In all martial arts, the skills required to blend, join, evade and react to an opponent’s actions makes up the larger part of the skill set required.
Learning how to respond correctly to an attack through skills such as evasion, blending and tumbling, while remaining centred, connected and flowing with the attacker, takes years of practice.
Anticipation of the unknown usually stiffens our bodies as a reactive method of self-preservation. After a short time we learn to relax and blend with the attack, a much more efficient and safer way to prevent injury.
The person(s) receiving a technique (attack) in Japanese is called a Uke?(受 け), which translates to ‘receives’
As with all martial arts, internal body awareness usually referred to as Kinesthetic awareness, is developed through regular training, this learning being accelerated and possibly more refined in arts that utilise Ukemi, which sharpens and pushes the boundaries of kinesthetic awareness by removing the ground as your reference point.
Instinctually and without training, most children will roll through a fall naturally if enough time is given between the push or trip, and the ground.
Good Ukemi 受け身, which literally translates to “receiving body”, not only helps us minimise body injury, but also develops correct posture, body positioning and a sense of body centre.
The role of Uke varies greatly between different arts and the situation.
In aikido the Uke initiates an attack against their partner either by a grab or a strike, which the partner reacts and defends against. The Uke then reacts against the counter attack by blending, following, turning out or tumble. The person performing the technique is referred to as Nage 投げ “thrower”, or Tori 取り”active partner” or “Taker” or as a Shite 仕手 “doer or performer”.
Mat bashing is not usually taught or performed in Aikido, that is, hitting the mat with ones arms and hands to take the energy out of the impact or landing flat on your back to spread the impact area diffusing focused break points.
This type of breakfall is crucial to know and understand, especial in competitive arts such as MMA and Judo. For example, trying to turn out or tumble from a Judo technique that terminates with the Tori landing on you, can be very dangerous for the Uke to execute.
The roll of Uke goes much further than just knowing how to kiss the mat. An often overlooked aspect of Uke training is learning how to remain relaxed, flexible and in good posture, as close to the Tori as possible, whilst being vigilant of gaps in the technique.
If the Uke does not remain relaxed and flexible throughout the technique, the Tori won’t be able to execute the technique correctly without injuring the Uke.
Reasonably advanced Tori’s will sense this and either release and or provide gaps in the application of the technique to avoid injuring their partner. Conversely if the Uke is overly complicit by throwing themselves or semi leading the technique, both side lose out on valuable training time.
Training with beginners raises these issues, but it can also highlight technique weaknesses in both the Tori and Uke, as movement wont usually follow a pre-determined path.
For me, a good and helpful Uke allows the technique to be applied and executed numerous times before providing both verbal and physical feedback, highlighting perceived weakness which the Tori can work on.
What can one take away from this?
In my opinion the glamour of performing an Aikido Kata technique; and I stress Kata, relies heavily on the skills of the uke, but more importantly, any advancement in Aikido, seriously requires the long menu of Uke skills to be developed.
Out of all the techniques to date that I’ve learned, the basic forward roll has saved my life.