Receiving Ukemi

For those not acquainted by martial arts. The title is a bit of a weak play on words, since "ukemi" means something like "receiving through the body". Uke is generally the receiver of a technique and thus the attacker in aikido, whereas the nage is the thrower to use one possible word.

Ukemi is important in Aikido. You will spend literally half your training time attacking and then "receiving" the technique, and all of these aspects can be lumped under the title of ukemi. It's a difficult balance to get right in aikido. It is learned in a very cooperative nature, and so the idea (for some) is be an "appropriate" attacker for each training partner, tailoring your attack to each. Thus, for a student on their first night, you might actually move the student's arms to help them learn the "throw".

Issues tend to arise more in pairings between non beginners. Some advocate that as an uke you can learn aikido by blending completely with the nage. I personally prefer an approach of attacking in a way I believe is probably appropriate for a "normal" attacker, and then protecting myself and blending in the aftermath. I'm probably slightly above average height, weight and strength and so a good model of an attacker, and perhaps somewhat harder to throw.

Having said that, I do not prevent people from throwing me. I just don't strive to throw myself, blending so completely that every throw seems to "work" perfectly no matter what.

Recently I received a fair amount of verbal and non verbal (expressions and so on) criticism from a student of about a year's experience about the "awkwardness" of my ukemi. I think in retrospect I should have indicated that unhelpful, non constructive criticism is as unpleasant and counterproductive for me as to anyone else. I did however, rather unhelpfully, suggest "you might want to consider that I am not the whole problem". I was exasperated at the fact that this person thought I was trying to stop her from throwing me, when in fact I was trying to help her explore where things were going well and where they were not. The exasperation was not helped by my conviction (rightly or wrongly) that if I really wanted to stop her from throwing me, I could have done so very easily. (Yeah, I know you can always stop a known technique, I don't mean that, really).

The reality is, there are very, very few people to whom I would give concerted "awkwardness" to stop them throwing me, and those are among the people whose aikido I respect the very most, and it would be something I would do rarely, and as a gift to that person (and because it can be a great deal of fun once you are comfortable with another person!). If you're reading this, you know who you are! If I'm trying to be "awkward", you'll know about it.

When I hit 3rd Kyu (around the middle of the white belt grades), I took a decision I simply wasn't going to worry about awkward ukes any more. It's my problem to deal with the uke, not theirs. And now a good few years later (about nine) I find myself teaching Aikido, I emphasise this point to all the students in our club, and it's very much our philosophy. Nevertheless, there are times I am training with another when I don't "finish" a technique when I feel their ukemi doesn't allow it. Those are times when I feel I would have to be profoundly unkind to do so, or potentially injure someone, especially when the person is (in my opinion) unaware of their own danger. Mostly however, I believe in the importance of finishing, providing I'm not putting my ego above the uke's safety.

But I believe awkward (but realistic) ukemi is a gift to receive gratefully, that some people I train with, though I like them very much personally, are so intent on blending perfectly with everything I do before I do it, that I am deprived of a chance to learn from my mistakes. I suppose I should have, with humble sincerity, explained this to my training partner. Better luck next time.

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2 thoughts on “Receiving Ukemi

  1. Joaquim Homrighausen says:

    Ukemi is indeed a big thing in Aikido, and the source of some serious confusion 🙂 Throwing someone around the dojo who's not ready for it is obviously not a good idea, but I find the borderliners the hardest to handle.

  2. Colin Turner says:

    Yes, it's hard in particular when people don't realise you could throw them but choose not to in case you injure them.

    I personally find it very frustrating too when someone much smaller than you is using a ton of strength to try and push you down and are totally unaware of it, it's hard to say anything, when you're bigger you tend to just get labeled the bully :-).

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