Learning Aikido through Ukemi.
What is Ukemi?
In Aikido Uke is regarded as a partner and is someone you train with, not someone you train on. Uke is the receiver of an Aikido technique while Tori is the person who executes the technique. The better you carry out the role of Uke the better your own Aikido will become. If you are just waiting for your turn to do the technique then it will be very difficult for you to learn Aikido.
Jumping through the air and falling is not what is meant by the term ukemi in Aikido. Ukemi is the receipt of technique – you must be immobilised or thrown to truly receive. In the beginning, learn to go where Tori leads, move lightly, but firm and without any pre-apprehension, don’t second guess Tori’s intentions, learn to trust your Tori, but in particular learn to rely on your own ukemi abilities. Next, get past the stage of knowing where you are going to fall. Skill at being Uke is the single most important factor in determining your personal Aikido potential.
When training in Japan we always asked each other to train together by saying the words, “Yoroshiku Onegai Shimasu” which is a polite way of saying ‘please’, but was often described to me when asking someone to train with you as meaning, ‘I place myself in your caring hands please look after me’. Tori has a responsibility always to have a care for their Uke, to be aware of their environment and never to throw Uke into harm’s way. When we finished training together we said the words “Domo Arigato Gozaimashita’ which is a polite way of saying ‘thank you’ in the past tense, but also implied the meaning ‘thank you for taking good care of me’. When training together we are in essence borrowing each other’s bodies for that purpose, it is always best to return a borrowed item in as good or better shape than it was in when first borrowed.
Uke needs to actively add energy to the attack. Ukes who grab onto Tori's wrist hard and resist all movement are not learning Aikido they are, in reality, stopping or blocking the learning process. It is possible to practice Aikido that way but, it is not ideal if you want to learn good Aikido. If Uke does grab on hard it is imperative that they press in and contact Tori's centre and create a real attack. Uke is not dead weight, Uke should not just hang onto Tori, Uke should be alive, energetic, active, re-active, open-minded, participating and learning all of the time. Uke should be like a sponge absorbing and learning Aikido through their own ukemi.
How learning occurs in Aikido:
Taking ukemi means to receive technique but, in Aikido the role of Uke is far more important than just that. If there is no attack, there can be no technique in Aikido. The ideal scenario for learning to occur is where both Tori and Uke each produce about 50% of the technique between them. Uke’s energy should be active the whole time for good Aikido learning to occur. The secret to learning and progressing your own personal Aikido skills as Tori is to first learn to become a good responsive Uke. It is by being Uke that you will understand how your own energy is being manipulated. It stands to reason then that, an alive, responsive Uke will learn and improve quickly in Aikido. This is the traditional learning process that exists in Japan the student must, is expected, to steal the art from the master.
How to become a good Uke:
When taking ukemi it is important to breathe. Always emphasise breathing out and relaxation when you are practising break-falls. Holding the breath promotes stiffness which is easily detected by Tori, it also results in a loss of energy and ability to continue the practice and can result in injuries. The importance of learning good breathing from the beginning cannot be stressed enough. Good breathing will promote your ability to practice Aikido safely, energetically and for a longer period of time.
During the application of an Aikido technique, Uke should continually try to get up or recover their posture and balance. After being fully immobilised on the mat, on release Uke should get up quickly and energetically. When repeatedly getting up of the mat Uke should maintain composure, kamae (proper posture & attitude with a forward momentum), alertness, energy and motivation. Alertness is very important for Uke due to Tori’s use of Atemi, a punch or hand strike to the face or other vital point, Uke should be ready to defend against an Atemi, the use of Atemi is more to distract Uke rather than hurt Uke. My Sempai, Niall Matthews, always said to me “be alert, Britain needs lerts” it was a really good way for me to remember to be alert when taking ukemi.
How Aikido training should feel:
The responsive Aiki feeling between Tori and Uke also allows for a psychological understanding to exist between them. Instinctively Tori will know if Uke is happy, apprehensive, nervous, or not. This instinct in Aikido becomes keener over time. The Japanese word kimochi translates to feeling, sensation or mood and Yoi-kimochi or I-kimochi describes a good feeling or a nice sensation/mood. I-kimochi should always exist between Tori and Uke during the execution of Aikido techniques, in other words Aikido training and the learning process should be pleasurable for both Uke and Tori not painful. There is no place in good Aikido for physical or psychological bullying. If bullying exists in your Aikido training then you are in the wrong place to learn good Aikido.
In time, your ukemi skill will improve and this will lead to improved overall skill in Aikido. Also, you will clearly see that your improved skill in ukemi really helps you to learn kaeshi-waza (counter technique) or returning the technique on your partner. Simply, if you go with the flow, you should/will learn to reverse that flow. And later still, you should be able to do your waza against someone who resists, or against someone who is trying to counter you. That requires doing your Aikido without using the power in the upper body, real power in Aikido comes from the hips, the legs the hara (centre just below your belly button) and your intention (your mind and spirit) but, that is a whole other topic for another day.
Being a good Uke does not work by magic, you have to plan your training accordingly. I would like to thank my Sempai, Kisawa San for allowing me to take his uke so many times during free practice after our normal training. He greatly impacted my personal Aikido training in a hugely positive way. He was the tough one, with the kind eyes and friendly smile, the traditional Japanese carpenter, a complex, but very interesting character.
Billy McAuley, Asoryu Aikido Club, Huddersfield, UK. 29/04/2017.