Updated: Mar 2, 2020
"Ukemi is the same in every martial art and fighting style. Survival always matters more than your ability to hit very hard"
How do you justify spending so much time training how to receive technique and fall safely when martial arts is supposed to be about protecting myself and defeating my enemy?
It's a good question, though in Aikido we might not say so. It's true that in Aikido we have a very different philosophy that definitely impacts how we train, but this should never take away from making sure that training serves a purpose in all three realms: physical, mental, and spiritual.
In other arts, say Muay Thai or any other striking art, we find a significant amount of time is spent on making sure that you can "slip" punches, evade, and most importantly, take a punch and keep going (glass jaws are usually the first indication that you should not compete in competitive fighting arts).
Grappling is the same. The ability to avoid submission via dominant position (Judo) or submission (Judo, BJJ, etc...) is always first in any quality dojo. The more comfortable you are in vulnerable and uncomfortable positions, the better able you will be to evade and recover.
This doesn't mean that you should focus on ukemi to the detriment of all else, technique is fun after all. However, be wary of anyone who tells you they will make you "street effective" in any short period of time.
Self Defense & Retaliation.
Once you can evade, survive, and recover from all kinds of positions, you may start to notice: "oh hey, here's where I could strike back, or get away". There are few things more valuable than making this discovery naturally vs being told. As we know, habits are often the most valuable tools we have in life, and martial arts is no different. If you are unfamiliar, most habits follow this path:
Cue -> Routine -> Reward
Like anything else in our lives, it all comes down to the habits we form and whether or not they are helping or harming us. With self defense & retaliation, it is no different. The CUE in martial arts is often an attack or situation of some kind that warrants use of these skills/routines.
"I fear not the one who has studied 1,000 kicks, but the one who has studied 1 kick 1,000 times"
The ROUTINE should be the patterns of movement that, in ukemi, help us to remain safe and ideally evade these situations to begin with.
The REWARD is different in life than it is on the mat. On the mat, the reward is the visceral experience of being in the right position, executing technique with minimal effort (conservation of energy) and maximum safe power. In the real world (take it from someone who has had the unfortunate experience of altercations), the first feeling that hits you is not pretty. Everyone wants to be a hero, but more often than not, life does not mirror fiction. There are rarely big bad monsters in the world that live in clear and diametrically opposed existence. Often these are just people; hungry, in pain, suffering in some way, and with no tools to handle these except to lash out.
The question then becomes, if my habits are well formed, what reward am I looking for in real life experiences? (this question I leave open purposefully)
Core, core, and more core. What workout or program should I follow to get great at ukemi? What's the best technique to receive in order to make progress the fastest? How do I avoid injury taking so many falls?
All of these questions are answered by a consistent focus on training the core. Core training prevents injury, improves functional strength, and gives us the ability to move better in ukemi. This does not mean "crunches". It means total core training, including everything from the chest to the quads, and the upper back to the hamstrings. It means building muscle AND flexibility, without compromising either in pursuit of one.
And of course, the most important of all. If you want to get good at anything, practice forming the right habits with your ukemi practice.
Fundamental Principles of Aikido.
This is the part where most young people tune out. The focus is still so physical when you're young, that even thinking about principles and ideals feels like wasted time that could be spent perfecting physical technique. There is some truth to this, as often we learn as much through physical training as we do mental and spiritual (think Misogi when cleaning the dojo).
However, even if you don't want to spend time studying or thinking about this area of training, it is something you should have a passing familiarity with. You see, Aikido's founder was a largely physical martial artist as a young man as well, and for the most part, this is an excellent way to spend your youth - building strength physically and mentally. In time though, this strength begins to wane, and with it, a void begins to appear where none existed before. So what should "wax", as strength wanes?
O'Sensei's experience came from his relationship with the Omoto religion, which helped to inspire his creation of the principles of Aikido's spiritual path.
Don't worry - the spread of any one specific ideology isn't and shouldn't be the goal of any person. Rather, it is a personal journey we take over time that we should not deny ourselves. Aikido gives us a lens through which to explore our own belief systems and practices (physical, mental, and spiritual) and to reinforce, rather than replace or challenge them.
This is why I find Ukemi so fascinating and enthralling. It begins subtly through daily practice of habit building for physical safety, but over time, becomes so much more.
As always, everything that I or our dojo share is free to be disregarded and discarded if you find yourself out of agreement with it. However, if you do find that this is something you agree with, we invite you to incorporate it into your daily practice if you haven't already.
See you on the mat,
Reuven Lirov, Dojo Cho
Pinellas County Aikikai
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