Aikido is greater than the sum of its parts
Richard Reid, Shodan Roban, 18th December 2009
For the uninitiated (and in some cases the initiated), the Aikido dojo can be a very strange place. If we’re honest, it doesn’t look like your typical martial arts training session, with rows of students practising punches or kicks, or sparring or anything which you would typically associate with a martial art. Instead, enthusiastic Aikido students (some of whom appear to be wearing skirts) repeatedly practise what they would do if some one grabbed their wrists. Your typical Aikido student may never learn to crack a block of ice with their head, pluck a speeding arrow from the air with their bare hands or be crowned heavy weight champion of the world. So what is it that draws people to our art and keeps them coming back? In my experience and from what I have seen from other peoples Aikido journey, it is about the deeper lessons which we learn from our training. The intention of this Roban is to explore the lessons I have personally learned from my training, specifically, the lessons I have gained from taking Yoko Ukemi.
It is worth noting at this point that this Roban is written from the perspective of Uke (the person receiving the technique). Within Riai, specifically at the Learning Centre the Senseis spend quite a bit of time teaching around the role of Uke. Riai students are taught to contribute good energy and attack with integrity (i,e, on target) and then go where they are lead by uke (as opposed to resisting the throw). For me I have always found the role of uke to be the most challenging part of my Aikido training and hence where I learn the most.
Yoko Ukemi translates (very roughly) to “side break fall”, or as they are known colloquially around the dojo “over the top break falls”. This is when the student is “flipped” head over heels landing horizontally on their side. The example I will use is when Uke attacks using Yoko menuchi (knife hand strike to the side of the head) and nage defends using Koshi nage (hip throw). This is when the Uke is literally hoisted up across uke’s hips and then flipped onto the ground, landing on their side. I will break the engagement down into parts so that I can look at the lessons in detail.
Before attempting a break fall like this, Uke should take a moment to assess the situation and the best place to begin this process is with yourself. First of all you ask yourself: have you done one of these before, have you got the skills to do this? How are you feeling physically, do you have any injuries which could be aggravated by the fall? Next you need to address how you are feeling emotionally; this may sound strange but it can be critical to you taking the ukemi safely. Because of the nature of this ukemi it can cause a certain amount of fear or apprehension and if this fear causes you to tense up you could get hurt. Take a second to figure out what’s causing this fear, figuring out if there’s any truth to it and if not setting it aside. At this point it’s worth noting that I have never been injured in more than a passing way doing this ukemi and have never seen anyone else hurt either, so while it is important to be careful and not exceed your skill level as an uke, we are capable of a lot more than we think and need to trust in our ukemi. Once you have sorted yourself, it’s now a good idea to check out nage: are they going to be able to keep you safe, do they have the necessary skills to do this? Finally you should check out the environment: do you have a safe place to land, will the mats hold up? etc. At this stage of the process you really need to answer one question: based on all the available information are you taking too great a risk? If the answer is yes then don’t be afraid to sit this round out. This type of process can be applied to any undertaking in just about anything in life, such as a new project at work, a new relationship or a new hobby. Do you have the skills to do it, are you physically up to it, how do you feel about it, do you have any fears and are they justified, are the other people involved capable and do you have the right type of physical environment to do it?
Having assessed the situation it is time to begin the attack, as uke your role in the engagement is very important. You need to attack with good energy and commitment so that Nage can perform the throw, if you don’t have enough energy in the attack nage will not be able to complete the throw safely. Similarly if you attack with too much energy nage will have to choose a different technique. At this stage it is very important for uke to be as “present” as possible, this is true for the whole technique but especially at the beginning, if your mind is wandering you are not really being fair to nage and are unlikely to provide a good attack. This applies off the mat as well, once we have decided to do something we need to enter into it with good energy and presence, too little energy and you are not being fair to yourself or the other people relying on you, too much and you can burn out or life can become unbalanced.
KEEPING YOUR HEAD
Once an effective attack has been delivered Nage will blend with the attack using Han tai tankan (quarter turn) then step into uke’s centre and hoist them up across their hips. For uke this stage of the throw is very much counter intuitive, inevitably the mind kicks in, sees the size of the fall you are about to take and you begin to doubt your ability. The natural reaction to this fear is that your body stiffens up and you try to hold back in order to control the fall. If uke holds back nage will need to put more energy into the throw to keep them moving, thus the fall will be harder than if uke had remained relaxed, also if uke holds back they will not have enough time to get their body rotated all the way over and they may land on their head or neck. The best way to receive this part of the throw is, in fact, as soon as you feel yourself being led by nage to lean into the throw, actually leaning you head out over uke’s hips. This means you have plenty of time to get into the right place for your landing and you are nice and light to throw so nage will not have to put in any more energy than you need. Our Shihan Robert Nadeau talks a lot about not letting the mind interfere with physical processes and I think this is an excellent example. You have already done your assessment and that was your mind’s chance, now you have to trust your body to take care of itself and not let the mind interfere. I think there is a point in any major undertaking where you suddenly see how much you have to do and begin to doubt your own abilities, it is important that you control these fears and don’t let them derail you.
BRACE FOR IMPACT…OR NOT
The fourth and final stage of this technique is, fairly obviously, the landing. As nage flicks uke off their hips, uke flips head over heals in the air to land on his side. The critical thing at this stage is for your whole body to hit the ground at the same time (with the exception of your head, which you keep of the mat, it’s to important to be rough with). The arm should be at about 45 degrees tot the rest of your body to create more surface area to dissipate the impact. The other important factor hear is to stay as relaxed as possible as you land, except for your abdominalis which I tend to keep tight to stop myself from being winded. The most important lesson I have learned (or am learning) from this stage (and possibly from the whole technique) is not be afraid of situations where there is a lot of energy. Be it a stressful situation like a job interview or dealing with an angry customer at work, its all just energy and if I try and blend with it rather than trying to fight it I will be able to find a positive out come.
This is just a fraction of what I have learned during my time on the mat and there are thousands of others on similar journeys. O’sensei said “Aikido is not for the correction of others, but the correction of ones self” and this, I believe, is what makes it such a magical art and what keeps me (and others like me) training. While the techniques of Aikido are undeniably beautiful and powerful it is what you can learn about yourself which makes the art greater than the sum of its parts.