kyū
nine.

Ukemi: That’s how I roll.

I mentioned previously that one of my first realizations when taking my first Aiki class was that I was probably going to be spending a lot of time falling down.

Ukemi defined (roughly, crudely): basically means “to receive body” or, “to receive self.” In aikijutsu, we call the person who is receiving the technique the uke: receiving. Mi means body or self, so together, the uke does ukemi… Receiving body.

What is uke receiving? Generally… It’s the ground. I saw a funny t-shirt that said, “Aikijutsu: the subtle art of hitting people with planets.” if you’ve never been on the receiving end of an aikido, judo, or aikijutsu throw, you may not fully “get” it… It quite seriously can seem not that you were thrown to the ground, but that somehow the earth rose up and smacked into you.

So ukemi is the general name given to the techniques uke uses when falling, being thrown, or otherwise receiving a technique. When done masterfully, good ukemi is beautiful, quiet, and relatively painless. I watched a senior sword student warning up by doing some serious ukemi on the hardwood dōjō floor… High rolls and flips from a standing position. He told me he perfected his ukemi by practicing in his driveway: if he got it wrong, it hurt. Badly. So he worked very hard to get every nuance right. If ukemi is done incorrectly, it is at the least, painful. At worst, it leads to injury or death when uke’s head is smashed into the ground.

Ukemi is also the reason that the uninitiated watch an aiki style and often comment that aiki isn’t a “real” martial art. I’ve heard the comment about aikido made that “aikido is all choreographed. You can tell that the person being thrown is going along with the technique.”

Wrong.

The point of ukemi is not to make it easy on nage (the person performing the technique) but to keep uke alive and functional. As Sensei is fond of saying, ukemi simply makes it possible for uke to walk away after a technique. He often adds that it’s good to have a partner with good ukemi, because then we can continue abusing uke multiple times. If uke breaks… we need to find a new partner.

When, as uke, I turn and roll out of a technique, it’s because to do otherwise would likely cost me a joint or a tendon-repair surgery somewhere on my body. We work long and hard on our ukemi, concentrating on ukemi at least as much as we do on the techniques. If un-trained Joe Blow attacks someone in a bar who happens to be a proficient aiki practitioner, Joe Blow isn’t going to know the proper ukemi, and will likely end up with at least one or two serious dislocations or, at the least, pains. Even if Joe Blow gets the ukemi right, guess what? The end result isn’t “escape” but instead ends in a painful pin or joint lock for uke. Ukemi just keeps uke from getting injured.

On to life. Ukemi in non-budo life can simply mean the ability to receive adversity in a way that makes it the least painful for you. The older I become, the more I realize that confrontation and strife isn’t any fun… It’s much easier in the long run to find a way to receive the aggression, and redirect the aggression or my own orientation into a position that makes things more agreeable to me.

How does one consistently do that? Beats me. Comparatively, the physical, martial ukemi is a cake walk compared to the personal version.

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