More Than Just Falling: The Art of Self-Preservation

A short piece discussing the concept and the practice of ukemi, usually translated or defined as “the art of falling.” Here, we try to look past this surface definition or translation. This originally appeared in jujitsu pioneer Geroge Kirby’s Kokoro newsletter in March 2019 issue.

In the traditional Japanese martial arts, many practitioners learn that ukemi is taking a fall in response to another’s application of technique, or the “art of falling.” However, that definition only seems to scratch the surface. As is the case with many foreign words and concepts, its deeper meaning may be lost in the translation. Before an alternative or expanded definition is offered, consider these points: as practitioners, how do we perform ukemi in the dojo? Do we stop our motion and wait until nage/tori (the “thrower”) applies the technique – a very common method for us all – or are we engaged with nage’s movements, where uke moves with nage’s lead and application? This latter form of ukemi, moving and flowing with nage’s lead and application, takes time to apply, but will help preserve the body from taking the brunt of the technique. In other words, ukemi is about self-protection and can be perceived as the “art of self-preservation.”

Ukemi translates to “receiving body.” In the case of martial arts, it is receiving bodily energy, or strikes, grabs, pushes, or throws from another person. Ukemi is an extension of the role of uke, “the receiver.” Uke therefore receives nage’s energy to perform ukemi in order to keep themselves safe during nage’s execution of technique. In this sense, it would not bode well for uke to stand still as nage performs the technique. Nage may lock uke’s arm or wrist or move to a blind spot, putting uke in a more compromising position. The same principle applies to uke and demonstrates the importance of proper ukemi.

With this principle in mind in the dojo, it would then benefit uke to flow or move with nage’s technique. If nage begins a lock on the wrist or arm, uke should move with nage’s application to help alleviate some pain. Uke’s movements and connection to nage’s movements and application helps dissipate the effects of technique but also creates two options: to attack again or to escape. Uke should experience some levels of discomfort during the technique to let them know that nage is applying the technique correctly/effectively. However, this does not mean that nage should hurt uke on purpose; nage is responsible for the care and safety of uke during technique. Likewise, it is also uke’s responsibility to maintain awareness and vigilance in their role to maintain safety. Trust in our partners is vital to the overall learning experience. If nage attempts to move to a blind spot, uke should turn towards nage, realigning their center to reengage. Here, uke must be active in their observation of nage’s movements to preserve themselves. If not, then uke may incur some serious pain or injury.

I should clarify that being an active uke does not mean that uke forgoes the technique to gain an illusion of control or advantage over nage; uke’s movement should be in correlation or relation to the movements of nage and the technique. Nage, in turn, should not perform the technique inefficiently, ineffectively, and/or incorrectly to keep uke safe, but rather in a unified and mindful execution of skill and precision that mutually benefits both practitioners. The goal is to enhance the learning experience by fulfilling roles prescribed for the particular technique. Working with a partner on a pre-determined set of movements is a common way jujitsu, judo, and aikido practitioners learn. By nage performing the technique as taught and uke actively moving appropriately with the former, both practitioners will absorb the day’s lesson and remain true to the technique while maintaining ample safety.

Ukemi, in this sense, is nuanced, and thus, difficult to fully explain in writing. This type of ukemi, like the majority of martial arts, is best learned by doing and allowing for trial and error, honing the aspects in real time with consistent training. Once the practitioner has a grasp on this type of ukemi, their ability as uke and confidence in their ukemi skills will increase. With both the increase in ukemi skills and ability as uke, the practitioner breaks the waiting habit as uke and dives deeper into understanding the technique. Be it a different perspective, a counter, or an escape, going with the flow of the technique not only helps alleviate pain but also reinforces and expands both uke’s and nage’s learning experience and knowledge of the technique.


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