Ukemi – beyond the mat

To the novice, ukemi or breakfalls are seen as little more than floor slapping exercises to help us reduce the impact of falling. This idea often continues way into our training and the benefits to be gained from a better understanding of ukemi remain unexplored and undeveloped.

As a beginner, we are first introduced to the practice of ukemi when we find ourselves falling towards the floor. We soon discover that we have two options, an uncontrolled landing or a controlled landing. One of these results in injury and pain, falling in a heap at the whim of uke, while the other results in safe landing under the control of ourselves. This control of self is a very important point, for as long as we have control over ourselves, we have some control over our situation.

With this in mind, we can start to see the principle of ukemi, and this reaches much further than a hand to the floor. Ukemi is the way to survive. It is in fact at the heart of our art, teaching us to become invisible to uke by not opposing his force. Uke cannot fight his fight and his intent becomes the cause of his own destruction.

Ukemi also trains us to pre-empt uke’s next move, and we can take advantage of this foresight.

“Good ukemi training will allow you to see the future truly because your vision will be based on observation and intuition, rather than an arbitrary decision made in advance of the evidence. Good ukemi represents the same wisdom as that of the fisherman who through long experience can sense what the coming weather will be.”
Saotome Sensei

Let us consider how to apply ukemi in training so that we can learn how to keep balance, protect ourselves, overcome uke’s intentions and develop foresight. The following are practical applications of ukemi and training starts here…

Ukemi and the Role of Uke (attacker)
Uke and tori should work together as a team so that they can help each others training and roles must be balanced otherwise improvement will be difficult. To begin with, uke must supply tori with a clear and meaningful attack. This doesn’t need to be fast or powerful, but should be appropriate for tori’s ability and must have the intention to connect. Having someone just hold their arm out to simulate a punch is useless, and it doesn’t help uke or tori.

As tori applies their technique, uke should neither resist the technique nor turn to jelly. Even moderate resistance is likely to cause permanent injury over years of training, however if you are overly compliant you will throw yourself – and that will not do either! Instead, uke should allow tori to lead and uke should follow and go with tori’s technique offering only light resistance. This flow protects ukes joints and allows uke to control his own balance as the technique is applied to him. By taking ukemi in this way, uke has the ability to take advantage of openings in tori’s control or find reversals as tori applies the technique.

To improve, uke must train with focused intention and tori must apply the technique in a gentle manner so that uke can learn to ride with it until balance is lost or recaptured. If balance is lost, uke can lower himself in a controlled way to the floor. Classic ukemi begins the moment we start to receive an opponents’ technique and ends when we have followed it to its conclusion or have re-established control.

Ukemi and the Role of Tori (defender)
As a beginner, tori should apply techniques softly as the lack of experience and the erratic, awkward movement can easily injure a training partner.

As tori develops and grows more confident in movement, he should gradually begin to assert his technique. Working with a good uke offering light resistance, tori should be able to develop effective technique and flow without the need of power or speed. Tori should apply just enough to make the technique function in a smooth and controlled manner. If uke resists, tori should explain that it may cause injury if the technique has to be forced. Even moderate resistance is likely to cause permanent injury over years of training! (If uke locks up, you can always strike to help him relax:-) Tori should take care not to overstress uke’s joints or limbs at maximum twist or extension.

To improve, tori should focus on refining technique, body movement and intention whilst also relaxing to discover the feeling, flow and connection to uke. Tori should train to perceive uke’s openings while protecting his own, upset uke’s balance while maintaining his own, and occupy a safe position while controlling the tactical space.

Classic Flapping and Slapping
As for slapping the deck – it’s better to break your fall without flapping and slapping if you can, as you never know what you might flap as you fall or what you might slap as you sprawl. You’ll never know how much space you’ll have or if you will be holding anything of value (a weapon?). For these reasons, students should master ukemi using both arms, one arm and no arms. However, if you’re empty handed, are confident of your surroundings and do fancy slapping some mat – go for it, but do only what is needed. No points for loudness and drawing attention to yourself. It’s just not very ninja!

Ukemi is one of the key principles found in the study of our art. It is much more than just a technique. Techniques are a combination of tactics that are the expression of principles applied to a specific situation. We should study techniques, understand the specific (tactics) and realise the universal (principals) so that we can apply what we have learnt to other situations. Consider how else we apply ukemi to protect ourselves, how we find balance in motion, how ukemi makes us invisible to uke and how ukemi follows the flow of nature…