To be a good uke and to take a successful high-grade fall we must:
Tackle each of them individually:
If you do not blend well, your aikido will evolve much more slowly than that of an uke that does blend well. Blending begins as soon as you and your partner bow to each other prior to training. Key into each other's psyche, spirit and body language. Take all of your partner's body into view with a soft focus, it will help you detect any small movement by uke or tori, the moment it is made. As your uke initiates the move by attacking (e.g. tsuki, yokomenuchi), or tori initiates by drawing you out (e.g. shomenuchi), you should both move and blend as one.
Do not resist. If you feel that you are going to lose your balance, correct it to stay on balance. If you do not make that correction you will be off balance (e.g. stretched beyond your own centre of gravity, bent over, balancing on one leg etc).
Why should your partner bother trying to complete the technique when all he needs to do is lightly push you more off balance to make you fall to the ground? Lets face it; if this were to happen in a real situation out of the dojo, would you want to complete the technique when it isn't necessary? In the dojo we complete the technique for our mutual practice and benefit, i.e. for us to practice our ukemi, practice the movement of the technique, to blend and to enjoy training in the spirit of aikido. So, as your partner (tori) leads: you follow; as he advances: you retreat; as he leads you to your left: adjust your balance to your left, and so on.
If you look at all the good ukes out there, you will find they follow their tori by taking small steps. It enables one to turn or change direction easier and to maintain balance. If you follow by taking big steps, you will, LOSE YOUR BALANCE!
Blending however does not mean moving before you are led, entering the technique to take a fall before it has been applied, falling at the slightest touch. I have experienced in my aikido career that attack from many of my ukes (some of them Dan grades) was not sincere, and sometimes they would ukemi out of techniques before I had even applied them. It felt as if I was not achieving anything, and I could not for the life of me see how it was going to help my aikido develop and evolve
The problem I discovered during some keiko with some seito ( students ) was that, as I applied the technique, my uke was out of position. This was partly my fault because I lost concentration and left him behind, and partly his fault for not keeping up, or not blending. Because of this, depending on the technique , say kote gaeshi his arm was very nearly straight, making a high-grade fall nearly impossible to achieve.
So, to get into the correct position:
- Keep your arm relaxed and bent at the elbow. (Kote Gaeshi)
- Try to keep a feeling of tucking your elbow into your body, or keeping your elbow as close to your body as possible.
- Face the direction in which you are going to be thrown. If you can help it, especially with kote gaeshi, do not enter the fall sideways on (some people feel this is the natural thing to do). If you follow these points your body will naturally be closer to your partners and it will be within his dynamic sphere, resulting in you both becoming a single body of blended movement.
Arguably the most challenging technique for most people to take a high fall (over the top ukemi) from is shihonage (others do not like tenchinage as you cannot see where you are going, another is jujinage as you cannot free your arms to help break your fall). Shihonage is a great technique, but the fall from it appears daunting because the technique is applied at what appears to be shoulder height. For the inexperienced the thought of taking a high-grade (over the top ukemi)! How can I throw myself over my arm when it's up here?
In actual fact the projection of the technique commences at shoulder height, but there is no reason to fall at that point. Your arm will reach a stage where it can no longer take the leverage on the elbow joint, that point will be at about abdomen level (just like the finish of a bokuto ichi no suburi), it is also the moment you must enter into the high-grade fall. Therefore, the fall is taken towards the end of the cut/technique.
When taking a fall from iriminage, try to wrap your leading arm (the one closest to your partner) around tori's shoulder from below his armpit. This will help your hips to twist and prevent your head from hitting the mat before your body. It also assists in preventing you from landing flat on your back and possibly winding yourself.
Once you have achieved 4th kyu status, you shall begin to feel and realize that relaxation plays a primary role as part of your development, as a result your aikido will become more effortless and much more satisfying. You have no chance of blending well or taking a painless high-grade fall unless you are relaxed.
If your body and mind are relaxed, you will automatically blend better and therefore get into position quicker. If you wish to be sincere in your attacks (and you should at this stage in your development), be strong but do not use upper body strength.
For static attacks (kihon): Grip firmly primarily using your little and ring fingers (as you should when holding the weapons), hands and (as little as possible) your forearm muscles. Try to leave your biceps and shoulders relaxed, this will then allow your upper body to move freely.
For dynamic attacks (awase) e.g. tsuki & yokomenuchi - make your hand tense at the point of contact, do not make your complete arm tense. If boxers fought with stiff arms it would be wooden and with no fluidity.
If you think about it, this is also true in a practical situation. An attacker is not thinking of punching once and finishing that strike with a stiff arm, he will be relaxed just after having delivered his punch and making ready his follow up punch.
What aikidoka aims to master is how to neutralise that first punch so that the second punch cannot be delivered.
Other advantages of being relaxed are that the ukemi are not painful (or at least only a little bone jarring); as long as you have stamina you should be able to keep taking the punishment, getting up and returning for more (over the top ukemi, are very tiring). Immobilizations are less painful too, you will find through relaxing your complete body, your joints will become more flexible and less painful.
Breathing out helps you to relax. Admittedly, if you want to grip something strongly you will initially breathe out. But once the grip has taken hold you will find that you can relax and maintain the strength of grip by using the lower arm muscles and hand/fingers only.
Because of the dynamic nature of aikido, as uke ,it is difficult to maintain physical strength throughout a technique. As soon as we think about maintaining our balance, we relax to allow our bodies to move. Strength should only be used when instructed by your sensei (or requested by your partner) during kihon practice.
Never, never, never hold your breath during a technique, while taking a fall or while an immobilization/pin is being applied
As uke, what is the most daunting thought that enters your head when training free style kokyunage or jiyu waza?
Many find the most daunting part of being uke is attacking and not knowing what technique is going to be applied, or how it is going to be applied (e.g. soft or full power; projection; pin; omote; ura; a henka; is an atemi going to be used etc).
I realize that in the middle range of grades, to remain relaxed can be very difficult, you want to prepare yourself for the ukemi because you do not want to get hurt. In order for you to avoid getting hurt, you try to read what technique is going to be executed and you prepare your mind and body for what you believe is coming. The fault with this is that many aikido techniques are similar at one point or another within their movement. This is what makes aikido unique, adaptable and very nearly infinitely variable: Unfortunately it also makes anticipating or reading the technique very difficult.
Don't worry; I am sure most of the high grades can testify to having been the same at some stage in our training.
As difficult as it is, you must trust your tori (unless of course he/she is inexperienced and does not know what to do) and allow your mind and body to relax and become a void.
I recommend that when your partner signals which attack they want, give it with 100% sincerity. Chiba sensei stated when asked , what must I bring to aikido keiko his reply was Makoto (sincerity).
Tori asks for ryote kata dori: don't go for him half heartedly, dawdling with arms wide open, what are you going to do, hug him? Go grab his shoulders (kata) as if you want to pin him to the wall. He asks for a tsuki: punch straight at him and take no prisoners. A sincere attack gives your tori something to work with and worry about. If there is no threat why bother evading the attack, completing the technique? Because at your grades you are now performing your techniques with more enthusiasm and power, it is dangerous for both you and your partner not to be sincere in your attacks.
If ukes attack is too strong or too fast, ask them to ease off or slow down. Allow the strength and speed of the attack to progressively increase as your ability and confidence improves. Uke can remain sincere even though his attack is weaker/slower. If, as uke or tori you feel you cannot trust your partner, ease off on the enthusiasm , and take a ushiro (back) ukemi rather than a high-grade fall (over the top), slow down while executing the technique to allow yourself some thinking space to analyse, feel the technique or spot ways in which you can polish your technique.
Always, always respect your uke and tori, and maintain awareness of all the other aikidoka around you.