We all know that Aikido translates from the Japanese as "The Way of Harmony and Spirit". Aikido is essentially non-aggressive and nonviolent, and in its orthodox form is totally noncompetitive (LA website – What is Aikido - Overview). All Aikido students know this.
It is based on spherical movements by which an attacker's aggressive force is not met with force, but is instead deflected or turned back on itself. It includes both throws and joint locks, which, although effective and painful, are applied so as not to cause injury. One seeks to overcome an attacker by first blending with the incoming attack then redirecting its energy. Taking the attackers balance both physically and mentally and then controlling the movement is important in Aikido. An important part of any technique is the ukemi taken by uke – the attacker – once tori has blended/ harmonised with the attack.
It is not natural for humans to allow their balance to be taken. It creates a fear in the brain and a tension in the reaction.
The action of uke is called "taking ukemi". Literally translated as "receiving body", it is the art of knowing how to respond correctly to an attack and incorporates skills to allow one to do so safely. Ukemi is not purely forward and backward breakfalls.
Ukemi is the most important part that Uke plays in any technique. It is possibly the most significant part of our Aikido! Yet we spend proportionally little time concentrating on it or emphasising it and so much more time on how to perform techniques. There seems to be a misconception that ukemi, or the art of falling, is thought of as the passive, difficult, or the less desirable aspect of Aikido practice.
Yet the art of Aikido is a relationship/ partnership between tori and uke. When watching an Aikido demonstration, freestyle or kokyu, with a variety of strikes, grabs, and punches the the tori is blending and redirecting the uke into backward or forward rolling breakfalls or putting them down onto the mat. It's fun for all involved. The tori is receiving the power of uke attack and redirecting it so that uke receives the power of the throw and is able to channel this into a graceful, safe breakfall.
Yes - as uke you are being thrown and this should always be an ongoing active part of the partnership with tori. Generally speaking uke can be said to have two roles in Aikido. The first is as the attacker. Uke needs to give a good, committed attack in order for both uke and tori to benefit from the practice. Learning to give committed attacks is a study on its own.
The second role is for uke to remain an active partner once tori blends with the attack and starts to redirect it. The act of blending changes the experience because uke is no longer leading, but following. At this point many ukes often become passive. They have done their part in attacking. They let tori drag them round and toss them to the ground as if they are sack of potatoes.
A good uke should always be active and follow tori's lead under their own power and direction until they notice that balance is going taken. This is the point at which you actively disengage your interaction with tori and lower yourself to the ground. Aikido is the way of Harmony and Spirit remember this when you are a uke and engage with tori's technique throughout.
Now imagine yourself attacking with a clear shomenuchi from above your head. As tori blends with your attack to perform ikkyo your body is bent and your energy is downwards towards the ground. At this point you can simply be slammed into the ground like a sack of potatoes mentioned earlier, or you can be active, i.e lower yourself to the ground intentionally. Remember at each point you want to keep your balance. Tori is continually taking your balance and, by performing active ukemi, you are continually re-establishing your balance. This 'dance' goes on all the way to the ground. The method of active ukemi is very simple. Once you feel your balance going, don't resist. Take a step or two to recover your balance and then lower yourself, under your own control, to the mat. Of course, your speed will have to match your partner's.
To further get a feel for what this is like. Imagine as uke you strike at tori who then performs a technique. Go through the movements of the takedown in slow motion. If you are performing the movements under your own control, you'll be able to stop and reverse the movement at any time.
You want to have this feeling of control, reversibility when someone is really throwing you.
We cannot / will not / should not wrap Aikido students in cotton wool. It is a martial art after all!
At any given Aikido practice, we fall down and get up again at least a hundred times or more and in all likelihood you will come away from sessions with some minor bumps and bruises, the odd sprain or strain! However, the willingness to remain an active uke is more likely to help you to address what the hurt of falling down means, viewing it as leaning experience, building up your expertise.
Staying present with tori's energy, becoming an active uke, taking care of ourselves in the process, we become more resilient, flexible, and less fearful. Your choice makes a difference between crumpling and getting up off the mat to try again. You may not get it right the first time or the first few times but you develop a willingness to keep trying which continuously develops your ukemi and Aikido skills.
There is a tactical reason for considering this method of practice. Should your partner provide an opening, you are in position (that is, in control) to move through that opening. You may be able to reverse or counter a technique if you are in balance and in control of your own falling.
Finally, and again this could be a study on its own. Practice breathing correctly when you take ukemi. It is very important. If you hold your breath, your body won't be soft and limber and you'll wear yourself out. If your ukemi seems difficult, use your breath to help take the fall.
An Aikidoka who is open about ukemi can make any tori's technique look and more significantly possibly, feel good. Do not underestimate the power of good ukemi or the enjoyment it gives.
Sue Baird 4th Dan Published 2016