Ukemi- ” The Art of Falling Down ”.

If there was ever a statement that makes my teeth itch it has to be this one! If you will allow me to explain why hopefully it may make sense.
Statement above is such a misnomer that it completely misses the point of ukemi in the first place. Allow me to give my humble thoughts on it.
When I first came to Aikido many years ago the dojo I practised in, and now teach at, I struggled with ukemi to the point where I almost quit. Having come from other martial arts and a lifetime of being involved in training in one discipline/sport or another it wasn’t down to lack of commitment. Quitting is an alien concept to me so it did not sit well and caused many moments of thought and if honest anguish.
I really struggled with being a beginner in Aikido and having a beginners mind, Shoshin, throwing myself was new to me. Having a Judo/Karate/Ju-Jitsu background it wasn’t the ukemi that I struggled with it was that I thought I was expected to throw myself!
Four months into it and I thought this is mad. I watched the others on the mat and it all looked fake. Looked wonderful but to my martial mind it was fake.
I can see where people outside see Aikido and think the same. I once was there myself and partook in the pretence.

Sitting at home one night after class, a lot of it spent struggling with getting almost everything wrong, not knowing my left from right, being told to relax- which only agitated me as I thought I was-but mostly just feeling that this really wasn’t for me due to the ukemi and the feeling of falling down for no reason. I said to myself I would give it one more class. Just one! Then if I felt the same I was done and would go on with Ju-Jitsu which I was also doing that at same time.
The Ju-Jitsu I could get as it was like the other arts I had trained it. It was all hard and forceful where you made things happen. Aikido on the other hand was an art where I felt nothing really happened and everyone fell down anyway.
Bit like a stag party in some far off place where no one knows the participants and they get blathered and just fall about.¬†Little did I know as being a beginner and not really able to take ukemi safely or at all I wasn’t being thrown.
I went to class the following Tuesday night and 30 minutes into it I had enough. My Sensei at the time Moylan Ryan was very astute and asked was I ok. Told him of my struggle and he said it was because I was a beginner in an art not like the others and was expecting too much of myself in a short period of time. I asked could I just put a few spare mats to one side and just roll away on my own. He obliged and gave me some things to work on.
I got one roll right. Just one. One solitary roll! But at least I got one and if I could get one then two and so on. I returned the following week with a renewed vigour and sense of purpose. Broke two ribs being thrown and not taking ukemi properly!! Running before walking you might say but rather than put me off it showed that there was no falling down. There was throwing, redirecting, making things happen but in a different way. It was a revelation and I was hooked. Had to take time off to recover, had broken ribs before and it is a truly painful injury so knew what was in store.
After taking about six weeks off, happily coincided with the birth of my second child, I returned to the dojo with a different outlook. Even though I still struggled I knew there was something. The something? No Idea but had felt it in the throw- really painfully as I popped two ribs and not the small ones. Oh no. Not me. The two big meaty ones near in the middle! I decided to throw myself, pardon the pun, into Aikido, and took a break from Ju-Jitsu, which is not too dissimilar from Aikido. O’Sensei began studying Daito-Ryu-Aiki-Jitsu in the first place.
Meeting Alan in my first year of training in Cork was a strange experience. I had heard from the other lads in the dojo about him and how good he was. In my mind I pictured a 7 foot tall 200 lb mountain of a man. A man capable of super human feats. It was strange to see a man, a ” normal ” man. I had no interaction with him that time other than other than watching and trying to learn.

The second time I met him, had been training just about a year and had my ” stuff ” together I was better prepared. Alan almost broke my wrist. Then asked I grab with the hand he didn’t almost break!! He almost broke that one too. Funny thing was I was training with a guy whom had spent less time in Aikido than I and Alan calmly turned and offered him his hand. Needless to say Paul felt what I felt, have to admit I laughed while holding both wrists as had just been through it, but to Alan there was nothing! No force. No pulling, dragging, twisting! I had never seen someone so relaxed and cause so much pain. Having worked security for many years in some hairy places where Shit Hitting The Fan was common place and was used to a little pain. Wasn’t used to this smiling gentleman crushing me with no effort on his part but a ton of pain on mine!!! Can still see Alan smiling as he bowed and walked away leaving us in heaps. I now know that we did it to ourselves by the way- not Alan- as Alan was only meeting what was offered and that was all.

But back to ukemi. Ukemi is that art of receiving technique! This is a far better way to describe it, especially to beginners, as it is the correct way. Having struggled with it at the beginning I have studied ukemi on and off the mat with many different people with the intention of understanding and growing in Aikido. You cannot practice Aikido to any level without understanding ukemi, now having Zanshin- remaining mind- things become clearer each day. For me it is more important to be an uke than nage. Some people will think otherwise and that is fine. Now teaching I emphasize this to all the students I practice with. I spend more time as an uke taking ukemi than I do as a nage. So much goes on in Aikido between uke and nage that some can get lost if both parties are not in tune, especially the uke. Had a fifteen minute conversation outside of the tennis club with Henry some years ago in Galway that made more sense to me that all the time I spent of the mat with him. He explained Ying and Yang and because we were off the mat and it was relaxed and informal it suddenly made sense. I was his original 200 lb man, those of you that know Henry will remember as he always spoke of being grabbed by a bigger/heavier man. The 200 lbs man. Took ukemi for Henry so he could show and explain while using me as an uke. Something I did many times over the years and believe me I grabbed strongly. I always ended up the same way- on the mat or the odd occasion IN it. Never felt like Henry did much but like Alan he did what he had to and that was enough. I attacked Alan once but that’s a story for another day as it’s funny.

Aikido is a journey, lifelong, which takes commitment and lots of study. Just look at the journeys of Alan and Henry just to get a sense of what a journey means. The purpose is to improve oneself and to constantly move forward. Not to compare yourself to others but just to improve and help those you practice with to do the same. It’s not easy and sometimes it is easier to stay at home. The reward will be worth it as I have always left the dojo felling much better than when I entered. If there ever was a secret to Aikido then it has to be practice. Followed closely by ukemi!