Ukemi can be many things. It is a way to train and fall safely. It is a sincere and committed attack. And for some people it is even a sub-art within Aikido. Some people like to take high-flying and super soft falls, while others stick to the basics. Ukemi is adaptable and changes with each individual. Proper ukemi ensures that you and your partner have a continuous and flowing practice. There are people that may offer resistance at times as a so called test to see if the technique “works,” but techniques can often be easily blocked even with proper technique due to fact that during training the uke knows what the nage is going to do. Even someone with lazy ukemi, who won’t really move with the technique, can stop a technique (although that would most likely leave the uke open to all sorts of atemi from the nage). While resistance can have its merits it can also break the flow of practice, and for newer students creating a sense of flow is a great help in internalizing techniques.
The uke can play three different roles: the guide, the partner, and the challenger. The role of the guide can be played by senior students adept enough in their ukemi to guide newer students through techniques by placing themselves in the positions that uke should be in when the technique is done properly. This gives the nage a sense of how the technique should feel and encourages a cooperating sense of flow. Constant movement and adaptability are essential in good ukemi. The continuous give and take between uke and nage through the repetition of techniques create a steady rhythm where the mind and its nagging thoughts fade away, leaving only you and partner in the present moment. It is a moment of stillness within the consecutive beats of movement. Students who are just starting to learn the techniques are often stuck in their minds, thinking about the techniques before performing them, and this is natural. But as they continue to practice, especially with the help of uke who guide them through it with their cooperative movements, the sense of flow they feel along with persistent repetition builds their muscle memory, and eventually the movement will supersede the thinking.
The role of uke as a partner builds off the role of uke as a guide. The sense of flow continues, but uke follows nage’s lead this time. This role is for partners who both have a sufficient understanding of basic ukemi and basic techniques. The pace of the training can be slow and smooth, or quick and aerobic. The worries and stresses of everyday life disappear for that moment as the partners are enthralled by the motions. The focus for uke is still cooperative to maintain the pulse of the training. Corrections may be made to one another, but they are short and brief, leaving the more detailed corrections to the instructor. The partners revolve as equals in the round and circular movements of Aikido. They are relaxed, but not limp, constantly feeding their energy to be circulated through the rotating system of throws and falls. Their centers are coordinated, similar to how the gravitational centers of planets move and align with a sense of stability. Uke becomes like the Earth revolving around the Sun. Flow is kept like the consistency of the four seasons year after year just as uke’s role switches after every four techniques.
The role of uke as a challenger involves some resistance, but that doesn’t mean the sense of flow has to be tossed aside. Some ukes like to “test” nage’s technique to see how effective it is. If an uke stops a technique, he or she may follow with corrections, but sometimes even relatively new students stop techniques just for the sake of presenting a challenge. Of course they can stop it; it’s not like an experienced nage would risk injuring the uke by adding some power to the throw if the uke stops the technique by placing him/herself in an unsafe position. Some inexperienced nage try to muscle through a technique when they feel resistance, which takes away from their technique. Resistance should not be used indiscriminately. Students at higher levels can use subtle resistance to add to the nuances of their technique, but a guiding principle is needed for beginners. Uke as a challenger does not just stop a technique to see how good the nage is. The challenger adds some resistance at various points of the technique to allow nage to learn and practice how to add power from the center and through extension, or how to stayed relaxed. The movement continues through the resistance.
People practice Aikido for many different reasons and each person has his or her own individual style of practice. And while flow may not be everyone’s focus in training, it adds a significant dimension to Aikido as an art. As uke, students need to adapt to the plethora of different nage they will come across. Some nage move slow and soft, while others go fast and hard. Ukemi can be used as a tool to teach, a catalyst for continuous flow, or as a challenge used for the sake of growth and improvement. This multivalent approach to ukemi shows that it is much more than just attacking and falling. It can whisk the practitioner off from daily life into an almost meditative state of mind where only uke, nage, and the training at hand exist.
by Andrew Lee
New York Aikikai