Monthly Archives: August 2015

Thoughts on Ukemi

What is Ukemi?

Ukemi is a critical skill in aikido.  In a sense, ukemi is more important than anything else in learning aikido.

Initially, ukemi is important to avoid getting hurt.  We fall down a lot in aikido, and, especially on a soft surface, it is easy to learn to avoid getting hurt, even if you are big, and even if you are clumsy and out of shape.  As we get better, often we get thrown harder.  Our ukemi needs to progress so that we still do not get hurt.  The goal is for a young fit aikidoka to be able to take being thrown as hard as anybody can throw them, and still not get hurt.

Ukemi can be useful if we fall outside.  One local aikidoka fell three stories onto concrete at a construction site, rolled to his feet, and walked away uninjured.  We don’t have as much ice as up north, but there are still lots of opportunities to avoid getting hurt by using ukemi.

As we progress, it is an important part of ukemi to stay connected to nage.  If we grab an arm and the person can pull free and hit us, this is poor ukemi.  We should be able to move to absorb the energy and prevent him pulling free.  This might mean we have to move our body.  But it is better to move our bodies and maybe roll away, rather than be stiff, stand where we are, lose our grip and get hit, and then hit again, and again.

This logic means it is important to get space and roll back to our feet facing nage.  Crumpling to the ground at nage’s feet is not too bad in the dojo, but aikido is a martial art, and crumpling at an attacker’s feet outside the dojo is likely to mean we will get kicked in the ribs, in the head…  Stiffening up to stop somebody throwing us is not a good idea either, as that allows nage to put tremendous force onto part of our body, such as a wrist.  Resisting technique is probably the commonest cause of injuries in aikido.

Moving, blending with the technique is important for uke, and ultimately it is critical to effective performance of kaeshi waza (counter techniques).  The same stickiness and flowing ukemi that is important for surviving also lets us take the initiative back from our partner.  Uke can become nage, and if this is done well, can throw his partner.  If his partner also has good ukemi, that partner might also be able to flow well enough to take control of the flow back from the new nage and reverse the kaeshiwaza, and this can go on until one person gets sufficient control to finish a technique.  This is really advanced aikido.

What is aikido?

osensei9Ueshiba Aikido is a Japanese martial art focused on self defense and personal development. It was developed during the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba from older arts, particularly Daito Ryu, and stresses energetically harmonizing with an attacker’s movements to neutralize the attack. Consequently, it is less dependent on size and strength than other forms of self defense. Besides providing an effective means of self defense, it is an enjoyable way to get exercise, develop mental discipline and self esteem, and reduce stress. The principles of aikido are also excellent for use in everyday life for conflict resolution. (Nihon Goshin Aikido was also developed from Daito Ryu about the same time. It is, however, historically distinct from the style taught by the Ueshiba family, from which the style taught at Enmei Dojo evolved.)

Aikido is about connection and attitude. Connection is essential if we are to do technique, and also in everyday life. Without connection, we are unable to affect uke, or to relate to people around us. When we are attacked, somebody is trying to make a connection with us, but a connection they control to our detriment. We can accept the attack so that we can make a connection, but it must be on our terms, and must be used to contain and ameliorate violence. There is more than enough violence in the world, and we certainly do not want to create more. Often, through fear, we work to prevent the connection occurring, then there is nothing we can do to control the attacker or prevent the next attack. Instead, we must welcome the attack, while not receiving more of the power of the attack than we can comfortably handle. Once we have made this connection, we want to maintain it, controlling it to limit the attacker’s options for renewing the attack, and using it to undermine his position so that we can bring about a peaceful resolution of the aggression. This sounds pacifistic, yet in practice demands a lot of nage, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

We would prefer that the result of technique is a de-escalation of violence. Ideally, both an attacker and the person he attacked would walk away. To even attempt to do this, an aikidoka needs to have strong technique, both as nage and uke. Ukemi is often neglected as merely what uke does to survive. Yet ukemi is a major part of aikido. Uke should attack and keep on attacking. Even if the attack is soft, to allow a smaller or less experienced person to practice, it should be correct and relentless.

There are many flavors of aikido, such as Aikikai (e.g. AAA, ASU, Iwama, and USAF), Ki Society, Shodokan (Tomiki), and Yoshinkan. Particularly through Aikido-L seminars we have tasted many of these. All of them have something to offer. Ki Society generally stresses non resistance, flowing. Yoshinkan generally teaches precision and power. Tomiki has included some ideas from judo, and involves competition. Contrary to popular belief, O Sensei was not against competition as a training tool, though he seems to have had contempt for the idea that anything significant could be decided by sports competitions. Aikikai covers the middle ground, and encompasses a lot of variety, largely through the efforts of the Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, in encouraging all aikidoka to work together.

Our approach to aikido is eclectic, taking ideas from everywhere, but forging them into a harmonious whole. The Orlando Police Department school takes a more martial approach, due to many of the students using aikido in their jobs. Dr Drysdale began in a quite martial style in England, and has been working to retain the martial effectiveness while making the art work better for smaller people. Dr Spitz is only 110 lbs, and has to do techniques somewhat differently from Dr Drysdale at 140 lbs, and much differently from somebody weighing in at 250 lbs. O Sensei was short – about 5 feet tall – but very strong, reportedly weighing 180 lbs when he died.

There are a number of keys to aikido working effectively. A strong attitude is essential – it is the size of the fight in the dog, not the size of the dog in the fight.  Good technique is vital. Kuzushi is critical – and this involves sente (taking the initiative), mechanical position, and leverage.

Sente. You must take charge from before physical contact occurs. If you react to physical contact, you will be too late and will lose.  This is true even with tenkan techniques and go no sen timing.

Mechanical position involves both where uke is and where nage is, particularly the relationship between them. If nage meets uke and pushes against uke directly, the strongest one wins. Very little technique is involved. If nage pushes from off the line of attack, he can apply his force against the end of uke’s arm and thus effortlessly change uke’s position and posture. If nage moves early or late, he can also avoid conflicting with uke’s strength.

Leverage is also used when nage applies his strength against uke so that uke’s body mechanics multiply its effectiveness. Thus, when nage flexes uke’s wrist and uses his hand to rotate uke’s forearm, he can achieve a mechanical advantage of perhaps four to one – as if a 150 lb aikidoka is suddenly a 600 lb gorilla.

Individually, these examples are trivial. When an advanced aikidoka applies them and others correctly, the result is a subtle undermining of uke’s posture, leading to greater and greater difficulties for him until he is thrown (largely by gravity) or immobilized on the mat.

Strength is an interesting thing in aikido. As a beginning student 40 years ago at the University of Reading, I was admonished not to use strength by people who were clearly using far more strength than I was. Perhaps it is better to tell students not to strain to do technique, and to practice at using as little strength as possible.  If you are strong enough, you don’t need aikido, but I believe that aikido is the efficient use of strength. Straining is bad, because it can injure you and is probably an indication that your technique is not sufficiently advanced to do the technique correctly in that situation. Thus, it is good practice to use as little strength as possible on the mat. In real life, you may need to use more strength than is ideal.  In the dojo, what is important is learning.  Outside the dojo, your life may be at risk, and what is important is sucess, surviving.

Aikido is differentiated from other martial arts by the technical repertoire, its history, and its ethics. None of these are absolutes except the historical connection to the Ueshiba family. There are atemi (strikes) in aikido just as there are in karate. The throws and holds are somewhat similar to Kodokan Judo. However, the technical focus of aikido is somewhat different from other arts.

The ethics of aikido are to spread harmony around the world. This is perhaps the most important reason to practice it.

For additional information about Dr Drysdale’s ideas on aikido, developed over 50 years of martial arts training, see Spitz Publishing.