Taking Ukemi for Sugano Sensei 1996

Alive Ukemi/Dead Ukemi

I once asked Sugano Sensei what correct ukemi was. “There is alive and there is dead” he replied. When I asked him what he meant he replied, “Uke is to move, receive technique, become technique. O’Sensei broke from traditional martial arts. Aikido is about life. Ukemi is rolling. Uke moves, receives energy, body becomes technique.” He said that in older martial arts they were about fighting and killing, so the person took falls. “When person takes fall that is not ukemi. That is death. They are dead. Older arts are just killing. Ukemi is rolling because person is alive and continue. Aikido is circle like life. Ukemi is to live not die.” *

He held up his hand. “This is correct ukemi. Uke like air around hand. You feel nothing but they are there.” He moved his hand. “When you move hand feel the air then. Same with uke. O’Sensei wanted Uke like water, light and moving. Correct ukemi is to move, be light, in contact with Nage.”

Sugano Sensei told me that because as an Uchideshi in New York Aikikai, ukemi was a particular bedevilment of mine. I have always had a weight and gravity to my frame and movement (or lack thereof) even when I was at my lightest. For about the first year of my nearly 3 years as Uchideshi I was simply terrible, usually simply standing there unmoving for a technique. Yamada Sensei just stopped using me because I was so bad (BRIAN! he would shout- about a lot of things- but particularly my horrible ukemi.) and would go on to select others, but Sugano Sensei kept calling me up. He would give me two or three warnings and finally drive through me like a tank sending me smashing into the mat so hard other members would wince. Sensei would always be highly amused, eyes bright and laughing as I put myself together again. So often Sugano Sensei would counsel me, “Must Move! Move!”

Things came to a head when a group from Japan came on a visit to New York Aikikai. They were doing an article on the dojo and had a photographer taking pictures of the classes. Sensei called me up, and there, in full view of the photographer taking pictures, I was caught full face with one of Sensei’s techniques. As I flew backwards with an arch of blood coming from my nose, even Sensei looked surprised. So, so terrible.

Sensei said nothing about the debacle, but he was not happy. I went to him after in misery and apologized. “Must take ukemi. You are Uchideshi.” he told me. I asked him, “What can I do to learn ukemi, Sensei?” He shook his head. I asked him again, “There must be something I can do to improve, Sensei.” He told me, “Take only ukemi. One month.” I didn’t understand what he wanted. “Practice after class ukemi for one month?” “No. No technique. Only taking ukemi. One month.” Yikes.

It was a hard month doing 3, 5 sometimes 7 hours of classes a day, only taking ukemi. When the New York people found out Sensei set me this task it was open season on me. Everybody wanted me as a partner as it was “Beat-a-deshi-time.” Long month.

Taking me to lunch during that time Sensei told me how there was no learning ukemi when he started. For the first several months as Uchideshi they were only thrown around and had to learn how to fall on their own. “No one teaching! Just do!” He said that ukemi was only front rolls and back rolls. I asked if it was not good to practice ukemi as we do not grow up learning martial arts like he had in Japan. He said maybe but that practice makes too many people take unnatural falls. “Throwing selves! No good!!”he laughed. I said that it seemed natural for me just to stand there and not move at times. He laughed at this as well. “Something comes at head, move head. If don’t then natural get hit!” Good point. Sensei said that perhaps there was a place for ukemi practice but the best was working with a partner.

Finally I went to Sensei. “I have finished my month Sensei. Thank you very much. I have learned a lot. Gassho Sensei.” He looked at me and shook his head. “No. One more month.” Dear God in heaven…

I never completed the second month, but only got through 2 weeks of it. I could not find one single person in all of the students in New York Aikikai who would practice with me. Not one. Almost every person I practiced with was initially happy just doing technique but halfway through class they would ask me to take ukemi as well. And I would tell them no. A deal was a deal. There is a natural rhythm to throwing and receiving that is broken with just doing technique. When people asked me if I was still doing just ukemi they refused to work with me.

Sensei was highly amused when I told him I could not finish the month because no one would work out with me. “No excuses! No excuses!” he laughed. I failed in my mission but learned so much doing so.

Sugano said the job of Uchideshi is to take ukemi. This is at the heart of being a student as well. Ukemi is learning the soft internal side of Aikido, to be inside the technique like a surfer riding through a wave as it crashes down. Ukemi is a critical part of Aikido and of life. Ukemi is having connection with the forces that move with and around us. It is also how we learn to make technique work. Ukemi must be fast, yielding, subtle and alive in order to be able to transfer these understandings to the heart of what it is to do technique. Because the truth is no Aikido technique works as it is done in the dojo. To make technique work in real situations you need the hard application of technique gives, with the second by second awareness and fast movement ukemi teaches. If one does not train in ukemi one cannot hope to make Aikido technique work. But as well as feeding technique, it must be practical and something that works in real life.

Real ukemi-

I was on patrol with the Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan. We had been trying for several days to get into this area but stopped each time- first comms down and then IEDs. Finally, we made it to the area bordering Marjah proper and we were ambushed. As the firing raked through the foliage to the left of us with one body the Marines and I went down. As I went down I clearly saw my partner and interpreter still standing. This was the second time I watched him react slowly and was amazed he was still standing while fire went around us.

This is ukemi.

My wife and I were going somewhere. “You pull out and lead the way as I don’t know where this place is.” I get into my car, she into hers. I pull out behind her to go forward and suddenly she reverses backwards. I sensed her car moving toward me and reacted by simply continuing backward making space for her vehicle. She pulls backwards and then gets out and says to me, “What are you doing?? I told you I don’t know where this place is so why are you back there?” Heart beating I explain to her that she almost T-boned me and nearly destroyed both of our cars. Had I not instantly seen her movement and reacted we would have had a major problem.

This is ukemi.

I was living in Chiba Sensei’s dojo for a summer between college semesters. An Uchideshi living there had a motorcycle and we went to get Mexican food at a local place. As we hit the street he suddenly accelerated and crouched down low. The full blast of the wind hit me for a moment and then I followed his lead and crouched down against the wind. Eating in the little diner I said I had failed the test he set for me. “When you take ukemi, you move as Sensei moves. If you don’t Chiba Sensei will hit you and it won’t be just wind in your face.” He told me that Chiba Sensei told them about serving O’Sensei. That when Chiba Sensei had been Otomo for O’Sensei as he traveled and taught around Japan, he would lose 20–30 lbs from the stress of always being attentive to O’Sensei every, every second. When O’Sensei would awake at 2 am in the morning to go to the bathroom Chiba Sensei would have to be awake, have his door open and be sitting if he needed anything. Chiba Sensei told them that taking ukemi was the same way. Total observation, total commitment. Everything. Chiba Sensei told them that he would accompany O’Sensei up a mountain with many steps and he would walk behind him hand at his back. Chiba Sensei and the other Uchideshi would walk with their hand on O’Sensei’s shoulder up the steps to the shrine at the top. If the student wavered in his connection to O’Sensei or bumped into him O’Sensei would not use the person to go up the mountain again.

This is ukemi.

Ukemi must be alive and feeling, connected and moving with Nage. The uke receives and makes form of something that is formless and invisible till Uke becomes the technique in action. If one is not, if they freeze, resist, fight this is dead ukemi. Or simply dead. To the bullet one should have avoided, the stick swung at your head or the crashing car. That which is alive moves.

Ukemi Principles

  1. Make everything a roll. Sugano Sensei taught that Ukemi should be front or back roll. This applies to even Koshinage. Unless Nage does pinning technique make every fall into a roll. Take the energy from the hand, army, foot and pushing it across the body turn everything into a roll. Donovan Waite’s Kaiten style ukemi is excellent for converting break falls onto rolls. One should always try to shift impact from one place to protect the body and use the energy of technique to escape.
  2. Make proper distance. When Sugano Sensei would throw he would kick into Uke’s face or use Atemi to knock Uke back, saying, “Make distance, make distance! Escape away.” Ukemi, like technique, must be functional. If a person is riding a bike or even in defending themselves is possibly knocked down, the person must escape away from that place of danger. In technique, unless otherwise directed, one should roll out of the Maia and then get up. (I spoke to Sensei on this point of escaping with ukemi, asking something relating to it and self-defense. His eyes got huge, “What? You escape away to make defense?? NO! You learn so you throw them, you never be thrown! No one ever supposed to throw you!!” Again. A good point.)
  3. Blocking Atemi blocks Ukemi. The most wide spread problem one sees that makes bad ukemi. Uke should be protecting themselves by keeping proper distance from Nage when attacking. They should not defend themselves with the hand opposite unless the technique calls for it. Blocking the Atemi grounds Uke where they received it which is why we don’t block in Aikido but sweep. In order for a block to be effective Uke must put force into the arm, which on contact with Atemi freezes their movement. Uke always has the right to protect themselves by raising the arm if someone is practicing in an unsafe manner that might cause them to hit their face. Aikido atemi should not hit Uke as it is abusive for a teacher to hit a student.
  4. Don’t break contact. Uke must follow the energy of the technique where it leads. Uke should only release when falling away from nage as technique directs.
  5. Hand connects, center moves. When one raises their hand to hold a cup or when the arm hangs naturally by one’s side there is a certain distance from hand to shoulder. This is natural distance needs to be maintained in ukemi. If the hand/arm contracts too close, Nage must use Atemi to push the person back and if hand/arm is too far from body/center one risks injury when technique is applied. Center and hand should be connected as if by an invisible elastic rope.
  6. Move to where there is reversal/escape/attack. In a class talking on ukemi Sensei Clyde Takeguchi once made a statement that stayed with me, “At the end of every technique is a reversal. One should seek this.” That understanding changed my approach to ukemi. Ukemi must be fast and moving but it needs to be always aware and searching. Uke should follow technique always searching, feeling where there are openings in technique. One should not reverse another’s technique as each person must be their own teacher in Aikido, each person making their own Path but one should be aware, always aware. This searching allows one to find correct position for ukemi and allows one to better judge where their openings may be in technique that allow for reversals or to be attacked. This style of Ukemi, of turning toward Nage allowing reversal if wanted/needed, keeps Nage honest in their technique. If a teacher chooses to make a light, flowing Aikido in their school that is their business but to me there must be a martial grounding in all we do. Reversal is important at times. I was teaching a class where a black belt from another style was with us. In explaining a technique, he suddenly reached forward and slapped me. I immediately smashed him to the ground but it was a good lesson that caused me to look at my openings. If a person can punch you, your technique does not work and must be re-examined. Nothing teaches this better than seeking another’s openings. Our Aikido must be honest.
  7. Always awareness. If one is trying to understand what their correct positioning is to be with any ukemi, if one is to take forward or backwards rolls, if one is to discover how one is to react in a situation, one finds the answer in awareness. Uke should always be facing Nage or seeking to turn toward looking at Nage. If a person turns in ukemi and their back is to Nage, they are both open and unaware of Nage’s movement. Uke must be looking toward Nage and not turning back.
  8. Humility. Aikido is a spiritual path. In order for one to grow spiritually, lead an ethical, moral life, one should always be guided by a sense of humility. This is at the heart of ukemi. The greatest example of this that I have seen is Harvey Konigsburg. He is Yamada Sensei’s most senior student, having practiced for over 50 years and yet when he was a 6th Dan and I was still a kyu rank, he would take Sugano or Yamada Sensei’s classes and practice with me, taking ukemi from me just as he would one of the Shihans. After a party at summer camp once, where he was the most senior person in the room and the center of attention where all the other Yudansha and senior instructors were bringing him drinks and food, I was cleaning up after everyone else had gone and left empty cups and plates. Rounding the corner there was one person who had stayed to help me- Harvey. I immediately tried to take the dirty plates out of hands saying I would do it and he just smiled, shaking his head. “No. Let’s clean up together.” When I watch Harvey teach I know there are layers on layers there of hard, hard training and humility that have made him and his Aikido continue to be more and more beautiful over the years I have seen it. Ukemi, good ukemi, has humility, concern, love at its center. If one does not somehow have humility one cannot do good ukemi. Nor can they have good Aikido because in the end Aikido is about being guided to assist others and make a better world. This understanding begins with ukemi.

Brian Ericksen

Heaven and Earth Aikido

Herndon, Virginia

* Note on Sugano Sensei’s quotations here. For some years I have wrestled with quoting Sugano Sensei on things I talked to him on. During the time I was Uchideshi in New York I took no notes of my conversations. Seeing a visiting Australian student taking exact notes after Sensei’s class I asked him, “Should we also be taking notes Sensei?” He shrugged and said, “Learn and forget. Learn and forget. Learn, forget…” Because of his instruction I never took any notes despite the very long conversations I had with him. One memory of regret though stays with me as a consequence. A group of us went out with Sensei to his favorite restaurant Souen, eating, drinking at a large table on the second floor and Sensei started speaking spontaneously on Aikido. Buzzed from a few bottles of Sake making my way down the spiral stair case after Sensei’s talk I clearly remember thinking to myself, “If that is not the secret of Aikido and perhaps life itself, then I don’t know what is.” It was so tremendous, so wonderful what he had said, I kept it in myself, repeating it as a mantra over the next several days, perhaps week. I thought I would remember every word for the rest of my life it was so amazing. Yet reaching in myself sometime later there was nothing there but the memory that he had said something tremendous on Aikido.

Other things though fortunately remained clear from that time. Later I had discussions after I was uchideshi and returned to live and study in New York where I started to record conversations with Sensei. These I recorded, I returning later to check my accuracy with Sensei on what I had written.

But a question remained on what to do with the truths he had given me and I kept in my head without recording. Here that to the best of my ability I have begun to record those things he told me. I have tried to be as faithfully accurate on what Sensei told me to preserve the knowledge he passed on to me but it should be clearly noted that though I quote him here, this knowledge given many years before. The words may have been different but the central points given are as accurate as I can possibly make them. I have recorded these points as faithfully as possible for the future legacy of Aikido as Sensei was one of the faithful inheritors and transmitters of our art. Sincerely, Brian Lauren Ericksen 14 Nov 2017