Taking ukemi is a matter of experience, but not in the way that you think.
One of the most common questions asked by new students: "how do I take ukemi from this technique?". Ever since I was young, ukemi was the primary focus of my training. At 4 years old, my coordination was still developing, but my body could definitely take a beating. This meant that much of my early training was spent getting thrown around, learning the fundamentals of falling safely (one of the core concepts of ukemi - but not all!).
Ukemi can be translated as "to receive" and many see ukemi as "the art of falling", but I think this explanation is too simplistic. Ukemi covers all interaction up until the point of technique/nagewaza. In other words, the roles of Uke and Nage are fluid and exchange naturally throughout a technique. If you pay close attention to strong Aikidoka (or really any martial artist), this exchange is happening all the time. From Ikkyo to Kotegaeshi to Osoto Garis, to Ippon Seonages and beyond, how we respond to technique applied is just as much, if not more important, than the technique itself.
It's easy to find yourself on the receiving end of an attack, only to wish you were the one throwing the punch. Now imagine, someone throws a punch, you react to it by taking dominant position. Instead of throwing a punch that: 1) may or may not land, 2) if it does land, may or may not do any real damage, and 3) may or may not over extend your position, exposing you - what if you were to learn to recognize the situation you are in, switch to an assertive (rather than aggressive) mode, wait for or entice the attack you influence, and respond accordingly (with technique)?
EXAMPLE: Ai Hanmi Katatedori Ikkyo Omote Waza. This is one of the most basic techniques we learn in Aikido because it strips out the less predictable nature of strikes and focuses on the grappling interaction via a wrist grab (maybe not practical - but a great training tool). As uke, the natural reaction when the arm is turned up and over, to spin around and bend over. HUGE MISTAKE. Why? You've just exposed your back and you're in a bent over position. We think we're being safe or "moving with the technique" by doing this, but we are actually giving away all control of the technique. In other words - this is lazy ukemi. In this technique, the safest ukemi is to give equal pressure back against the Ikkyo while simultaneously driving your hip into Nage's hip. At the same time, the feet shift back so that your back leg is behind Nage's legs (forming a triangle between his legs and your back leg). Now you are in a safer position because you have OPTIONS. From here we practice Ikkyo to the mat, so the proper thing to do is continue providing resistance as Nage finishes the technique to the pin. However, in a more Kumitachi (combative) situation, your leg positioned behind Nage is a perfect placement for Kaeshiwaza (reversals). The Ikkyo arm can rotate out of the arm bar, wrap Nage's body, while the back leg serves as a tripping leg to throw Nage over you for Sutemiwaza (suicide throw). Now the roles have changed - Uke and Nage are now switched.
So much to think about! How could there possibly be an "Ukemi Formula"?
It turns out that if you break this down, there absolutely is a formula that you can apply to almost every single situation to stay safe. And here it is:
1. Tuck Your Chin
2. Equal Pressure Against Nage
3. Close Hip In
4. Always Work To Face Nage
5. TAP With Whatever You Have
Yes - 5 steps. You will notice that step #1 is the most specific of the steps. Why? If you forget everything else during an actual altercation or intense training session, remember to tuck your chin when falling. Injuries heal to completion over time (usually) - but concussions can last forev