“Ukemi, an Aiki perspective,” by Francis Takahashi

The word “ukeru” in Japanese, interprets “to receive, be given, to inherit, or to receive a favor or an order”. In martial arts usage, this concept becomes more specific and narrowly defined, and does mean different things to each art form and its practice.

Per WORDIQ, Ukemi, or “receiving the throw/attack, is the art of knowing how to land or fall and recover correctly from a martial arts technique with minimal impact.” Within a judo or aikido context, ukemi refers to being thrown and getting right back up, safely, and with heightened awareness of whatever comes next.

In my experience, differences in meaning and application are very common as encountered in the practice and instruction of Aikido. Interpretations do vary to suit the principle being illuminated or taught. In the Aikikai format of training, it is seen as the reverse side of the coin of mutually beneficial training, which, together with appropriate nage behavior, completes the cycle of the Aiki philosophy in action. All enthusiasts are encouraged to fully develop their ability to perform proper ukemi, first to protect the self, but also to afford nage the gift of freely performing his movement and technique without interference, or undue surprises. In the training itself we find variations of purpose, intent and skill when executing technique, which then produces both positive and negative results. It is a constant work in progress for each sensei, each practitioner, and each dojo over periods of time. As skill levels naturally rise, so do the various aspects of consistent training, especially of ukemi. Students who visit other dojos must be on alert to the nuances and guidelines encountered there, and be respectful of any differences and avoid any argument or confrontation while a guest at that dojo. This is proper Reigi Sa Ho, and an integral aspect of being honorable.

In pursuit by many individuals of some esoteric goal of supreme martial effectiveness and unquestioned authenticity, the needs of the uke are quite often sacrificed in favor of giving the nage an advantage by granting effective license to ignore the boundaries of safe speed, power of application, and mutually agreed upon parameters of appropriate techniques, intensity and control. This “old school” mentality may be fine for those who willingly and knowingly agree to train in such an environment, and are willing, forewarned, and demonstrably to endure both the unpredictable impact or consequences from such training. All too often, this most important distinction is not made clear, may be selectively applied, or is routinely and arbitrarily ignored. Then, the sincere intent to train within acceptable guidelines becomes instead, subject to an unwelcome arena of misunderstanding, injury and abuse. It simply is inconceivable to me that one needs to be subjected to arbitrary, narrow minded and misguided notions of what sort of “hard training” is required or desirable in order to develop the skills, the spiritual maturity, and the requisite wisdom for genuine self improvement in Aiki.

I also encounter certain individuals purporting to be training in and teaching Aikido, that insist on rigid security measures at all cost, even to the loss of any and all martial integrity in the training. By stringently requiring restrictive standards and arbitrary policies for the sake of “safe practice”, the Founder’s fundamental basis of martial context for his aikido has been seriously compromised, and may be presumed lost. If true, this altered format can no longer be realistically considered to be a genuine representation of his vision, his practices, his teachings or his legacy. Such practices, in my opinion, should no longer be called “aikido”, and it would be appropriate to regard them as non representative The way each dojo views, administrates and polices effective ukemi, can be a valid yardstick we can reasonably use to assess their willingness to adhere to fundamentals of the Founder’s Aikido, or be considered to be a non conforming tangent of something else entirely.

“Love is high maintenance” goes the sentiment of unconditional commitment, and so it is that we must do our very best to preserve and maintain the Aikido we love and practice. If the ideal of the Founder’s example and teachings is to form the core foundation for our training, then we must walk the narrow path of focused discipline, strict adherence to established teachings traditionally and faithfully handed down, and have the willingness to demonstrate our reasons for doing so. It remains our responsibility to the Founder’s legacy, and our own accountability to train diligently, with balanced regard for our individual commitments, and with compassionate regard and respect for our training peers. Even as we continue to receive the gift of high level training from our partners, we must likewise return the gift undiluted to them as well. We can do so by taking responsible ukemi, making it a cornerstone of our practice, a major study in our training, and for the sake of the rapid development of our students.

There are obviously quite a few styles of effective ukemi, and the serious student can be faithful to just one, or build a hybrid from the various components that make the most sense to him. We will then find that each goal of training will demand a different kind of ukemi, from pliant cooperation, to being prepared for hard movements, fast kuzushi, powerful locks, and dynamic releases. There is much to look forward to.

Conditioning of the joints, the wrists especially, is another underappreciated aspect of proper ukemi. Remember that the uke is “receiving” the attention of the nage, which quite often is historically designed to maim, incapacitate or to terminate. Please do agree before hand, if possible, as to the intensity and manner of practice you are about to engage in with your training partners, and adjust your ukemi response accordingly. As Michael Jordan says, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Again, I view proper ukemi as the essential counterpoint to proper nage in any mutually satisfying training experience in Aikido. The extent to which all parties allow themselves, or unwittingly subject themselves to possible injuries, permanent disability, or to unnecessary misunderstanding, must be clearly understood. The potential changes to life style, psyche and quality of normal relationships with family, friends and society, is no small matter, and must remain the individual’s choice. If unfortunate choices are made, they have absolutely no connection to the quality of the Aikido practiced. It simply means that these unfortunate people just don’t get it, and time is running out.

I feel that, as genuine and sincere martial artists training in this modern environment, we may well consider the following.

1) It is our stated mission and obligation to Protect those who are in real danger, or are subject to real or potential danger, via teaching and proper guidance.

2) We must Preserve the authentic and valid traditions of the past, as well as the new epiphanies and discoveries of the present, and work together to maintain these precious principles and guidelines of responsible behavior for our students.

3) We must be willing and prepared to promote our craft, our skill sets, and our love of genuine martial theory and compassionate practice to each new generation we encounter. We must work together to establish and maintain systems and structures of appropriate transmission of proven efficacy. We are the stewards of an amazing art form, and the study and development of proper ukemi deserves no less scrutiny and attention than any other aspect of how or why we train.

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  1. Thank you Takahashi Sensei for a wonderful description of what I think our daily training should be. And most of all for your reminder of our safety. All of us have a life outside of the dojo, we must work for our subsistence, so it is not acceptable to get injured in our training.
    I always thought of our aikido training with our partner as a lending of each other’s body, neither in an all permissive way nor in blocking nage’s performing of the technique, but participating actively and adapting our strength to the size and strength of our partner, allowing him or her to develop the technique with the right blending and contact ( our sensei always puts the example of a ball on a pail of water, you push it down, but it always tends to come up) and showing martiality to make it as real as possible but always, always controlling the safety of each other.

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