can learn by memorizing steps; and that means that learning them isn’t about someone showing you how to do it, as much as it is about being inspired, to explore it and learn for yourself.

In aikidō, your sensei teaches you specific techniques.  More than that, your sensei offers you their life in aikidō, everything they’ve learned: about what works and what doesn’t, how to learn aikidō and how to practice it.  In our dojō, our sensei tells us over and over that the important thing isn’t the answer, it’s the question.  He shows us techniques and we try to execute them, following his example; but we never really succeed, or at least I don’t.

In the most recent class I attended, sensei offered me feedback on my technique.  He described it in terms of being insincere: doing things because I’m supposed to.  “Tenkan, check.  Face forward, check.”  But he was clear that unless nage is sincere, unless nage actually wants to connect with uke, then just checking things off a list won’t work.  It’s insincere, and (at least this is how it felt to me, so I think this is what he meant) mechanical, and not effective, because it’s not actually aikidō.

So what would be sincere?  How do I do that, if the best I can do in my practice is to be insincere?  Maybe I have to admit that I don’t really care about uke, not yet.  I know I’m supposed to; but right now I just want uke to not overpower me.  And the only way I can imagine accomplishing that would be to triumph over uke, make them fall down instead.  Be right, and have them be wrong: that’s my answer.

And that means admitting that I don’t have the right question yet.  Because my answer doesn’t let me do anything except check items off a list, and try to make uke fall down, and hope I don’t get overpowered first, or hurt or humiliated.  Even though I know that’s not what I’m here to learn – but right now that’s all I know how to do.

Because everything sensei offers us, in all the classes he teaches, isn’t an answer: it’s part of the question.  It doesn’t tell me how to get past the point I’m stuck at: of trying to make uke stop threatening me, keep them from making me lose my center.  I know it’s not up to them to stop doing that: it’s up to me to keep my center.  But I don’t know how to act on that knowledge.  It’s an answer, and I don’t understand the question behind it yet.

But I’m starting to think that maybe that’s the question I need to ask: who do I need to be, to not be afraid of uke?  To not be afraid of connecting?

 

Oh Crap, This Isn’t Working

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

So there you are, doing a technique, one you’ve done, oh, a couple of hundred times before. And for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

Fortunately your advanced level of training allows you to promptly and efficiently take the necessary steps. First of all, it must be your uke’s fault. That goes without saying: if your uke had just attacked correctly, given you a committed attack, been more flexible, then everything would be fine. It must be their fault.

Sometimes I can stay stuck there for quite awhile. The worst-case scenario is when uke really is doing something unusual. A good uke can make your technique look powerful and effective; just so, an uncooperative uke, or an unexpected response to your technique, can stop you in your tracks. How are you supposed to deal with that?

Well, you could change the technique. Which, you tell yourself, is what you’d do in real life. If they’re not actually giving you the right attack, you certainly wouldn’t bother using this technique: you’d do something else, much more effective. Many people will simply abandon the technique they’re supposedly practicing, and go with a technique that’s more likely to work for this particular attack.

Not me. No, I use a simple but inevitably embarrassing approach known as “muscling the hell out of your uke.” Resist me, will you?  Take that, and that, and that. Fortunately, because I am pretty wimpy, I rarely injure my ukes permanently, at least as far as I’ve heard. However, common though this approach may be, it’s not actually the most effective way to learn aikidō.

And it’s not like sensei hasn’t explained how to deal with this exact situation. When you get stuck, correct your balance and posture and extension. He demonstrates: from bending forward over his uke like a bookkeeper examining a column of numbers under bad lighting, he straightens up, his weight settles back in his heels, he extends his arms. Just like that, uke shifts magically from a strong balanced position to a weak unstable stance where they can barely hold themselves up. Oh, I can do that!

I proceed to practice the technique with renewed vigor and confidence. And when I get stuck, I check my balance and posture and extension, which are all hopelessly not what they need to be. I take a deep breath and correct everything. And just like that, nothing happens at all!  Except that I have to muscle uke a little more vigorously to make them fall down.

The basic problem here is, aikidō isn’t magic. No matter what I tell myself, no matter how many superstitious gestures I make – breathing in, breathing out, holding my breath, closing my eyes, going faster and faster as if I can outrun my mistakes, slowing things down until uke is falling asleep on their feet – the fact is, I can always screw things up.

That’s what I’m here for, is to find out how I screw things up. The dream that something will magically enable me to do the technique perfectly is just that: a dream.

I’m here to learn. Screwing up is my job. I just wish I weren’t so good at it.

Combat Effectiveness

(This post was written by Paul Norris,  a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Aikidō can be a bewildering combination of inspiring ideas, exhilarating practice, and intensely frustratingly slow progress.  This is often explicitly acknowledged by aikidō instructors.  It’s pretty common to be told that if you’re looking for a combat art, aikidō probably isn’t going to be your first choice.  Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu or jūjutsu are more likely to be useful to a beginner attempting to keep someone from punching them.  When I was studying karate, our sensei told us about a student who learned a simple overhead block, went to his car in the parking lot after class, was confronted by someone trying to brain him with a baseball bat, and saved his own life using the block he’d just learned. Nice.

The equivalent story for aikidō seems to be that with a minimum of training, you’re more likely to be able to fall down without hurting yourself, or run away when you see trouble developing.  Certainly worthwhile achievements, but probably not what your typical beginning martial artist is looking for.  And it’s rather disconcerting to hear your sensei describe the technique he just demonstrated as an “exercise,” or specifically label it “Hollywood.”

Rank tests themselves aren’t necessarily realistic.  After all, how likely is it that I’d know what attack to expect?  Randori is more like the real world: not in the sense that it’s what would happen if I were attacked by several people at once (they probably wouldn’t wait their turn to attack, let alone politely forgo kicking me or grabbing me by the hair), but because I have maybe a second to focus on an uke’s attack and begin a hopefully-effective response.

My karate instructor, who had training in aikidō, once told us, “If you try to use nikyo on someone with an arm like a baby gorilla’s leg, it’s not going to work.  So first you kick him in the family jewels, and then you do nikyo on him.”  Is that aikidō?  Apparently some people would say so.

So is aikidō a combat art at all?  You might argue that it has to be, or what’s the point of it?  But some would say it’s not, and describe it as a watered-down version of daito-ryu jūjutsu.  These debates can be great fun; but are they relevant to those of us who don’t expect to engage in (or survive) realistic combat?

Personally, I’m getting to be an old man.  If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, I don’t think I’d bet on myself.  Some people might say that’s who aikidō is for: people who wouldn’t survive hand-to-hand combat, who are just looking for aerobic exercise.  Is aikidō only for the old and weak, or does it need to be effective in a combat setting?  Or can it be multi-faceted, a resource available to everyone?

Maybe the best way to think about combat effectiveness is that aikidō requires you to learn from what you do and what actually happens.  If you think your technique is effective and it’s not, or if you need uke to cooperate in order for your techniques to work, if you think you’re centered and balanced and you aren’t, then you’re stuck: you can’t progress.  Beyond that, maybe it’s up to you where aikidō takes you.

What Is Aikido?

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are Aikidō practitioners. Not that Aikidō is something vague or unclear. It’s a concrete, practical approach to dealing with physical conflict and self-defense. Of course, different teachers have different perspectives on the best way to learn and practice Aikidō. Even the shihan who were direct students of O-Sensei teach slightly different forms, depending on when they studied with him: Aikidō changed over O-Sensei’s own lifetime.

But O-Sensei was not just concerned with the physical discipline of Aikidō. As quoted in The Art of Peace (a collection of O-Sensei’s writings, translated by John Stevens), “The real way of a warrior is to prevent slaughter – it is the art of peace, the power of love.”

From this perspective, Aikidō is a path towards harmony. The physical act of practice and training provides a concrete example of our natural tendency to feel threatened when we’re challenged, to tense up in stressful or difficult situations, to want to overpower our opponent. Training in Aikidō challenges us to let go of these responses.

Aikidō provides a model for how to resolve conflict. I can use this model in my everyday life, looking for ways to be centered and balanced even when I come into conflict with other people. Rather than fighting back if someone pressures me, tries to guilt-trip or intimidate me, I can turn if I’m pushed and enter if I’m pulled, waiting for the right moment to act. And in turn, I can bring those experiences of social and personal challenges back to my training: recognizing my emotional response to conflict and working to address it in my practice.

Training in Aikidō is about being centered, not getting thrown off-balance; so it can change how I think of my interactions with other people. Staying centered and balanced can only happen if I can get past feeling threatened. Thus, without necessarily realizing it, in my training I’m gradually developing the ability to see beyond my experience of other people as my enemies, threats to be counter-attacked.

But in order to let go of feeling that I’m in conflict with other people, I need to learn how their goals and my goals might actually be in harmony.  Even if they believe I’m their enemy, even if they’re actively trying to attack me, I need to find another way to experience our interaction, to think of us in relationship with each other. Rather than being trapped in a zero-sum winner-take-all conflict, I have to find a way to learn that the two of us are coöperating. By looking for that possibility, by finding a way to be balanced and centered in the midst of our interaction, I’m also learning to understand the other person better, and gradually feel empathy for them. I’m practicing being connected to them, part of them: loving them.

Only when that happens can I let go of needing to win. And only then can I be free of having to choose between caring for myself and caring for others.

Aikido as Metaphor

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

One meaning of the word Aikidō is “the way of harmony”: finding the possibility of peace in the midst of conflict, using your attacker’s energy to undo their attack and protect you both.

In Aikidō, we work with wrist grabs, overhead strikes and strikes to the neck, punches to the solar plexus or the head; with multiple attackers and attacks with knives, swords and staves.  But we don’t address defenses against being cut off in traffic by some lunatic in an SUV, getting flamed online, or set up to fail by a control-freak boss; against being sued, having your identity stolen, or a close friend or relative going berserk on you in the middle of a restaurant. Let alone having your heart broken by a serial monogamist with commitment issues, or raising a teenager.

So does learning Aikidō, or any martial art, really cover the self-defense skills we need in our day-to-day lives?

No.

And it’s not supposed to. Martial arts are body training, learning how to be in your own body in an effective way. You can do that through conflict, being prepared to fight others to defend yourself; or through harmony. Aikidō is about harmony: very gradually, and often without understanding exactly what’s happening, changing from someone at the mercy of other people and your own emotions and reactions, into someone different. Someone who is capable of maintaining balance with others and within yourself; someone who can avoid contributing to hatred and conflict by returning good instead of evil, without becoming a victim: a force for harmony in the world.

As this happens, Aikidō will have an effect on your life, whether you notice it or not. But the possibility of learning from that connection is a valuable opportunity.

Aikidō helps me connect my body with my mind, my feelings, my life. When I’m practicing a technique and it brings up issues around safety or trust or aggressiveness or inadequacy, that’s a direct connection to the things I’m trying to learn how to deal with in my life. Paying attention to that connection will deepen my learning, inside the dōjō and in my life.  Everything I do in training that creates new physical experiences for me – a sense of balance or presence, centeredness or fluidity or flexibility – creates new possibilities. If I notice that happening, I can nurture it and find ways to explore it in my life.

More than that, Aikidō gives me a way to learn. I can bring the attitude of training to my everyday difficulties, and make my life my practice: using the (relatively) patient acceptance of the process of learning, even though I know I’m doing it wrong for now, to hold myself open to new possibilities. I’m traveling the path of harmony, in all its different forms: beginning with body training, and letting new feelings and thoughts, a new reality, grow from that. By trusting myself, the same way I have to learn to trust my body in the training.

Etiquette

(This post was written by Paul Norris.)

What’s necessary to your training? The techniques? Your sensei? Your senpai and fellow aikidōka?

For me, a lot of my training happens when I’m not doing technique: before it begins or after it’s over, or when I’m taking ukemi for my partner or for sensei; at the beginning of class, lining up and bowing in; watching sensei demonstrate techniques; and then at the end of class, as we clear the mat and leave. These are moments when I’m not “doing aikidō,” figuring out which foot to move and how to work with uke’s energy. They’re unavoidable, a necessary part of training in aikidō. But more than that: in these moments, I have time to consider my training in a larger sense, and how I go about it. I think of this as practising a specific skill: learning and trying to demonstrate proper etiquette.

Etiquette, for many Americans, is a trivial and anachronistic concept, a set of arbitrary rules that used to be important, say in mediaeval Europe or Japan, but which are basically irrelevant to our everyday lives. I’m American, so Japanese etiquette isn’t something I know how to do. That means I’m just pretending in the dōjō: trying to act the way I would if I were Japanese, and knowing at the same time that I can’t possibly succeed. I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t have any idea how to make my bow correspond to our relative social statuses. English doesn’t give me any way to choose language that reflects my relationship with the other person, the proper combination of honorifics and formal/informal constructions and how to use them appropriately. I only have a rough idea what “onegaishimasu” and “dōmo arigatō” mean, and I can’t even be sure I’m pronouncing them correctly. It would be a lot more ‘honest’ of me to just act like an American: not bow to anyone, wear jeans rather than a gi and hakama. And not learn aikidō at all. But here I am, practising a Japanese martial art, pretending to be someone I’m not. Is that necessary, or even worth doing? Is it part of training?

I think it’s very important. It’s a pretending that makes something else possible. Through my training, I’m learning to be different, more balanced and flexible. Etiquette is a central part of how I can do that: acting as if I’m Japanese. What I say, how and when I bow, is the evidence of my learning. Technique can’t be mastered just by doing technique: it’s the external demonstration of correct posture and balance, ki and ma-ai. The same way, etiquette is the external demonstration of my training in attitude. As I slowly find my way into the movements, as I learn to take ukemi, my technique improves; and as I learn to care about how I work with others, how my behavior reflects on my dōjō and on my sensei and fellow aikidōka, my etiquette improves. Seeing that happen supports me in my training, learning flexibility and balance, finding my center: becoming who I want to become.

 

Learning to Walk

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Walking has been described as a process of continually losing your balance and catching it again. We’re used to doing that, so it doesn’t feel as vulnerable and out-of-control as it sounds. Even running, which basically consists of keeping yourself so off-balance that you’re constantly falling forward, feels familiar and relatively safe. Most of us don’t remember learning to walk, but it’s a difficult skill to master, with a steep learning curve, frequent unanticipated catastrophes, scraped knees and tears.

Aikidō feels to me like learning to walk. It’s frustrating and humbling: it looks so effortless, and it’s so difficult to do. It’s counter-intuitive in many ways, so that I often feel like I’m fighting myself and my body’s familiar patterns. It involves working with partners who are grabbing me or trying to hit me, throw me or poke me with a wooden stick. And although I frequently explain to people that I’m pretty confident I could use my training in an actual fight, by keeping my head long enough to run away, in the dōjō you’re not technically supposed to run away from your uke.

There are moments when it all works: when I feel balanced and centered and able to blend with uke’s attack and re-direct it, effortlessly and spontaneously. I’m not sure these moments become more frequent or consistent or predictable with time – but maybe it’s just that I’m seeing more and more deeply into the limitations of my technique. I do seem to make fewer bone-headed mistakes, and I’ve been able to work on some of the deeper aspects of Aikidō: maintaining good posture, connecting with my ukes rather than just trying to throw them. But the training is still difficult and challenging.

I would love to master the art of Aikidō: at peace with myself and the world, fearless and enlightened, free forever of any embarrassment. No more need to be patient with myself or my partners, struggling to deal with my imperfections. But one of the joys and frustrations of training is the chance to see that it’s precisely my attachment to this unattainable goal that makes me lose my center, trying to muscle my partners into submission, gloating when I succeed in throwing someone and gritting my teeth when I fail.

In other words, continually losing my balance. Isn’t that what I really want to learn how to do? In the dōjō, but also in my life. I don’t study Aikidō for combat effectiveness: I’m not a good fighter. I lose my temper too easily, and I’m afraid of getting hurt. But if Aikidō is about being in harmony with the universe, does it make any sense to pursue a dream of unchanging balance? Training in Aikidō gives me a path to follow that leads me forward. Losing my balance on that path is part of walking it. Recovering my balance is the other part: acknowledging that I’m who I am, doing what I can do. No more and no less.