Ukemi and Kokyu Ryoku, simply explained -Part 2, Ukemi and falling
Ukemi- Receiving Force
Ukemi, what is it?
Ukemi means to receive with the body, this refers to receiving some form of force with the body. Learning Ukemi is the practice of learning to safely receive force in order to keep the force from causing you injury or otherwise overwhelming you. Ukemi may absorb, dissipate, deflect and redirect forces acting upon you. Most martial arts put the majority of their efforts into how to make force and not receive it. In Aikido it is made clear from the very beginning that learning to safely receive force is VERY important. Many of us were attracted to Aikido when we saw footage of a small old Japanese man who was able to easily handle the force of much younger, more powerful men. Receiving force is a key practice in Aikido. While simply receiving force might not seem as exciting as being able to shove someone really hard, or hit them powerfully, many of the skills you will learn in receiving force will give you the foundation to understand how to better make force. Making and receiving force are really two sides of the same coin.
Ukemi for falling.
I would imagine that the majority of Aikido students think of Ukemi exclusively as falling methods. While we will go on later to talk about other kinds of Ukemi, the Ukemi of falling safely is certainly important. In order to understand falling and Ukemi we need to understand the key factors in falling and what is happening.
What is falling?
Falling is the process of suddenly going from a higher position to a lower one. For those not practiced in falling this usually happens violently, uncontrollably and ends in hard impact with the ground. As your Ukemi improves you will learn to soften your impact with the ground by dissipating and redirecting the force that is bringing you to the ground. If we are exploring falling practices there is an important question I think we need to ask that we usually overlook. Why do we fall? What makes us go from standing to the ground? The answer is simple, but we usually don’t take the time to fully understand it. If more of our weight is outside of our base than inside of our base we will fall. While that is a simple answer, understanding what it means can be a bit confusing. Lets look at what a standing person is.
A standing person is a standing structure, not unlike other standing structures, like a building or platform. Every structure has a base and its base is what keeps it from falling over. The base is the part of the structure that contacts the ground. The structure will remain stable (standing) as long as the majority of its weight is kept within the area of the base. If the majority of the structures weight moves outside of its base it will fall down. Let’s try an experiment. Stand up normally, keep your feet in one place and slowly start leaning to any direction (forward, backwards or sideways). Lean until you start to lose your balance. This is the point where the majority of your weight has come outside of your base. Often in martial arts you’ll hear talk about your “center” and how your center is near your navel.
But why is it important to know where your bodies center is? Our experiment can show us why knowing where our center is, is important. Notice that the moment you start to lose your balance is also the moment that your navel starts to move outside of your base (where your feet are planted). This is because once your navel moves outside of your base the majority of your weight is no longer inside of your base and gravity is pulling you down where you don’t have a base connected to a support (in this case, the ground). To keep yourself from falling you will (quite naturally) take a step. The act of taking a step widens your base, this again puts the majority of your weight inside the area of your base.
Understanding why a fall happens is important in martial arts study, not only for Uke (the person who will fall), but also for Nage(the person doing the throwing). Anytime that your weight is forced outside of your base you will start to fall. If you can extend your base back under the majority of your weight you will stop falling. Understanding this is essential to practicing both falling and throwing methods.
Why is falling dangerous?
Everyone knows that falling is potentially dangerous. But the fall itself isn’t the part that causes injury, it’s the hard surface (the ground) that you smash into that is the problem. This is why in Aikido we train on mats. The mats help lessen our impact with the ground. As you get better at Ukemi, you can fall safely on harder and harder surfaces, until eventually you could practice on concrete and not expect any real injuries. If you’ve done a lot of Aikido you take this for granted, but if you stop and think about it for a moment, it’s really quite amazing. Once you learn proper Ukemi, you’re able to fly full force towards a concrete surface and be uninjured! We all know that being sent forcefully into a hard surface is likely to cause injury, so how is it that those who take good Ukemi avoid these injuries? As I said before, it’s not the fall itself that hurts you, it’s the impact with the ground that does the damage. As you become better at Ukemi, you don’t need a mat so much, this is because through good Ukemi you learn how to lessen the force of the impact. Good Ukemi training teaches you to dissipate and redirect the forces that are smashing you into the ground. This is what keeps you from getting injured.
Redirecting and dissipating force.
In training Aikido you will learn many ways to safely fall, however the safest way to fall is rolling. Rolling is the best method of falling because it naturally redirects and dissipates force better than other falling methods. The round nature of the roll very naturally takes force moving in one direction and changes it to another, safer direction (redirecting), and allows that energy (force) to be spread out safely (dissipate). If we are talking about falling, the worst place for the energy to take us is straight down, because down is where the ground is, a hard surface that can injure us. If you want to roll when falling, the first thing you need to do is to try and get some horizontal motion to help offset the downward motion. By simply doing this we will already start to lessen our impact. This is do to natural deflection of force that will happen when we hit the ground. This deflection is how rocks skip on water. When you skip a rock on water, gravity is pulling the rock down, but the horizontal motion coupled with the flat surface of the rock and the waters surface tension cause the rock to “skip” forward instead of simply sinking straight down. Using this horizontal motion helps our roll as well. When we actually contact the ground, we round ourselves and convert even more of this downward force into sideways force (redirecting the force). By doing this we can change a significant amount of downward force that would slam us into the ground, and convert that force to move us sideways and back to standing. The roll naturally takes the force and spreads the impact area out along the length of our body (dissipation), and makes impact with any one part of the body much much less. This is how a roll redirects and dissipates downward force. While specific rolling technique and form is an important subject and should be discussed at length, it’s not the focus of this article. The important part to understand here is that you can manipulate force through the methods of Ukemi.
Safe falling is an important aspect of Ukemi, but there’s more to it.
In Aikido when we first learn the word “Ukemi” we come to understand it to mean falling methods. This makes sense because in the beginning of Aikido training the most dangerous force the beginner faces is the force of gravity, which is trying to smash them into the ground. So when the teacher says “you must improve your Ukemi” the main focus of this improvement is on learning to better interact with the ground. In learning to fall you will learn to absorb, dissipate, deflect and redirect the force that is pulling you down. The methods you learn to do this will not only protect you, but they will also help you begin to understand all the ways that you can receive force, whether you are falling or standing.
As important as learning to fall is, it’s also important to learn to receive force while standing. This kind of Ukemi is often the most interesting example of taking force. Many examples of this being done by Aikido’s founder can be seen in motion and still pictures. It’s very impressive to see a small old man who cannot be moved or lifted by much larger men. This way of receiving force has inspired many of us to keep practicing Aikido and dig deeper into its methods. As we broaden our understanding of what Ukemi is, we can start to see that these standing methods of receiving force are also an important part of our Ukemi practice.
In our next article we will explore standing Ukemi. Look for it next week!