TAE Journal, Edition 7, The Un-straightforward Issue of Ukemi in Aikido. By Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros
FROM EDITION 7 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2021
First of all, let’s begin with some definitions. ‘Ukemi’ (Japanese: 受け身) is comprised of two parts: the verb ‘ukeru’ (受ける) which means ‘to receive’ and the character for body or self ‘mi’ (身). Hence the literal meaning can be yielded as ‘receiving body’.
This term is also used in other martial arts such as Judo, the various Jiu Jitsu and Koryu schools and Sumo. According to each, there are subtle differences in meaning as to what ukemi actually entails in practice.
The general idea across all arts is that ukemi is the ‘art of falling safely’ (“けがをしないように倒れる方法”) and implies a somewhat passive attitude in the face of receiving a technique. This is also a common conception in Aikido.
My understanding of ukemi is somewhat more complex than uke simply receiving nage’s technique and applies to nage as well. In Aikido ukemi is a fundamental cornerstone of the art but in its application there are numerous potential misunderstandings and pitfalls. In this article I would like to explore the main issues from the point of view of my own experience and understanding.
In Aikido we seek to ‘join / harmonise with’ the intent, energy and body of the other (Ai-Ki-Do).
If we break down this process into its component parts for greater understanding then a first step will be the simple perception/awareness of the other. This is just simply being present to our experience in a clear and unclouded way. We are undistracted, present and calmly aware of our environment.
Into this open field of awareness an event takes place that draws our attention. In this case an attacker (uke) closes distance towards us and initiates an attack.
Our attention should not collapse at this moment towards uke but include him fully (isshin) while remaining open to other possibilities in the environment (zanshin).
As uke initiates his action towards us we could say that ukemi as an extension of simple awareness is already taking place in the sense that we ‘receive’ the intent and physical attack fully. What this implies is that at the moment of threat we do not close down our awareness defensively, resist or attempt to avoid or deny what is taking place. We receive the other as fully as we can.
It is this receiving of the other that is fundamental to ‘making a connection’ (ki musubi) such that we can ‘join with’ and ‘harmonise with’ the intent and energy of the attacker and make a connection from center to center.
Nage as such, seeks to relax in the face of the attack, in effect ‘softening’ and extending his feeling out towards uke at the same time as receiving him. Hence ‘receiving’ is not just passive. It is a dynamic action being both active as well as receptive. Nage both ‘reaches out’ as well as receives the other making a feeling connection with uke.
Uke in turn in receiving nage’s response will be led off balance and have their structure disorganised by nage’s technique as they absorb the attack (just as nage centers and organises their own structure in the face of the destabilising intent of uke’s attack). Thus the connection that nage establishes from center to center with uke is not symmetrical: nage is at the center while uke is at the periphery. Nage is structurally organised while uke is disorganised. In this relationship where uke has become an extension of nage’s body and center, nage will ideally control uke’s movements simply by moving them-self. Nage and uke are now ideally ‘one body’.
In this situation uke can attempt to resist, escape or attack, but from his off balance, disorganised and weakened position these strategies are not optimal as far as taking care of their integrity and safety are concerned. Their position is now similar to that of a surfer who finds them-self being swept into the wave. They can blend and join with the force of the wave - or resist. So their best strategy could be described as ‘cooperation with the inevitable’. They ‘take ukemi’ or risk injury.
Of course a deeper level of technique is where nage has such control over uke’s body that uke has no choice at all. Taking ukemi from my teacher Morihiro Saito Sensei many times the experience was of attacking strongly while Sensei would absorb my attack and drop me to the ground beyond any possibility of resisting. If he was applying a nikkyo for example, the technique felt like a weight dropping through my whole body.
So ukemi understood more deeply as an attitude of both positivity and receptivity is really about acquiring and developing a responsiveness to experience and is taking place in practice in both roles as nage and uke. Nage receives uke’s attack and uke receives nage’s technique in an asymmetrical relationship which aims to restore harmony to conflict and which defines Aikido as a martial art.
For Aikidoka, whether in the role of uke or nage, the whole process of acquiring this kind of skill all begins with consciousness: The mind must relax its tendency to over focus, release grasping at conceptual constructs and allow for a wider appreciation of immediate experience (zanshin) through taking a ‘step backwards’ into a basic consciousness which is not entranced or distracted by thought (mushin). From this ‘non position’ one’s experience is much more direct and in the moment.
The above is the easy part to explain. Now the nuts and bolts:
Practice: the uke-nage format in Aikido
Now the various technical levels of application in practice and the places where confusion can enter:
The uke - nage format for training is essentially an agreement (kata). As far as ukemi is concerned there are various levels to be taken into consideration.
Basic level training
During the first years of training at the mostly kihon level (at least within the Aikido as taught by Saito Morihiro Sensei) uke applies a neutral attack measured in intensity to the ability of nage to execute the technique while being as faithful as they can to the principles underlying the technique and training process. Uke at this level does not resist or change their attack while nage is executing the technique.
At this first level both nage and uke are working mostly on structure and basic techniques: training to bring order and structure back to their bodies which in turn allows for the center to gain control and direction over the periphery of the body.
Sensei often reminded us that we should always blend our attack as uke’s with the level of nage’s ability to work with it (‘aite awashite’). Thus essentially uke sets the parameters for nage to train within.
However this ideally depends on uke being the senior partner:
With beginners they will relax the power of their attack and essentially ‘guide’ the beginner with their ukemi, moulding their technique.
With junior practitioners uke will increase the power of their attack and ‘guide’ less.
With more senior practitioners uke will adjust the power of his attack to their limit and while neutral, will not suggest directions for nage in his technique.
The above ideal situation where essentially uke is the senior is not always possible in a busy dojo where partners of mixed levels train together.
So the basic practice rules at this level are to adjust the power of the attacks to nage’s level, to give a neutral attack and not to block the technique.
What needs to be appreciated is that throughout this first level it is not just a matter of learning the basic techniques (the ‘grammar’ of the art) but also of bringing order and structure to the body while creating new patterns of response and movement. The practice of Techniques and Principles must go hand in hand.
The training is mostly static kihon (approx 80% of the time) and takes about 5 years or more up to the levels of shodan and nidan
Intermediate level training
This is training where uke can gradually and in a controlled manner resist nage’s technique. Now the collaborative process entails testing and refining technique by being less collaborative with and forgiving of nage. For example if at the basic level uke would ‘allow’ peripheral nikkyo’s focused on the wrist and forearm now the demand is for deeper ‘chaining’ into the back and body for uke to yield his position and take ukemi.
This kind of training is delicate and both parties must be very clear about what they are trying to accomplish. It should never devolve into simply being obstructive.
In training, the uke-nage format is a collaborative relationship designed so that both parties learn. At this level that relationship remains the same. If uke ‘demands’ a deeper level of technique but nage cannot go there, uke must drop back - to where nage can train constructively.
Another example to make this level clear: in morote dori kokyu ho, uke holds with moderate strength while for a period of years (basic level) nage tries to integrate and connect ‘shoulder-elbow-center’ movement downwards on the initial spiral entry aligning with uke’s body in the same direction. When nage begins to establish this organisation in their technique uke can ‘test and refine’ it further by, for example, subtly ‘closing’ his shoulder frontally and hence stopping any movement in nage that begins by loading the shoulder. For this second level ‘test’ no extra power is needed on behalf of uke but the subtle change in the extension of uke’s grip demands much greater organisation of both movement and sensitivity for nage. In effect nage must initiate and organize the spiral entry from his center - and not from his shoulder.
This level can be trained at both kihon or ki no nagare levels. Technique must be sufficiently internalised so that both partners are more focused on the ‘feel’ of them than on the mechanics of them. It is this ‘feel’ that allows deeper access and connection.
This is possible usually at sandan and yondan levels.
Advanced level training
It is often said in Aikido that control of the attacker must be established in the very first moment of the encounter. An Aikidoka will seek to eliminate time and space (ma-ai) to his opponent: there should be no time or gap that allows for uke to continue or followup his attack. An Aikidoka should consider that time and space are allies that they should have on their side and deny to their attacker.
Hence at this level - which is usually trained within different forms of jiyu waza - nage seeks to establish control over uke’s center from the outset. In this way, the attack and the energy behind it will be diffused from the beginning of the encounter.
This level requires a high level of technique (no thinking or ‘looking for’ waza) and a high level of sensitivity and responsiveness on the part of uke.
Consider the following game/exercise:
Uke can attack with any type of attack (grab, strike or kick) at high speed. He is not going to yield to any technique that nage is able to apply if he can actively resist and continue thereby his attack. Uke’s job is to attack and corner nage such that his freedom has been eliminated.
Uke throws a punch to the face and nage is able to sidestep while making contact with the forearm and proceeds directly into ikkyo ura.
But…nage only has uke’s arm. Uke’s center line and body remain strong and under their own control.
Uke retracts their arm turning into another angle that allows for a second followup strike.
If at this moment nage is fixated on the failed ikkyo trying to force it through they will be unable to follow uke and will be struck with the follow up.
If however they ‘flow’ with uke’s response as they reposition a second technique becomes potentially available where they can contact uke’s center and neutralize them (henka waza).
These types of ‘games’ still have rules: no gouging or strikes to eyes or groin etc. And most importantly an agreement as to the speed and power and intensity of the attacks: both as uke as well as nage. Typically we begin in slow motion with limited attacks and build up speed and power broadening the variety of grabs and strikes possible. The main consideration is to stay within the parameters of mutual connection. - and safety.
One more point about these types of exercises or ‘games’ as I call them. For both uke and nage the ‘knowing’ of whether a technique is ‘locked in’ must be direct and physical.
For example, at a given instant in the interaction nage is able to ‘chain’ into uke’s center with a kote gaeshi. All the slack in uke’s structure is suddenly taken out and it is just about dropping uke down. If uke does not feel that he is ‘caught’ and continues his attack then injury is very likely as nage drops him. So uke needs to feel directly what nage is doing and instantly yield his position if his center is caught. And all of this has to happen faster than thought.
This level can be grasped from Godan and above.
Problems and pitfalls
As can be seen from the above, many many confusions and misunderstandings can enter the nage - uke format Aikido uses for training.
There are two broad domains (with many variations) where practice loses its way as far as ukemi is concerned:
1. Over facilitation
It is possible to spend years never actually going beyond the basic level of neutral collaboration in the sense that uke misunderstands what is happening: they take the fall regardless of the quality of the technique. In this case nage really never gets the feedback they eventually need to actually make the techniques ‘work’ in the sense of controlling uke’s center. Yes, uke must fall and not ‘test’ at this level. But they must also ‘connect’ and the relationship between uke and nage must be able to adapt to the levels of each. Simply falling regardless of what nage is doing creates an illusion of techniques working when they do not.
For uke in this ‘over facilitative’ scenario since they rarely (if ever) experience techniques which actually control and inhibit their freedom of movement, they never really learn to ‘surf the wave’. Ukemi seems to be about learning a choreography of falling certain ways for certain techniques while actually retaining choice of movement. An Aikidoka who has trained this way is unable to deal with an attack that is sudden and powerful in the sense that dealing with this is not about having a choice or being able to anticipate and ‘get in front of it’ with one’s ukemi. It’s about how one has trained.
An example of this:
After coming back from Japan and while setting up my first Dojo I took on extra work as a waiter/kitchen helper to bring in extra money. On a Sunday the restaurant was organising the catering for a wedding celebration. Between the main dining hall and the connecting corridor one of the back rooms was being used as a ‘catering station’ for getting all the food organised and distributed out to the busy party by a team of frantic waiters, cooks and cooking assistants. There was a double door which swung open on both sides allowing hurrying waiters to enter and exit the room. At one point I was carrying a large oval dish with canapés on my shoulder as I exited the room and … precisely at the moment I went through the swinging doors I met another waiter coming through from the other side with a similar large (empty) dish. Actually I do not know how we did not collide full on. Unthinkingly I somehow dropped and spun around him while he startled and froze. The next moment I was in the corridor, canapés intact. There was no choice, no thinking. Only responding directly. For me, this is what ukemi is about.
Another pitfall is constantly resisting nage with the demand that ‘I only take ukemi if I feel the technique forces me to’. This is confusing ‘strong’ training with blocking your partner all or most of the time. Again, it is very difficult to learn the techniques this way. Uke himself remains stiff and unresponsive. The result is stiff ineffective aikido.
Again, as in the above over-facilitative scenario, this training does not transfer beyond the mat to the ‘real world’ of ‘non agreed upon surprises’. Our stiff uke is as vulnerable as our over facilitative one in the face of the non negotiating ‘wave’.
However…’correct’ ukemi is not in-between being either over-facilitative and yielding or hard and obstructive. Both of these tendencies are just different ways of not connecting. Functional ukemi can be either light and flowing or heavy and dense. It is fundamentally about connection. No connection, no ukemi and in fact, no Aikido. The following poem illustrates this and is not only applicable to the the techniques but to ukemi as well:
Techniques employ four qualities
that reflect the nature of our world.
Depending on the circumstance,
you should be:
hard as a diamond,
flexible as a willow,
smooth-flowing like water,
or as empty as space.
Morihei Ueshiba as translated by John Stevens (The Art of Peace).
The original objective of all martial arts was to teach a particular system of combat in a controlled safe environment (the Dojo) which could transfer to the unsafe and uncontrolled environment of the battlefield.
Ukemi is really an art in itself and is the ability to be able to connect, yield and respond to pressure in such a way that one’s integrity can be maintained.
As such, the training process should take us carefully and logically through graduated stages of practice whose aim is to move us from blind reactivity towards unthinking responsiveness.
I end with one of my favourite poems. Possibly the source of the ‘internal’ martial arts traditions.
Tao te Ching. Chapter 76.
Men are born soft and supple;
Dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
Dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
Is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and and yielding
Is a disciple of life.
The hard and the stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail
(Lao Tzu translated by Stephen Mitchell 1995)