The theme song of the martial art Aikido might as well be the chorus from Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.”

I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down
I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down

In Japanese martial, arts, uke is the person who receives a technique and ukemi is what uke does to safely receive this technique. Unless you are a master instructor with your own dojo and plenty of students, for every four times you are nage (the person doing the throw or pin,) you will be uke (the person thrown or pinned.) When you start learning to fall, there is a similarity to a cardboard box being blown down the road. It doesn’t roll, it bangs along, the corners and edges striking the asphalt hard. Compare this to a ball rolling down the same street. You want to be the ball,  able to do move along without injuring yourself, but also without exhausting yourself. You can’t practice when you’re too tired to stand or you have injure joints or broken bones, especially as one ages.

I’ve been practicing Aikido since April 4th, 1995–21 years, 7 months, 25 days–and I’ve gotten fair at it–falling down, that is.  Here’s some video that was taken mumbledy months ago on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday.

While some translate ukemi as falling or rolling, in aikido it is much more than that. First of all there are some three basic purposes: absorbing the technique without injury, creating distance from nage, and recovering your balance and posture.

In addition, uke has the difficult task of performing a sincere attack while trying to completely forget that he knows the technique that is coming. With a few exceptions, before standing up to practice, both partners have just seen their sensei demonstrate the technique.

Then there is a whole level of deep study involving uke’s connection to nage, a connection that starts while they are still several feet apart and, if done right, continues throughout the technique, and after. When possible, uke does his best to keep his center turned toward nage. This not only makes his ability to absorb the technique easier, it allows him watch for any blows or changes in the technique. Aikido is called a “gentle” art, probably because there is the choice of neutralizing an attacker without inflicting injury, but this is misleading. At a several points through most aikido techniques there are moments where a lethal or crippling blow can be struck, or the nature of the technique can be modified to result in serious injury.  Uke need to be able to see these moments and to be able to respond.

At the other end of the spectrum, there can be moments in techniques, if nage is being sloppy in his execution, where the technique doesn’t work . Uke shouldn’t just fall down when the technique has not taken his balance, and he should also be aware of those moments where he could reverse roles, where the ineffective execution would let him become nage, mid technique.

Last, while one can watch a technique and one can try to replicate it, until one has actually “received” the technique, felt its affects upon their own body and balance, that is where you really begin to learn the technique.

For the last several years, my practice/study of aikido has been about ukemi. Even when learning new versions to techniques, I approach them through the lens of ukemi.

Ukemi is also where most of my physical exercise happens. Done right, aikido is efficient, minimizing the energy required to take a person’s balance, using your entire body against parts of theirs, moving on lines that maximize your effort while disrupting their ability to respond.  If your struggling, muscle to muscle, you’ re not doing it right. And their are efficiencies in ukemi as well. An energetic throw not only sends you away from nage, it may provide the momentum to roll easily back to a standing position. But, this lets me practice harder, coming back to attack nage immediately.

I will admit that one of my guilty pleasures is coming back at nage so quickly that I end up exhausting them from throwing me, a form of “is that all you got?” I’m in good shape, but more importantly, my ukemi is without corners, efficient, active, and aware.

And this is the benefit of aikido practice I see in my life outside of the dojo. The phrase “rolling with the punches” comes to mind. When life throws a left hook at you, it helps if you’re paying attention, it helps if you get out of the way, and, if you fall down, it really helps if you get up again as quickly as possible.

One thought on “Ukemi

  1. In support of you new blogging venture, let’s have a virtual hakama chat instead of the usual. (assuming, of course, that you are paying attention to your comments on here. Or, if you’re too slow to respond, then I might just poke you about it at the next one, anyway. Because.)

    I am acutely aware of the ‘hitting the corners’ as of late, especially with ushiro ukemi. I feel like I’m going to have to go back to the endless rolls after class until I can figure it out. The struggle is mighty in trying to figure out how not to have the corners and rough edges through aikido for someone like me. While my time in the dojo has made them much smoother, and I’m grateful for that, they still poke out at times when they’re not expected– in and out of the dojo.

    The ‘gentleness’ misconception is definitely a real thing. I came in with a gigantic (hopefully not noticeable, although I think y’all would have booted my ass if it was) chip on my shoulder, thinking WTF is this crap that you don’t actually punch or kick? I’d dare to say aikido is actually much tougher than a lot of other arts in that you don’t have the usual ‘weapons’/strategy. You’re forced to go against your instincts to lash out and instead actually have to move IN and blend. You have to do essentially the opposite of what your reflexes are telling you to do. It’s a hard thing to fundamentally change your approach. Not a bad thing to do, but not an easy one either. You come out better on the other side for having learned it. And that learning process has effects on you that reach far beyond the four walls of the dojo. I’ve had one of those left hooks from life fairly recently, and although it feels like I’ve taken too long to get back up, I have. And the lessons and people of the dojo have helped me do that.

    Being a good uke is harder than being a good nage, IMO. It’s so much more challenging to keep the connection, still be in the right spot, not hurt yourself or your partner, not anticipate, be aware of openings, and still act with purpose all at once. It’s like trying to juggle a bunch of balls and for a long time, they all fall to the floor, no matter what you try. With time and practice, you learn to keep more and more of them in the air. Maybe not always the same ones, but less on the ground.

    The video with Jeremy was cool with the slow motion effects. You’re always enjoyable to watch because you move so elegantly. The first four were definitely tsuki kotegaeshi, but what was the other two? Shomenuchi something. I don’t remember having seen it before.

    I want to say that it’s pretty damn safe to say you’re more than ‘fair’ at ukemi. Pretty good is more like it. The list’s rather short of who we watch/go to when we’re confused, and you’re on it. Someone who’s just ‘fair’ at ukemi also wouldn’t do the things you do on the mat.

    Also, I’ll never see “Tubthumping” the same way again. Your fault. 😉

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