Obviously, ukemi is essential to our art. Developing good ukemi – the qualities of which are not the subject of this essay, but have been addressed by many a great teacher – insures that nage is learning effective self-defense, which is vital for any legitimate martial art. Aikido is often criticized by outsiders because of the seemingly unrealistic level of cooperation that uke must exhibit in order to avoid injury. The argument is that Aikido techniques would not work because a real attacker would not “go along” with the technique. Of course, anyone who bothers to actually study Aikido quickly realizes that excessive resistance to the techniques not only impedes the learning process for both partners, but is downright dangerous! The true effective power of Aikido technique cannot be seen from the outside. It can only be felt directly through the act of taking ukemi.
The true-life lesson of ukemi is reflected in the traditional Japanese saying, “Seven times down, eight times up.” Or, to put it another way, as Thomas Wayne presented the lesson to his young son Bruce in the film, Batman Begins: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.” In Aikido, as in life, the only way to fail is to give up. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson of all.
The role of uke is more difficult to develop than that of nage, and I believe it is the path to mastering self-defense in the deepest and broadest sense of the term. Along these lines, I’d like to share with you a few of the benefits that ukemipractice can bestow to our bodies and minds, in the hopes that they will inspire you to learn to love and appreciate ukemi as I do, or to deepen that appreciation if you are already so lucky as to have cultivated it in your heart.
First, let us examine a few of the physical benefits of ukemi. Perhaps the most obvious is the benefit to cardiopulmonary health. When throwing, energy expenditure should be at a minimum, that’s just good technique. The principle is to let uke do all the work, and what a lot of work it is! When we are first learning to fall, we may proceed slowly with caution and the aerobic benefits of Aikido practice are not readily apparent. Once the student gains a basic proficiency with forward and backward rolls, the cardio conditioning can begin en force!
As an aspiring physical therapist, I appreciate ukemi as a nearly ideal form of aerobic exercise because, while it can be high-impact at times (breakfall), it does not have to be overly jarring (soft breakfall, forward roll, backward roll) and it involves a wide variety of movements, which use all the major muscle groups in the body. This is in contrast to more popular types of cardio training such as running or cycling, which tend to focus on the lower body and are basically highly repetitive motions that put high amounts of stress on important joints like the hips, lower spine and knees over and over and over again. To me, the line between proper exercise and risk of repetitive stress injury becomes very thin in these types of exercises, but I digress…
The second great benefit of ukemi practice is its effect on bone health. As mentioned above, rolling and falling puts controlled amounts of stress on our bones not just in one direction, but in almost every conceivable direction. Over time, this appropriate amount of repeated stress on the bones invokes a physiological process known as Wolff’s Law, in which the very structure of the bone is altered, becoming denser and stronger. This reduces our risk of injury should we ever fall off of the mat, which is especially important as we grow older. Although I am not aware of any research on the subject, I would be willing to bet that the incidence of osteoporosis is significantly decreased in people who have practiced Aikido continuously for five years or more.
Another potential benefit of ukemi practice is strengthening. This may not apply as universally as the first two benefits, but for myself I noticed that during the brief period in which I was privileged to serve as uchideshi under Sato Sensei at Tenshinkan, I gained ten pounds in 90 days, and it wasn’t from eating too much rice. It was from picking myself up off the mat over and over for three hours every night.
Ukemi practice also enhances balance and body awareness (as does nagepractice), improves spinal flexibility (particularly in techniques that make use ofushirosori such as iriminage), and may have beneficial effects to the nervous system and various internal organ systems by virtue of the sort of full-body self-massage it provides.
In addition to the impressive list of physical benefits of ukemi, there are wonderful psycho-spiritual benefits as well. It is widely accepted in the fields of medicine and clinical psychology that physical activity is extremely useful in relieving stress and combating depression. In the case of Aikido, and particularlyukemi I suspect this effect would be heightened because of the strong social component of Aikido practice. In Aikido, we interact genuinely with our fellow human beings. By allowing ourselves to be in close physical contact, trusting our partner with our bodies, we enhance our sense of connectedness with humanity and the Universe. Feeling the power of Aikido techniques also develops empathy for the suffering of others and reminds us of the importance of compassion in the way we treat each other.
Perhaps the most important transformative aspect of developing our ukemi is that it offers us a path to conquering fear, the most powerful negative force in many of our lives. Fear is normal, but it must be controlled if we are to develop spiritually and lead full lives. Learning to receive advanced Aikido techniques such as shihonage breakfall and koshinage offers us a precious opportunity to face our fear of looking foolish or being physically injured. Many students are terrified of being called up to take ukemi in front of the class, particularly on that very first throw, before you even know what technique Sensei is about to show. Once you are confident in your ukemi, the fear and anxiety melt away and it becomes exhilarating to rush in and attack not knowing what will happen next! One of the most incredible things about our art is that through the help and support of our friends and teachers we can free ourselves from our attachments to body and ego so that we might catch a brief shining glimpse of the brilliant Truth of Aikido: You Are the Universe!