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July 2008

June 2008

3. Ukemi Part One – The Numbers Are Astounding

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”


2. Rhythm in Aikido

At age 56 I find I must work steadily to stay in shape, for both daily living and in order to be able to train in Aikido. Part of that routine consists of training at the gym at least 4 to 5 days each week. I schedule my day such that after rising I take the kids to school, train at the gym, go to the office, leave and train and teach at the dojo and then take it home and hit the showers and the rack.

While in the gym I train by myself, having lost my training partner many years ago. I have found that when set up properly (as in having a goal and making a plan to get there) solo training is more than adequate to get a lot of work done and stay in good physical condition. I also have found that the gym has become my Zen meditation time each day as correct resistance training requires shutting out everything around you and focuses your attention on the moment. After all, when you lift heavy weight above your head you better learn focus and have a studied calmness and centered-ness, otherwise you can blow out a joint or drop the plates on yourself.

The early morning training regimen is my quiet time during which I calm down my mind, focus on the day, consider problems that have been vexing me and letting my subconscious mind find the answer, solving issues, considering dojo events, teaching ideas, randori problems, etc. In essence, I spend the hour and a half doing a combination of mental Zen and mental Aikido.

Quietly keeping to ones self during training, but nonetheless being surrounded by dozens of people of all sorts, allows for a lot of really good people watching. There is a small percentage of men and women like me who train seriously, don’t BS a lot, focus on the moment and on their personal development and who calmly get the job done. They don’t look like a ball of fire but then as the old fairy tale goes, slow and steady wins the race.

Most people in the gym however are what I would consider to be tourists; there to look good or to gossip, to half heartedly try something before going to the chicken fried steak house down the street, or surprisingly one women who goes on a daily basis, lifts less weight than my 9 year old daughter and carries a stack of fashion magazines around with her. She sits on a machine, works with not enough weight to make any difference and after doing one very short set, proceeds to sit and read thus requiring people to walk up to her and ask, “So, are you actually going to work out or what?” in order to have their turn on the machine.

So now that I have given out too much information, the crux of this piece on training consists of the idea of relaxed but focused work done in a smooth and comfortable rhythm. This rhythm allows us to learn, progress and grow without wearing us down. It is totally different from how many people view working at the gym or at the dojo; frantically trying to progress, wearing themselves out in the process before finally burning out and going home.

I and all the other serious people at the gym don’t hurriedly rush from weight to weight or machine to machine. We all have a paper in our hand and we mark where we are and how much improvement we have made. We walk unhurriedly from exercise to exercise but we do it consistently and we do it the same day each week and we make progress all the time, week after week, month after month and year after year. In short, we have learned to set a rhythm to our training and to our lives that allows for slow but steady progress and advancement. This relaxed rhythm allows for a stress free mood to take control and does not allow the gym to impinge itself upon work or family life; it simply is just another small part of who we are and fits quite nicely. By not obsessing over the gym, it’s easy to do. It’s just on the daily schedule and if a true crisis arises we can easily skip one day and get back to it the next.

Aikido training is no different at all.

I have for years been a very large advocate of the concept of getting an appointment book just like at the office and after looking at my entire life, picking two days a week to go to class and train in the martial arts. I establish a rhythm to my Aikido training and don’t obsess over it. It just becomes part of who I am and by setting the same days each week to work out, I can relax, go to class and train and most important of all, enjoy it.

I have found in my life that whenever I have not set a rhythm to everything I do, whether that be work, family, dojo, gym, etc., then I begin to stress out and worry about, “Oh my gosh, where will I find the time?” Then when you finally do find the time you have a brain hemorrhage because having missed so many workouts, you try to make for 3 or 4 weeks of sloth by cramming it all into one frantic session at the gym or the dojo to make up for it.

Putting things and activities into my life as a natural part of who I am, scheduling time ahead of the activity so I’m not stressing over last minute preparations, allows me to just go, have a good time and then get on to the next part of the day. It has really enabled me to progress in my life, my physical fitness, my martial arts training, and in gaining control of my blood pressure.

No, I’m not always a total success at this but ............. I’ve gotten good enough to see the difference that rhythm (and the planning ahead that setting a rhythm needs) makes in my life.

I suggest for those who are unable to find time to come to the dojo that you take the time to find some rhythm in your life. After all, if you don’t take the time now then when you’re 65 you may find yourself wondering what you missed and regret many lost opportunities.

L.F. Wilkinson Sensei

June 2008 (orig. pub. May 2005)


1. Shodan-The First Step

Teaching class in a dojo has many restrictions.  The lesson has to be brief and concise, it has to fit within a certain time span and cover the information most necessary for the technical level of the class at that moment, and it can't be a rambling monologue.

None of this allows for much in the way of in-depth thought, comment or discussion of critical philosophical matters; ergo this blog.

So, we'll see just where this effort takes us.