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.