Remote Aikido Dojo

When there is nowhere else to train

Uke needs to move

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

There is an aspect of aikido that is at least as important as the techniques. It’s called ukemi. There are some basic principles that apply to it that are universal regardless of the type of aikido you practice.

Today, we’re going to consider just one of the most basic aspects of it, but it is also one of the hardest to get right. Quite simply, you have to move. An awful lot of ukemi is performed from a static position. Much of the rest becomes static after the initial attack has been made.

I can guarantee that you’ve encountered this at some point in your training. An uke grabs your wrist and becomes as flexible as a brick wall, or a tsuki strike that leaves an arm out as their whole body morphs into a tree trunk and every muscle solidifies. It’s annoying, and in most cases it is wrong. Not all, but the vast majority. Unless specifically told to do this, you shouldn’t do it.

Is it really a problem though, and if so, why?

Unfortunately it is a problem, there are numerous reasons why, and it may surprise you to learn that they are not all the uke’s fault. That’s right, this brick wall behaviour can be caused by the nage, rather than just a bad uke. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

Let’s look at the uke side of things first. Why is it bad ukemi to attack like this?

The first and most obvious point is that it’s wildly unrealistic. The training method in aikido is not very good for preparing you for an actual physical encounter. This is true of a lot of martial arts training, but aikido is quite bad for it. (See the post - ‘The Method is Not the Art’ for details). The version of ukemi where the attacker becomes totally immobile, exacerbates this situation even further.

In the chaos of an actual attack (be it a physical encounter, a workplace argument, or something else), the opposing force is rarely, if ever, completely still. They push, pull, manoeuvre, slip, and generally try to get an advantage over you. The immovable object is a rare occurrence. Training for the edge scenario is usually a pointless endeavour, because you’ll encounter it so infrequently.

The second thing about this type of attack is that it doesn’t promote learning of aikido techniques. Here’s the thing, aikido is messy. It looks beautiful when training in the dojo, but if you don’t have a trained uke it’s darned messy. It will still work, and work very well, it just won’t look pretty.

Consider tai no henko with a partner. They grasp your wrist in gyaku hanmi, you perform a tenkan turn and they bend over. Now, leaving aside the foolishness of them bending over ask yourself why they did it. It’s because they maintained the contact between the palm of their hand and the back of your wrist. This is the mark of someone who has been training for a length of time. Beginners that have just started training never do this. They stay upright and the contact between their hand and your wrist breaks. This is a big difference that has just killed the beginner.

The experienced aikidoka has maintained contact and is forcing the nage to keep doing aikido. This is good, it’s a big part of the uke’s job. The beginner on the other hand has removed all need for the nage to keep doing aikido. After the tenkan turn they are probably only holding on with a thumb and forefinger. There is no strength there and outside of the dojo, it gets messy. The ‘correct’ thing for the nage to do at this point is to snap their elbow back into the attackers face.

Nage can do this because the uke was static, whether they should is a different question. The point is that the option is there because of a static ukemi. A more experienced, mobile ukemi, would remove this possibility and train the nage to continue with an aikido technique.

As a sidenote you should realise that the majority of aikido techniques, when performed on non-aikidoka, will result in the attacker being struck, repeatedly. Often without a conscious decision by the aikidoka.

I say this all the time and will happily say it again. Nage does aikido because uke forces them to. With poor ukemi there is no need to keep doing aikido. The most martially sensible course of action is to just hit them.

The third aspect that comes into this is that it isn’t an attack. It feels like an attack, it looks like an attack, but it isn’t. An attack, by it’s very nature, must contain a threat. Someone that solidifies into the proverbial brick wall is immobile, and no longer attacking you. After the initial strike they stop moving, there is no intent to attack you again, they’re just waiting. If you don’t interfere with them then they’ll keep on waiting. Let them. If you aren’t being attacked why would you do aikido to them?

Now, you could debate all day long whether a simple wrist grab is an attack. In the context of our training though it isn’t, unless also accompanied by a motive force. The same thing for the strike, when it stops moving it ceases to be an attack. If you weren’t hit by it you’re now totally safe unless they try to strike you again.

At more advanced levels of training (probably somewhere around 2nd kyu and beyond) this solid ukemi can actually be caused by the nage. It’s not always the uke’s fault. This generally takes place when the nage fails to blend correctly with the uke. The disharmony can cause the uke to come to a grinding halt. It wasn’t their intention to let that happen, the actions of nage forced it on them.

There are even times when a nage will deliberately cause the uke to come to a complete stop because it suits their purposes. It can be a very useful thing to do, especially when attacked outside of a dojo. On two separate occasions I brought an attacker to a screeching halt in the middle of a technique. Both situations were identical. They had jumped me from behind and I got busy making them fly head first to the ground with tenchi nage. In both cases at the very last moment, just as they were about to leave the ground, I recognised them as my friend and halted their flight instantly.

When it comes to an uke with a very solid ukemi, it’s rarely their fault. They do it every single time, and it annoys almost every nage because it can be so difficult to work with. That doesn’t make it their fault though. In general, aikidoka are not taught how to perform ukemi correctly. It basically never comes up in teaching. Not to the level that a technique is taught. This is a huge mistake (that I’ve written about here) and is the reason we have students that turn into brick walls.

Aikidoka need to be taught to move. Not just for techniques either. They need to be taught that a fundamental principle of ukemi is to simulate the intent of an attacker. An attacker is rarely, if ever, still. They are an intentioned force of chaos that is trying to interfere with you. The intent may be wrong. The direction may be wrong. Regardless, both of those things will be there and acting on the aikidoka.

When you are performing ukemi, you need to move. If you aren’t sure how you are supposed to be moving, ask the sensei. They’ll tell you, and then you’ll know how to move. If you don’t move, the nage cannot do aikido. They can try, and they might even succeed, but it will ultimately be a fruitless exercise for them.

Learn to move.