Ukemi can be explained many ways. One way is to break it down in terms of its physical and non-physical aspects: The physical aspects; the attack, the movement, the fall. The non-physical; the intention, the commitment and the mindset. Good ukemi contains both aspects.
In order to improve our ukemi, it’s important to have a reasonable understanding of what it actually is to be uke. Many have written about this and I won’t go into it too much here, suffice to say that it isn’t just about doing nice rolls or trying to hit someone.
As uke, we provide energy for nage to deal with in the form of an attack. As nage deals with this in form of a technique, we protect ourselves by moving with nage and by going into a fall. The important point is that the fall is the result of our attack, not the reason for it.
So it follows that if we are uncertain in our ability to fall, we are less able to dedicate ourselves to an attack. Hence we need to work on our rolling. The trap here is that we become focused on rolling (the physical aspect) and forget about committing to the attack (the non-physical aspect). Of course, at the other extreme, attacking with great force without being able to protect yourself by falling, is equally unhelpful.
The following are some ideas for improving our falls, as this comes first in the process of improving ukemi.
Roll like you are a beginner
To really become comfortable taking falls, we need to have good body awareness and control. Reverting to very basic rolling practices and warm-ups is a good place to start. These practices inform our body of what we want it to do and the more we can become sensitive to this the better. Learn intimately how to lower your hips to the ground without hurting them or hitting your head. Rolling around like a child playing goes a long way to developing higher level ukemi.
It is generally easier to roll with pace or momentum. Rolling slowly develops fine control over more parts of the movement, filling in the gaps we are unaware of when we roll at speed.
Learn to roll multi directions from one position
As ukes, we want to be able to flow in the direction nage is leading. This is part of aiki. With practice we can learn to roll in any given direction without having to turn around or change the direction of our hips too much. As well as learning a freedom of movement outside the normal form, this gives us the ability to protect ourselves from nage’s throw without stopping and turning.
Learn to roll without arms
This is a good skill to have to reduce fear when the roll doesn’t go as we expected. Sometimes nage will hold on to our leading hand unexpectedly and if we rely on this arm for our rolls, we tense up and/or are unable to fall safely. A break-fall is often needed if this hand is not freed, therefore being able to roll without hand and arm support is an important progression for learning these falls.
Practice higher level falls the way a beginner learns a simple roll
For an absolute beginner, a simple roll is high level falling. When we begin, nage needs to allow us room to disconnect and execute a roll at our own pace. The same applies to learning higher level falls. When we begin learning a new fall, we are a beginner again and the same process applies.
Once we have learned the basic movement we can then practice taking the falls from technique. When this is comfortable, it’s important to then practice taking the falls from more committed, free form practice so we learn how to integrate it into our ukemi. Of course, at first this will be at the expense of committing less to the attack and attacking with the mindset of practicing a particular fall but this is just the process of learning. We are beginners again, after all.
To learn how to break-fall, we need to know how to break-fall your uke safely
Logically, if we want to learn to break-fall safely, nage needs to know how to throw us correctly. A safe throw for rolling is different to a safe throw for break-falling. Part of the learning curve is dealing with the fear that we will damage the arm or wrist that has been locked for the throw. Therefore, as nage, learning the correct angles needed to lead uke into a high fall, whilst still supporting their weight and joints, is essential to giving uke a safe and comfortable environment to work on their falls..
Know your limits and push yourself
For improvement to take place, stress and comfort need to be balanced. We don’t learn well when we are stressed and fearful. However, growth exists outside of our comfort zone and the further out we are willing to go, the faster we will grow.
If we want to improve our ukemi, we need to be constantly extending our practice to include scary and difficult things because when it stops being difficult, we are improving only slowly - or not at all. We should be as wary of dangerous practice as we should of contentment. Remember, our aim here is not to be very good but to improve.
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