Ukemi : the flow of Ki

by Régis Soavi

The fall in our art is more than a liberation, mere consequence of an action. It is the Yin or Yang of a whole, the Tao. In practice, at the end of the technique, Tori emanates a yang energy : if he wants to avoid injuring his partner, Tori lets him absorb this yang energy and transfer it to the fall.

Aïkido is an art where there is no loser, an art dedicated to human beings, to the intuition of humans, to their adaptability, and going beyond the contradiction brought by a technique by means of the fall is nothing else than adaptability to it. Not to teach a beginner how to fall would amount to putting him in a situation of handicap from the start and risking discouragement, or to shaping a spirit of resentment, or even of revenge.

There are different attitudes among beginners, those who hurl themselves at the risk of getting hurt, and those who, because of fear, contract when about to fall and who of course take a bad fall and suffer painful consequences if you force them. My answer to this problem is softness and time…

When surprised by a noise, an act, the first reaction is to breathe in and block the breath, this is a reflex and vital functioning that prepares the answer and therefore the action. Surprise starts a series of biomechanical processes which are totally involuntary, it is already too late for reasoning. It is by breathing out that the solution to the problem will come. If there is no risk after all, or if the reaction is exaggerated and the risk minor, one drops the blocking and the breath is released in a natural way (ha, the usual sigh of relief). If there is danger, whether great or small, we are ready for action, ready to act thanks to the breath, thanks to breathing out. Problems occur when, for instance, we don’t know what to do, when the solution doesn’t arise immediately, we remain blocked in inspiration, with our lungs full of air, unable to move. It’s a disaster ! It’s approximately the same pattern that occurs when we are a beginner, our partner is performing a technique and the logical answer that will enable us to get free, and thus to fix up this conflictual problem is the Ukemi. But if one is afraid to fall, if one has not had the technical training of many forward and backward rollings done in a slow, nice and easy way, one remains with lungs blown up like a soccer ball, and if the technique is completed, one ends up on the floor, with more or less damage done.
Bouncing painfully on the tatamis like the aforesaid ball would then be the least harm. Learning to let go as soon as absolutely necessary, not falling before by caution, as this impairs Tori’s sensation and gives him a false idea of the value of his technique and often of himself. Grasping the right moment to breathe out and land softly on the tatamis without any air left in the lungs. Then as for the clapped falls, which one does when more advanced, it will be enough to breathe out faster and let oneself go so that the body finds the right receiving position by itself.

Training in the ancient way !

My own training through Judo in the early sixties, in Parisian suburbs, was very different. To us school youngsters, Judo was a way to expend our energy and canalize what otherwise ended badly, that is turned into struggles and other kinds of street fights. The training, twice a week, required two essential things : absolute respect to our teacher and learning how to fall. It was still a time when our teacher transmitted the « Japanese » Judo without weight categories. In spite of Anton Geesink’s recent victory at the Olympic Games, he would define himself as a traditionalist. Falls were one of the lessons’ foundations : rolling forward, backward, sideways, we used to spend about twenty minutes practicing that before performing the techniques, and sometimes, when he would not find us focused enough, too much scattered, he would say : « Turn your kimonos inside out so you won’t dirty them » and we would go out for a series of forward falls, in the small paved blind alley in front of the dojo. Afterwards, we were not afraid to fall anymore, well, that is, those who still wanted to continue !

The world has changed, society has evolved, would today’s parents agree to trust such a « barbarian » with their progenies, besides there are rules, protective laws, insurances.

Bob- that was his name- felt a responsibility for our training, and teaching us how to fall whatever the circumstances and on any sort of ground was part of his values and his duty was to retransmit them to us.

Bodies have changed, through food, lack of exercise, overintellectualization ; how can we pass on the message that learning physically how to fall is a necessity, provided that the results of it will be ascertained only several years later. What benefit is to be expected of it, what profitability, nowadays everything is accounted for, there’s no time to lose. It is the philosophy of Aïkido which attracts new practitioners, so that’s where our chance lies to pass on the message of this necessity.

Dualism

Aïkido, by nature and above all because of the orientation O Senseï Moriheï Ueshiba gave to it, carries a vision of the fall completely different from that of Boxing or Judo for instance, where falling is losing. To an external viewer, and that’s what falsely gives a certain character to our art, it seems that Tori is the winner when Uke falls on the tatamis. It is psychologically difficult to admit that this is not at all so. Society gives us but rarely any examples of behavior other than this Manichean dualism « Either you win or you lose ». And it is logical, at first sight, not to understand and to see only that. In order to understand the matter differently, one must practice, and practice with another conception in mind, which can only be given by the teacher. Itsuo Tsuda senseï provides an example of this pedagogy in his book The Path of Less :

« In Aïkido, when there is a flow of Ki from A, who is performing the technique, towards object B, opponent C, who is grasping A by the wrist, is thrown in the same direction. C is pulled in and joins the main current that goes from A to B.

I have often used this psychological mise-en-scene, for example, with the phrase « I’m already there ». When the opponent grabs your wrists and blocks your movement, as in the exercise of sitting Kokyu, one is inclined to think that this is a pushing exercise. If you push the opponent, it immediately produces resistance in that person. Push against push, they struggle. It becomes a sort of sitting sumo.

In the phrase « I’m already there », there is no struggle. One simply moves, pivots on one knee to make an about turn, the opponent is driven by the flow of Ki and flipped into his side. It takes very little for this exercise to become a struggle. As soon as the idea of winner and loser gets mixed up in it, exaggerated efforts are made to obtain a result, all to the detriment of overall harmony. One pushes, the other resists, bending excessively low and squeezing the wrists to prevent being pushed. Such a practice will not benefit either one. The idea is too mechanical. […] The idea of throwing provokes resistance. […] Nonetheless, to forget the opponent while knowing he’s there is not easy. The more we try to forget, the more we think about it. It’s the joy in the flow of Ki that makes me forget everything. »

Imbalance serving the purpose of balance

Balance is definitely not rigidity, that’s why falling as the consequence of a technique may perfectly enable us to rebalance ourselves. It is necessary to learn how to fall correctly, not only in order to enable Tori to be free of any fear for his partner, because Tori knows him and anticipates that his capacities will enable him to come out of this situation as well as a cat does in difficult conditions. But also and simply because thanks to the fall, we get rid of fears our own parents or grandparents have sometimes instilled in us with their ‘precautionism’ of the kind « Be careful, you’ll fall down. » invariably followed by « You’ll hurt yourself. ». This Pavlovian impregnation has often led us to rigidity and in any case to a certain apprehension as regards falling, dropping down.
The French word « chuter » (to fall) has obviously a negative connotation, while in Japanese the most commonly accepted translation of the term Ukemi is « to receive with the body », and we understand here that there is a world of difference. Once more the language shows us that the concepts, the reactions, differ profoundly, and it underlines the importance of the message we have to convey to people beginning Aïkido. Without being especially a linguist, nor even a translator of Japanese, the understanding of our art also involves the study of Eastern civilisations, their philosophies, their artistic tastes, their codes. In my opinion, extracting Aïkido from its context is not possible, despite its value of universality, we have to go and look in the direction of its roots, and therefore in that of the ancient texts. One of the basis of Aïkido can be found in ancient China, more precisely in Taoism. In an interview with G. Erard, Kono senseï reveals one of the secrets of Aïkido that seems to me essential although quite forgotten today : he had asked Morihei Ueshiba :  “O senseï, how come we don’t do what you do ?” O senseï had answered smiling : ’’I understand Yin and Yang. You don’t !’’.

To project in order to harmonize

Tori, and this is something peculiar to our art, can guide the partner’s fall so that the latter may benefit from the action. Itsuo Tsuda tells us about what he used to feel when he was projected by O Senseï : « What I can say from my own experience, is that with Mr Ueshiba, my pleasure was so great that I always wanted to ask for more. I never felt any effort on his part. It was so natural that not only did I feel no constraint, but I fell without knowing it. I have experienced the surge of great waves on the beach that topple a,d sweep one away. There is, of course, pleasure, but with Mr Ueshiba it was something else. There was serenity, greatness, Love ». There is a will, conscious or not, to harmonize the partner’s body. In this case it may be called projection. It is thus relevant to say that Aïkido is not anymore in martiality but rather in the harmonization of mankind. In order to realize this we need to leave behind us any idea of superiority, of power over another, or even any vindictive attitude, and to have the desire to give the partner a hand in order to allow him self-realization, without him needing to thank anybody. The fusion of sensibility with the partner is indispensable to achieve this, it is this same fusion which guides us, enables us to know our partner’s level and to release at the right moment if he’s a beginner, or to support his body if the moment is adequate for going beyond, to allow him to fall further, faster, or higher. In any case pleasure is present.

The involuntary

We can’t calculate the direction of the fall, its speed, its power, nor even its angle of landing. Everything happens at the level of the involuntary or the unconscious if we prefer, but which unconscious are we referring to ? It is an unconscious devoid of what cluttered it up, of what prevented it from being free, that’s why O Senseï would so often recall that Aïkido is a Misogi, practicing Aïkido is to realize this cleaning of body and spirit. When we practice this way, there is no accident in the dojo, this is the path Itsuo Tsuda senseï had adopted and the indications he was giving were leading us in this direction. This makes his School a particular School. Other paths are not only possible, but certainly match even more, or better, the expectations of many practitioners. I read many articles in magazines or blogs which take pride of violence or the ability to solve conflicts through violence and toughening up. To me, it doesn’t seem to be the way indicated by O Senseï Morihei Ueshiba, nor by the Masters I was fortunate to meet, and particularly Tsuda senseï, Noro senseï, Tamura senseï, Nocquet senseï, or others through their interviews, such as Kono senseï. The Ukemi enables us to understand better physically the principles which rule our art, which guide us beyond our small self, our small mind, to glimpse something greater than us, to be one with nature which we are part of.

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Article by Régis Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (speciale Aikido n° 22) October 2018.

Notes :

* Itsuo Tsuda The Path of less, édition Yume Edition p.180

** Guillaume Erard, Entretien avec Henry Kono : Yin et Yang, moteur de l’Aikido du fondateur, 22 avril 2008, www.guillaumeerard.fr

*** Itsuo Tsuda La Voie du dépouillement, Ed. Le Courrier du Livre p. 172