Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ukemi: The Other Half of Aikido

by Pat Musselman Sensei

Ukemi (pronounced 'oo'-'keh'-'mee') is defined in many different ways, but the common theme among all definitions has to do with receiving and falling. Many times it is simply referred to as "the art of falling." In my opinion it is a mistake to simply think of ukemi as falling down. If we break down the word itself we find that 'uke' (the person being thrown) means "to receive," and 'Mi' means "through the body." Therefore, I like to think of ukemi as just that; receiving through the body. In general terms, we all recognize ukemi as tumbling and falling. It is a method of protecting our bodies as we fall from an Aikido technique applied by the thrower or 'nage' (pronounced 'nah'-'gay'). In reality, ukemi is so much more than just falling down.

If we consider that roughly half the time on the mat we are uke and the other half nage we see just how important ukemi is. Ukemi is 50% of our training! Many times we only consider our turn as nage to be important for our development. This thinking couldn't be further from the truth! Proper ukemi practice is an essential part of training that is often overlooked. Ukemi helps us with spatial awareness. It also provides crucial information about the technique being practiced. If we change our perspective from just being a training dummy, to being a receiver, we gain more insight about the technique. Developing good ukemi skills is also very important because it prevents injury and serves as a gateway to more advanced techniques.

There are many different styles of ukemi. Just like everything else in Aikido, it will alter slightly from one person to the next based on their particular style and body type. The fundamental principles of ukemi stay the same. First and foremost we must protect the head and spine. No matter what your ukemi looks like, if you can get up off the floor without injury you are on the right track. The way we protect ourselves is by eliminating the corners of the body. The goal is to make our bodies round so that we blend with the mat as we land. Finally we must stay relaxed and breathe through the roll.

There is another very important aspect of ukemi which is often overlooked and that is the "art of attacking." As uke we must be 100% focused on the moment. It is easy to allow other thoughts to enter our mind during ukemi. This is especially true if we treat ukemi like wasted time between turns being nage. As uke we must commit ourselves completely, both mind and body, to the role as attacker. Once uke attacks he/she needs to follow through. The common problem is that many times we are attacking in slow motion and we know what technique it coming. If we loose focus this may cause us to alter our attack and our body's response to the technique. It is important that we don't input unnatural movement or fall prematurely.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome when learning how to take ukemi is fear. This is a very natural response to something which we know has the potential to cause us pain or injury. As uke you should never hesitate to communicate to your nage that you are uncomfortable falling from a particular technique. With that in mind uke should remember to never attack faster than he/she can fall, and nage should always take into consideration the experience level of their uke. Ultimately, through continued practice and repetition we develop muscle memory and uke no longer has to mentally prepare for a fall. Once this level is achieved ukemi becomes as simple as going with the flow.

A final thought on ukemi is this: Never take an opportunity to train for granted. The idea that our training doesn't begin until we break off into partners and practice as nage will severely limit our ability to grow as Aikido students (Aikidoka). Most of us have such a small amount of time during the week to actually spend in the dojo. When we come to the dojo we need to take advantage of every moment to hone our Aikido skills. The moment we step foot on the mat we need to turn off all of life's distractions and be totally focused on the training at hand. Don't waste this opportunity. We must make the most out of every moment.
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