In the 1953 “Hondo” movie, John Wayne teaches a six years old kid to swim:
On our recent trip to Japan we recognized that regarding “falls” the majority of people who have been practicing for a long time give more or less the same answer. Which sounds more or less like this:
“They catch you and make you fall. If you survive it means you’ve learned. Otherwise you’ll learn”.
In our culture, if you talk to those who have been on the tatami for some decades, the feedback is similar. The “old school“, in short.
Is it like that?
Let’s try to look at the world of ukemi in a broader perspective.
A child doesn’t have much trouble rolling on the floor. He/she has a low center of gravity, little mass, an elastic body and an almost infinite capacity for recovery. Everything is a game, everything is fun.
Except for those cases -unfortunately constantly growing- of children who do not develop the natural motor skills that are acquired through play and with that minimum of activity typical of childhood, it is not necessary to teach children to fall. They already do it by nature.
If anything it is necessary to teach them that is to fall well. In a functional way to absorb an impact and be able to rise quickly, protecting the integrity of the body’s structure.
What does it happen if you approach falls in adulthood, let’s say from late adolescence onwards?
The body is no longer that of a child and the physical and mental elasticity create a certain opposition to a situation that is no longer… trained. After many years from the last rollings on the carpet at home, the psychophysical system experiences the distance between the desire to perform a technical gesture (ukemi) and the body which often finds itself stuck.
Falls then become an obsession. For the beginner, because they represent a frustration. For the advanced practitioner because, at a certain point, you start to think that knowing how to do a spectacular ukemi – perhaps a high fall – sounds like having mastery skills in the art that you cultivate.
Let’s try to see how to heal from this obsession.
Ukemi teaching certainly requires in-depth analysis that is not limited only to the technical gesture itself. In our experience we have seen that the use of fit balls and gym mattresses are of great help. Embracing a fit ball allows both adults and children to experience a body that acquires a more circular shape. Of an impact with the tatami that is absorbed in a non-traumatic way.
The gym mattress puts the practitioner in a situation of perceived safety in which he/she gradually makes it clear that the body becomes capable of the same movement, regardless of the presence of a soft mattress.
With the help of such two tools we have seen that, usually, in just a few lessons an adult of average stamina and without martial technical rudiments can perform frontal falls independently and safely.
We underline the concept of autonomy, because understanding the dynamics of the fall requires that falling should be a choice, never an imposition. Generating an automatism in falls is not only questionable from a functional point of view but dangerous.
Autonomy feeds on awareness. Awareness is an ingredient that is in short supply in the handouts of beginners (and not only). What does it happens if an individual decides to take a fall when his body is under a blocking lever? Who is responsible for the contusion/dislocation that will follow?
It seems like a paradox but autonomy is also and above all nourished by relationships and mutual dependence. Educating the body to follow a co-created movement within a couple practice is essential to get to at an event defined by the awareness of both. One partner that effectively takes away the balance of the other who accepts the situation then falls.
The absence of a real relationship between tori and uke and self limiting within one’s own mental projections inevitably leads to obsession with ukemi. On the one hand tori will force the technique, on the other uke will fall when he/she shouldn’t or won’t fall when the conditions are right. Or worse: when he/she doesn’t know how to do it yet, conditioned by the performance expectations hypothesized for tje rank.
As students and teachers we receive and offer training based on the concept of “michibiki” (道+引きます: to pull/lead someone along a road). Leading uke through a grab (on the wrists or on a jo) with a clear direction of imbalance and leaving uke free to fall according to his sensitivity.
It is thus discovered, by increasing the speed and complexity of the movement gradually and in a sustainable way for each practitioner, that ukemi is always and in any case an act of free choice by uke.
It is uke who starts the attack. It is uke who feels the presence of a real imbalance. It is uke who prepares the body in every phase of the action to best receive the entry of energy into his system.
Some styles like to give themselves the image of coercive approaches.
Some for their devotion to angles and geometries, others for their spasmodic dynamism. The excessive focus on kihon on the one hand and ki no nagare on the other destroys the essence of Aikido, which is the overcoming of non-duality, rather reinforcing the cognitive bias that it is tori who does something or uke who must know how to do it something else.
In conclusion, ukemi teaching is a fundamental pillar of Aikido. A pillar that must support the building of the practice also in relationship with the needs of the society in which we live, which is certainly not the Japanese one of the founders of modern Budo.
In giving the practitioners the tools to train their system to receive an incoming energy, it is necessary to counteract the automatisms, which result in perceiving the practice of Aikido as something in which ukemi is somehow due.
Falling only when the conditions are right is an exercise in reality and an excellent antidote against the hypertrophied ego of aspiring alpha tori and high-performance uke. And it is also a good way to preserve the body and practice a discipline for a long time.
Disclaimer: Picture by Craig Gary from Pexels