The word uke in Japanese translates as “to receive” which is at odds with many people’s assumption that taking ukemi primarily involves acting out the losing role of an attacker. “Receiving the technique” evokes a more active and collaborative role for uke within the kata execution, where the attack and subsequent breakfall are used as a learning experience for both tori and uke.
Those that train in Aikido will quickly realize that half of their time training is spent receiving the Aikido techniques and taking ukemi.
When we first start Aikido training, it is while being uke that we feel stiff and clumsy. Later as we progress in Aikido, it is often while working with a good uke – one who is able to adapt their movements to maintain a feeling of connection and lightness throughout the technique – that we often improve our understanding of the Aikido techniques.
When watching Aikido, it will often be a good uke that gives the movements the dynamism and flair that characterize a good Aikido demonstration.
With so much of our training time on the tatami taken up carrying out the role of uke, it is important that this aspect of training is also developed as a learning tool. However, in many dojos around the world, it is still very common to see a practice where the emphasis on ukemi is very small or, in some cases, completely absent.
There are several good reasons to work hard to improve our ukemi. First and foremost, ukemi abilities are developed so we are able to safely receive the locks and throws seen in Aikido. The techniques of Aikido are done in collaboration with a partner where both parties work together to execute a known attack and technique.
For tori to be able to execute their techniques fully and dynamically, it is first necessary for uke to have the capacity to receive them. While a poor or inexperienced uke is a fantastic learning experience, a good uke allows tori to fully explore their techniques with varying levels of power, speed and dynamism. This is even more apparent when being uke for senior graded instructors at external Aikido courses. These events are great opportunities to “steal” knowledge but are reliant on students first having the ukemi level to experience or feel the teacher’s technique.
While a teacher can verbally explain certain aspects of their technique, the “globality” or overall sensation of the technique can only be felt if you are able to receive this physically. A good instructor will modify the power of their technique to match the level of their partner and ensure no-one is hurt but there is also a responsibility on the side of uke to develop their ukemi so that this, eventually, is not required. There is also a key body conditioning aspect to ukemi, which is appreciated more over time. Suppleness and spontaneity are developed through repeated ukemi; we obtain an improved control and awareness of our bodies enabling freer movements in our training; the repetition of getting up off the floor quickly builds strong legs and centre.
These concepts cannot be intellectually understood and immediately integrated into your practice. Concepts such as “relaxing” or “staying connected” are abstract and mean little to the beginner student. These ideas must be physically understood and integrated over time and it is why Aikido students continue to do repetitive ukemi each keiko.
Finally there are strong martial reasons for developing a high level of ukemi. Remaining “connected” with tori throughout the technique offers the opportunity to exploit openings or even reverse the techniques (kaeshi-waza).
In comparison, a heavy and static uke runs the risk of becoming too fixed in their attack and being unable to respond to sudden changes in the techniques. This is most apparent in weapons work (where any size or strength difference between tori and uke has minimal impact) where any heavy movements or contact can be easily perceived and quickly exploited.
The attributes of a good uke – responsive, light, dynamic, flexible – eventually transfers over to the role of tori where an improved control and perception of the body results in more dynamic and effective techniques.
Simply, a stiff uke will likely have rigid techniques while someone that gives a lot of themselves as uke will develop a more flexible and adaptable approach to their Aikido.
Many of the modern Aikido greats (most of whom, unfortunately, have passed away now) such as Tamura Sensei and Chiba Sensei, were regular ukes to O-Sensei and developed very high levels of ukemi. As a consequence, their level of Aikido reached a level that is rarely, if ever, seen these days. These teachers, in turn, pushed their early students to develop their own ukemi so they were able to receive and experience their own expression of the Aikido techniques.
A cursory search on the Internet will reveal demonstrations from this era involving a level of vigor, energy and dynamism that is, unfortunately, rarely seen these days. While most people will not have the inclination or physical capacity to mimic these demonstrations, I believe that those serious about their Aikido training should, to the best of our ability, continually strive to improve their ukemi.
As we advance in Aikido, the role of uke should be used as a teaching tool when working with more junior training partners. A good uke can guide the kohai through the technique, moving their body to allow the beginner to understand the shape and rhythm of the technique with little or no verbal explanation. In contrast, an uke that gives nothing will generally leave a junior confused with little idea of how to execute the technique, even if detailed verbal explanations have been provided.
At the extreme end of this spectrum are ukes who deliberately block a technique when training. While this approach may be used to point out obvious errors, a senior student should be very clear on the end-goal when doing this – most people after a few years of Aikido training will, to a certain degree, be able to block a known technique and blocking repeatedly simply runs the risk of the same being done back to them while also disheartening an enthusiastic student.
Ukemi is a rich and varied component of Aikido that merits serious study and effort. Repeated ukemi training in the dojo will, over time, produce a more supple and connected body, which will positively impact all aspects of a person’s Aikido. Attending external seminars with other Aikido groups will also expose the serious practitioner to other styles of ukemi that should be studied and integrated to help develop a more spontaneous and adaptable practice.
But almost more importantly, improving your ukemi will allow you to train dynamical