May 13, 2011

The Ukemi Primer

Hi James,

Thanks again for the great mail, really insightful! I especially like this idea of using two concepts to illustrate a third, I will definitely try to use this next time I take the class.

I think you absolutely nailed it with the comment about people "waiting to be taught". Sometimes, even when doing very simple drills which emphasize creativity, some students still want me to demonstrate the "right way" first. Of course, they don't realize that I have as much clue about the right way as they do! Every opponent, every situation is different -- even in training -- so all I can do is provide examples, rather than pre-baked solutions. However, when they get into the swing of things, they can really use their creativity. I did a balance breaking drill the other day when the tori had his hands stuffed into his belt. I overhead in the changing room one guy complaining that he couldn't do anything from that restricted position and his friend answering: "oh, but the guy I was training with took a step, twisted, then stepped then twisted again in the opposite direction and then..." etc.etc. I hadn't even shown them anything, just said: "now do the same drill this time with your hands in your belt!". As you say: less is way more.

One issue is also with the students' preconceptions of what "martial arts" actually are. Some come from a classical Japanese martial arts background, some come for self-defense, etc.etc. But whatever it is, they have an idea beforehand what training should be. In this context I think it takes them a bit of time to adjust to this way of teaching.

Thankfully they have fun, which means that they come back to training. Also, most people in the Bujinkan resist this kind of training, preferring more quasi "koryu"-style training. I really wonder about the future of the Bujinkan sometimes!

By the way, what is your "ukemi primer"? It sounds like it could be very useful!

The 'Ukemi primer' is similar to the Taijutsu primer in that we are trying to let students discover the principles rather than merely show them techniques.

Ukemi is known as the prevention of injury and is a way of moving, sensing, and ultimately preventing harm. It is often paired with Taihenjutsu, a method of manipulating the body - rolling for instance - to adjust and move within our surroundings to escape or prevent harm. There are a number of techniques representing Taihenjutsu Ukemi, but it is only truly learned through experience. I train the concept as learning to use the body to 'give way to gravity' – a larger lesson, in itself, for the betterment of Taijutsu in general.

In training, we do a lot of falling down. But dropping to the floor is much more than simple synergy with the opponent’s action, it is 'releasing’ ourselves from harm. Ukemi is directly related to Otosu, release, and the act of releasing and transferring our position, momentum, and advantage into our next movement and moment. Just like Taijutsu, there is no beginning or end, only inherent and necessary change.

I like to characterize Ukemi by the phrase, “the body has no corners,” an idea Hatsumi sensei first introduced and works well to frame the feeling. A helpful way to think about Ukemi is the way a baby moves on the floor. The position they sit in is very similar to Position 1 from Junan Taiso/Makko Ho. This is where I begin teaching Ukemi to new (and old) students and it is the start of the primer.

When first practicing Ukemi, there are several aspects to keep keenly aware of – they are very similar to aspects of Junan Taiso/Makko Ho:

1. Activation of the posture (spine)

2. Positioning (re-positioning) to create potential energy/momentum

3. Giving way to gravity to proportionally use space/kukan

Begin in Position 1 on the floor - a seated position, draw the feet in toward the groin, the soles of the feet come together, and there is at least a fist’s distance between the groin and the heels. If one cannot for whatever reason draw their feet into this first position, then draw the feet in as comfortably as can be managed. The back is straight. The shoulders are back, thrusting the sternum forward. The torso rests on the sitting bones of the buttocks. The hands rest on the ankles.

Now, activate the posture - have the feeling of trying to touch the ceiling with the top of the head. Feel the sitting bones in the buttocks and look up, leaning backward until the edge of losing balance. Know this position and feeling well. Tip just a bit more and lose the balance, falling backward. As you fall, round the back, and extend the legs straight forward, bringing us back to the seated position. Don't rely on muscle to bring us back in balance, rely instead on reshaping the body's form to produce counterbalance.

The lesson here is that positioning, how the body is shaped/aligned, creates and affects our momentum, both potential and active. When we change the positioning of the body it should naturally create either active or potential energy to 'swing' us, if you will, into a new position. Shaping the body by expanding or collapsing its form provides the necessary functionality to give way to gravity, the proportional use of the space around us for maximum benefit. All of this may sound different from the position, leverage, initiative principles of Taijutsu, but I assure you they are in fact identical - I'm using slightly different terms to paint a little broader image.

The context training comes in when we challenge students from this position to 'get to their back' or pick up a weapon or shape themselves in accordance with their environment - roll through a doorway, for example. I've used yoga mats and paper plates to provide visualization for movement - change a person's direction on a yoga mat to get them to do forward, back, side rolls/movement, and paper plates can provide beginning and end points. I've also placed backpacks in people's arms saying it was a child and challenging them to stand up, roll over, whatever, but not harm the 'child.'

The point is to unlock functionality rather than limit it with technical procedures. If done successfully, students will be able to move in an easy and relaxed manner, becoming comfortable on the floor, and even performing various techniques naturally without ever being shown them first. I usually wind up saying, congrats, you just did a front roll, or whatever. Once they 'get' the feel for moving, refining it by naming, explaining, and demonstrating it becomes far easier.

I usually cover:
Forward turnover
Backward turnover
Sideways turnover
Forward/backward/sideways roll
No hands roll
Controlling movement with position
Moving with weapons, equip (backpack, flak vest)
Two-person Ukemi drill: one taking the other's balance, the other returning to balance

The bottom line here is this type of training gives folks a context, a base, a framework from which the rest of their understanding can organically grow. If we think of techniques and principles in terms of language, then techniques are our vocabulary, the words we use to shape and refine our meaning. But simply knowing a lot of words doesn’t necessarily improve the way we communicate, which is what language is all about. Think about it: were we to simply learn words in a new language with little to no idea of how those words fit together - no grammar, no accent, no conjugation, let alone how this new language 'thinks' (Japanese and English think completely different) - we'd simply end up with a bunch of words we could jumble together, but this would not improve our communication and meaning would be lost.

However, if we know the principles of communication - context, content, and delivery (again Taijutsu: position, leverage, and initiative) - it places us in the pole position to learn and utilize any new vocab as we may need and see fit, thereby broadening and even maximizing our inherent ability, granting us opportunity for further efficiency - maximum effectiveness, with minimum input.

Can you see the difference in learning principles first and refining techniques afterward, rather than learning techniques first and reverse-engineering their principles? I think it works well one way, but becomes clumsy the other, in this case, like a person trying to impress us stringing $10 words together, their meaning (ability) may become shallow. But there are many ways to comprehend training and we have to use what we think is best at the time, changing as change is necessary.

I hope on some level all of this will help. But please bear something in mind - it's not our job to make anybody good; taking responsibility for the ability of others is too much. But what we can do, what I believe we are obligated to do, is provide the very best opportunity for others to get as good as they can. But this means we can't just be good, we gotta be really good.

Keep in mind, Taijutsu and martial arts are not the same thing. Training is not complicated, we just think it is, and sometimes design it that way - I've seen commercial models ransom information to students and ultimately misconstrue the attainment of technical procedure as the single key to higher ability, compelling students to keep chasing that next technique with little understanding of what to do with it.

Pair this with blurring perception by imitating philosophy we really don't understand or choosing to look no further into a clarified mindset, or worse following a dark road of training to become a "killer" (I saw one guy stitch the words "BAG OF EVIL" onto his gear pack) and we've really got ourselves trouble. So, in my opinion the last thing we should do is confuse our comprehension (or anyone else's) with too many details, especially early on.

Let's keep it simple: endeavor to discover the right mix - for each of us - to unlock our physical potential and clarify our perspective based on a sound ethical philosophy.

Let's keep going! We'll make it!


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