Aikido, at its’ purest essence, is an old-style martial art.
As a general rule-of-thumb only more “modern” martial arts have (an extended emphasis on) punching and kicking, or other forms of percussion. Old style Samurai martial arts acknowledged the extreme difficulty inherent in effectively punching someone wearing iron face guards, chain or link mail, or other metal plate or bamboo body protectors and instead opted for methods of dashing the opponent to the ground as a means of fighting. Also utilized were take-downs or throws using joint locks; the joint locks being intended to dislocate the joint (either in the air or once the opponent hit the ground) and neutralize the opponent’s ability on the battlefield. They were built around the assumption that everyone wore some form of armor and fought with spear and sword.
Once the wearing of armor decreased and the likelihood of encountering an opponent who was only wearing civilian clothes (but likely still armed if only with a tanto) became much more likely, the methods gradually evolved and began to include a focus on striking (atemi waza) along with a renewed emphasis on joint locking and vital points (as the armor that once protected joints and points, or restricted their range of movement, was no longer there).
Today, the best known Japanese martial arts that largely originated from and used this focus on the principle of dashing the opponent are primarily Kodokan Judo and Aikido. The rub here comes from a logical extension of this idea; that is, how does one practice “dashing the opponent” with any waza (Judo body or leg throw, joint lock/take-down, throw off a joint lock, straight take-down with the dislocation occurring once they are grounded to the earth) unless the student can actually throw/take-down a training partner a sufficient number of times? This of course means that in order to acquire a sufficient level of expertise, then both training partners must act as tori and uke; they both have to throw and be thrown thousands of times so that both can eventually, over a period of years, get the experience necessary to achieve the understanding.
The answer is ukemi, lots of ukemi, lots and lots of ukemi, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of ukemi.
In the ryu of Aikido that I teach, we do not consider any player to be fully competent in forms of ukemi until they reach Sandan (3rd dan black belt) and it’s not until grading to Yondan (4th dan black belt) that I consider a player to be truly exceptional in being thrown in about 90% of ukemi configurations (discounting some more arcane forms of sacrifice throws and some of the more unusual Judo type throws).
Due to the amount of kata work that must be learned to grade to Sandan, the Aikido player has been thrown (numerous times) in all basic forms of forward, side, and backward throws. They additionally have been thrown in basic Kodokan Judo style leg reaps and hip throws (not all forms of Judo throws though, mind you) and have begun to be thrown in various unusual configurations Aikido style with the defender using a joint lock of some kind to control the uke as they are pitched “elbows over a…..hole” into the training floor (in a firm but gentle Aikido sort of way).
Plus, they have taken all of these ukemi on BOTH right AND left sides so that Kano's ideal of equally stretching and exercising the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, of stimulating the meridians for equal energy flow and of equally developing both sides of the body is realized.
So how many ukemi are we talking about here? How many do I as a Sensei expect my players to take in order to reach that point at which they have finally begun to internalize the concepts, making them reflexive and, making it safe to throw them (and to be thrown by them) in almost any throwing/joint locking configuration?
How many ukemi to reach Yondan (4th degree black belt); the level at which most of the older methods of promoting students under the menkyo systems were given their first level of teaching certificate, e.g. took the first step to being a teacher which of course meant that they had to understand ukemi and had to have thrown and be thrown that minimum number of times to reach the point of internalization.
Lets do the math.
During our warm-ups, stretching and ukemi practice at the front of class before any techniques or kata are done we go through a series of laying, sitting, rolling, squatting and standing rolls/falls going right, left and backwards.
Then the class lines up in several lines and practices ukemi from standing positions rolling forward, right/left sides, backwards going right then left, then hop/skip/jump which tests to see if the ukemi is the same length on both right and left side (consistent with having equal ability on both sides and not having a “good” side and a “bad” side), then basic sacrifice throw practice, maki-komi throw practice, falling over people, etc.. etc. …… there is almost no limit to the drills you can cobble together to practice forms of falling.
So now, counting both right and left sides this averages out to about 125 ukemi per class.
Now class starts and after going through the basic kata and waza we add another 50 to 60 ukemi and this totals out to about 150 to 200 ukemi per night.
Come to class 3x a week and that is 600 ukemi per week.
4 weeks a month and now we’re at 2,400 ukemi per month.
12 months per year and now we’re at 28,000 ukemi per year.
Calculate that it should take an average of 8 years to make 4th dan black belt and you have taken about 230,000 ukemi and, if you and your training partner have gone one-for-one with each other for a fair practice (he throws, you throw, he throws, you throw) then you have thrown the same 230,000 times.
Now take that number and multiply it by the 40 some-odd years I’ve been on the mat training actively and you get blown away by the math. After a while, you just have to quit worrying about the math and just go to class and do it (because the numbers just get ridiculous).
If you think about the logic here and just do the math, then it suddenly becomes apparent what the difference between a serious martial artist and a Budo-tourist is.
Next - “Ukemi Part Two – Internalization and Reflexive Training”