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Ukemi from the Ground Up

by on June 10, 2014

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my obsessions is improving ukemi. That means finding ways to practice more difficult falls, but more importantly, ways to improve the basics.

I wrote earlier how I was in love with parkour before I ever saw it, from my familiarity with the oeuvre of Jackie Chan. One of the obvious parkour skills to learn is the roll, and I assumed that as an aikidoka I would have no problem transferring my rolls to harder surfaces. I was wrong. I made occasional attempts to improve my ability  over the years, but it’s hard to get in a lot of practice on concrete as you grow increasingly tender, and for many years the skill eluded me.

Last winter I made a few minor breakthroughs and shot a little video, but in the end I didn’t think they were profound enough to post. More recently I made some bigger breakthroughs when pondering seemingly contradictory advice from two people I respect, and I did finally post a video.

After this most recent post a friend recommended (and not for the first time) a video from Ellis Amdur entitled Ukemi from the Ground Up. This is the video I wish I had watched 12 years ago, and I encourage everyone who has not yet seen it to drop what they are doing and go get the video right now.

Ellis makes a good presentation and I won’t attempt to duplicate any of it, but I will outline what I felt were a few of the more important points.

For me, the most important point to consider is the actual purpose of any particular ukemi. Amdur argues that towards the end of the 19th century, Daito-ryu, and Aikido after it, began to advertise itself with spectacular demonstrations. Therefore, a lot of the ukemi that the top deshi were taking was designed for maximum spectacle while still meeting a minimum threshold of safety. Furthermore, because the deshi taking falls for sensei were likely to be strapping young men with plenty of anabolic healing capacity, this minimum threshold of safety was lower than it might be for many of the rest of us. They could afford a light bruise or a minor strain every now and then.

Thus many of us have entrained ourselves with paths and motions optimized for spectacle without ever realizing it. If our goal is safety, or comfort rolling on hard surfaces (obviously related), then a minimum threshold of safety is insufficient. We must maximize our own safety first, and only then attempt to reach the minimum threshold of spectacle necessary to keep sensei from being offended. All of the advice in the video is oriented towards this goal.

In all of the falls, Amdur recommends delaying any commitment until the last possible second. (A point that Joe has also made very well.) You don’t throw yourself at the ground right away, you lower yourself on two feet for as long as you can – a motion you can easily reverse if the situation changes. This has the obvious secondary benefit of reducing the distance of free-fall.

In a similar vein, Amdur recommends training for the worst and hoping for the best. You don’t plan to take a sit-fall on shihonage and get caught having to jump way over your own arm at the last minute. Rather you prepare yourself to take the high-fall and appreciate those times where you can take the sit-fall. It is for this reason that he taught the high-fall (which we call a flyer) before the roll, because the latter is essentially a more pleasant version of the former, for times when you can afford the luxury. For this same reason Amdur advocates the same leg positioning for rolls as we use in the Tomiki curriculum. (I’ll feel less silly at the next aikikai seminar!)

When the shit hits the fan you’ll be ready because you’ve prepared for the worst on every rep.

There were tips I found useful for each fall he covered.

I think for Shane the biggest ah-ha tip was the head direction. Amdur has an entertaining quip about the pointlessness of looking at the ground, which isn’t going anywhere – whereas your opponent might. Beyond the practicality of tracking the variable variables, watching tori causes you to turn your head, which begins the process of rotation around the spine.

This is the same rotation that I was creating by imagining a “pull” with the off-hand, but with a lot less mental exertion.

I had heard Shane talk about this head turn for at least two years in Denver, but until now I had not done much to incorporate it regularly into my practice. To everyone reading this, if you have not seriously experimented with a head-turn yet, start now. You can thank me later.

For me however, the single biggest revelation was something even more obvious. In fact, it is probably something that I could have intuited easily – had it not been for all of my previous training.

I always had two problem areas when rolling on hard surfaces – my shoulder and my hip bone. I’m a skinny guy without much padding, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make these bony areas stick out less when rolling on hard surfaces.

My thinking was that if I could become “softer” I could get my bones to dynamically conform into a circular shape, and I collected a fair number of bruises in pursuit of that softness.

Ellis Amdur proposes a much simpler solution: don’t roll on your shoulder or hip. I was always taught that the line a roll should follow was from the shoulder to the hip, but the line he suggests runs from just below the shoulder to just above the hip.

Problem solved.

Mind blown.

Thanks Shane.

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One Comment
  1. sbranch permalink

    Charlie,

    I think your last point regarding the trap of previous training is right on. I know when I was starting out in Aikido, it never occurred to me that ukemi needed to be practiced as an integrated system. The rest of our aikido curriculum uses this concept of system, just look at the various kata we learn are presented. So why shouldn’t we do the same with ukemi as well?

    Good to know the system added some value to your practice.

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