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Uke awareness: it’s not easy being the fall guy

by David Wilson, 2nd kyu

I have a complicated relationship with ukemi.  The fancy rolls and spectacular high falls made me want to learn aikido, but ukemi has never come easily to me.  When I was a beginner, I had an unpredictable front roll.  Aim as I might, my front rolls were never straight:  I would commonly veer off into a wall, into another uke or – gasp – into the instructor.  My rolls have straightened out.  Mostly.  But I’m still seeking to apply the lessons about uke awareness that I started to learn in those early days, especially my very first lesson in ukemi:  uke awareness is safety awareness.

An aware uke creates a safe practice environment for everyone, including himself (or herself).  When I couldn’t predict the direction of my front roll, I learned to be aware of who (or what) was nearby on the mat.  With this awareness, I could walk out of a technique or tap out before I put anyone at risk.

Several years later, I am being challenged to apply this lesson in uke awareness to randori.  In this context, being aware means finding the quickest way to get to my feet and face nage after I have been thrown as one of a number of attackers.   Otherwise, another uke is likely to come rolling into me, especially if nage is doing a good job of using attackers against each other.

Awareness of when I am putting myself at risk as uke is also teaching me better technique as nage.  My timing of the throw in irimi nage is improving because I have finally grasped why uke keeps moving into the throw to avoid an attack to the ribs.  And learning (as uke) that safety depends on staying close and connected to nage is helping me to gage optimal distance more effectively when I am performing a technique.

Finally, there is safety in relaxation.  Working on uke awareness is helping me to learn to be relaxed.  If I’m not relaxed, I can’t follow nage’s technique.  If I can’t follow the technique, I get out of position and make myself vulnerable.  I suppose it’s no coincidence that – back in the day– my rolls grew straighter the more I relaxed.

Same lesson, different rank.

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