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  • Writer's pictureAnn O'Brien

3 Stages of Ukemi (Receiving + Responding)

Updated: Jun 13

A significant aspect of Aikido is ukemi, the art of receiving. Often thought of as the "falling and rolling" part of our practice, ukemi is in fact much, much more.

The person who attacks, and is then typically thrown, is called the "uke." Ukemi includes the attack and even starts pre-attack, as uke reads their partner's clues and finds an appropriate opening. A skilled uke offers committed energy, and maintains it as their partner (called "nage") executes a technique. As nage turns or drops their center, so must uke move in response.

There are 3 primary stages of ukemi: 1) safety, 2) learning and 3) teaching. As our Aikido progresses, we move from focus on safety alone, to both safety and learning, and finally encompassing all 3 stages.

New students learn the basics of back falls and forward rolls, and how to respond and attack. While "how" to do this is a nuanced art and can be practiced for a lifetime, we start to include stage 2 once the fundamentals are there.

Once we know we can roll and fall without getting hurt, it becomes more possible to unwind our tendencies to fight, flee or freeze. These coping mechanisms rarely protect us. On the mat and in life, we can't count on thinking we know what's coming, because it might change. We have to relax, and find the balance of offering energy without undue resistance.

As we move from a focus on "safety first" to safety and learning, we wake up to see that many things we do in attempt to stay safe, actually backfire. For example, letting go of the hand you just grabbed, because you don't know where you're going, might put you in a dangerous position. Pulling away from a nikkyo (wrist lock) hurts much worse than leaning into it. As we discern true safety from a false sense of safety, our practice grows.

I believe the best way to understand a technique is to feel it being done to you by a skilled practitioner. This is why I travel to train with— and even be in the presence of— master teachers. I can feel the energy just being in the same seminar hotel!

Yes, some folks are visual learners, and others want to hear step-by-step instructions. Still, Aikido is an art of energy transmission. What protects us in stage 2 is staying connected and responding to our partner, moment by moment. And in doing so we inevitably learn. Being curious and open to feel and follow, we can find the pathways where effective movement patterns reside.

This stage of ukemi can be exhilarating. I can't count how many times I've been called up by the sensei, flipped around for a few minutes and then had no idea what just happened. Even still, my Aikido improved— both because I felt the techniques very clearly, and because I learned to move fluidly and blend with my partner in circumstances which were both safe and unknown.

Besides the sensei, the next best person to train with is the one the sensei just threw. This is because that uke just received the transmission, and will share it with you. It's an honor to receive these opportunities.

Once ukemi as learning has been established, there will come a time where your ukemi teaches another. With a very new student, this may mean you offering the correct response "as if," even though they didn't throw you correctly, and in this way you help them learn how. A new nage is following uke to a degree, but this shifts some once the movements "click."

A student doesn't have to be brand new to learn from their uke. Often if the uke is more experienced than nage, uke will flow and offer little resistance so that nage can feel how the technique should feel.

However, if nage repeatedly demonstrates the same bad habit, uke has a duty to not fall for it— literally and figuratively. At this stage, the senpai (more experienced student) teaches not through words, but through accurate responsiveness. This requires the kohai (less experienced student) to be precise in their technique, or to find and fix what's not working. And then when nage does a throw well— it will be unmistakeable.

Ultimately, Aikido is about how to meet each situation with a life-enhancing, "win-win" mindset. When you try to teach someone before you know, you only shortchange yourself and those you might support once you did. If you do know and you're too hard on those who don't, they might never learn. And then there are times when someone won't learn if you're too "nice."

Mastering these skills is a lifelong practice which bears many fruits. At every stage, you'll know you're on the right track when energy increases for both you and your partner, versus one or— usually— both of you getting stuck. At the very least, Aikido feels honoring, even when it's challenging.

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1 Comment

Jun 18

Well done!

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