I like to think of aikido as a kind of recycling art. There are techniques that could result in serious injury, or were perhaps originally designed to result in injury or death, but one of the genius innovations of O’Sensei was to devise ukemi, the art of taking the technique into your body. We practice with partners and alternate throwing and falling. Through ukemi we are able to absorb the techniques of aikido without getting hurt and live to fall again.
The idea of ukemi is to learn to absorb the energy of the throw in a safe way, either by falling forward or backward.
Ukemi is perhaps the most practical aspect of aikido training, because once it becomes second nature, the hope is you will fall without hurting yourself regardless of your surroundings. So if you slip on the ice, trip over a rock, lose your footing in any way, having learned how to fall will give you a better chance of emerging unscathed. There are also the health benefits of falling and getting up. The effort of controlling your entire body is great for bone density and good anaerobic exercise, along with building core muscles from the inside out. These bursts of effort have been shown in recent studies to be quite beneficial to overall health.
Apart from the practical benefits of learning to fall, deeper issues for many adults can emerge during the process. By the time most of us take up aikido, we may not have hit the floor in any consistent way for many years—if ever. It can be a huge challenge to begin thinking of the floor as your friend and trusting your own body. Learning to fall brings an awareness of our bodies moving through space. It’s essential that all of us practice ukemi by ourselves consistently for years, using methods both taught and developed by each of us for ourselves. As we become more fluent in controlling our bodies, we can learn to respond spontaneously to what our partner is doing.
It’s a truism that in order to trust others we have to learn to trust ourselves. Ukemi practice is challenging because it requires us to trust not only ourselves but our partners. We also have to learn to take risks. This is extremely challenging in a variety of ways: emotionally, psychologically, physically. I am struck by how much pain we carry in our bodies that isn’t outwardly visible. We may not even be aware of physical pain until we ask our bodies to perform new movements. We need to be aware of our individual challenges and learn to work around them safely. When you have to do this in concert with another person, the stakes rise exponentially.
Aikido is very difficult. Often in the beginning of our training, confusion reigns. The training is really designed to unite our minds and bodies. This is profoundly difficult on many levels. But it can be incredibly freeing. Learning aikido requires getting out of your head and into your body. Time slows down (or speeds up if you are having a good practice), and you begin to connect to others in nonverbal ways, by feeling the connection to your partner at the point of contact.
Your job as the partner who absorbs the technique (uke) is to stay physically connected to your partner for as long as you can (your connection can be a grab or a strike) without anticipating any outcome, regardless of what you know will happen. All of this commitment and attention has to be sustained until you fall down. After you learn how to fall, the experience becomes more spontaneous, you learn to just hang on for the ride. Because you trust yourself, you can trust your partner. The fun begins.