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.

On Ukemi

(This post was written by Joe LaTulippe, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Ukemi is a Japanese term that can be translated as “receiving”. In Aikido training, the art of ukemi is the art of receiving a technique. Ukemi is much more than just receiving; it is also the art of giving an attack. In order to be a good uke, you have to be able to give sincere attacks and be able to receive the techniques while protecting yourself from injury. You have to maintain connection with your training partner while keeping your speed of attack constant throughout the technique.

The art of ukemi is a complex collection of tasks that must be performed at a high level of comprehension. Your understanding of ukemi reflects your understanding of Aikido principles. As such, it should never be done lightly or in an insincere manner. After all, half your time learning Aikido is spent receiving techniques! Learning to be a good uke requires an understanding of giving sincere attacks, maintaining a good connection with your partner, and being able to escape safely through appropriate rolls and falls.

At the beginning, most of us are taught to attack by grabbing or striking. Since Aikido is a kata-based martial art, the effectiveness of the technique highly depends on the sincerity of the attack. A sincere attack is one that is manifested from the uke’s center and is given without reserve to their training partner. Speed is not as important as proper distance and appropriate trajectory. An important distinction exists between a sincere attack and a blind attack. A blind attack is one that is given from the center but lacks the uke’s attention or awareness. Even while giving a sincere attack, the uke should always be aware of their partner. An uke must be understand how a sudden shifts or movements by the nage will impact the movement. The idea of giving a sincere attack while maintaining control is a very difficult concept to grasp let alone perform. At the heart of this concept is the idea of connection.

Usually, connection is discussed as a way for the nage to maintain control during training. But connection is just as important for the uke to maintain as it is for the nage. It is part of giving a sincere attack. During a technique the uke should always be struggling to maintain connection with the nage; this is one of the most difficult aspects of ukemi. The uke is responsible for finding the balance between too much and too little energy and motion. In order to stay connected, the uke must always be working to maintain their balance. Since one objective of Aikido is to unbalance your partner, an ideal technique would find an unbalanced uke who is at the edge of regaining their balance. This requires a sense of awareness and understanding of the connection between the uke and the nage. Because of this connection, the uke can provide crucial feedback for the nage so that both partners are learning together.

Naturally when someone mentions ukemi, we conjure up images of rolls and falls done by the uke as a result of a throw. In reality, this is just a small (but important) piece of the ukemi puzzle. Practicing rolling and falling from different stances is key to learning how to escape techniques in a safe manner. Such practice allows you to gain confidence in yourself and puts you in a position to receive even when you don’t know what to expect. Even if the nage has the best of intentions and is trustworthy, you may find yourself in a position that requires an awkward fall. Being able to perform an awkward fall may be the difference between a serious injury and a safe escape. Performing falls can become an art in itself, and many practitioners study how to perform silent soft falls, high break falls, and the combination of the two: “soft break falls.” In addition, many study how to become nage while falling, thus maintaining the connection to their partner at all times. Although falling can be very graceful, safety is the ultimate goal while performing ukemi.

The best ukes are those who can give a sincere attack at the appropriate speed based on the level of the nage while maintaining connection with them. They will be able to lead the nage (often without the nage’s knowledge) through the technique and be able to take the appropriate fall necessary based on the energy given by the nage. The art of ukemi begins with a sincere attack, is followed by a struggle to maintain connection with the nage, and usually ends with a fall, bringing together the ideas of both giving and receiving. Ukemi should always be performed in a way that helps both training partners learn the principles of Aikido.