If you look at old black-and-white video clips of the Founder, his students really took a lot of hard-style breakfalls. Some of that ukemi was really impressive, but if one looks at those same students as they became older, it is clear that a lifetime of hard ukemi takes an unwelcome toll on the body. There are many different paths to exploring soft ukemi, and I am not advocating any one of them over any other – but after a lot of experimentation and teaching soft ukemi principles at many seminars and to many students, I have developed a list of tips that I feel are critical to building a truly soft ukemi.
1. Commit to a vision, a timeline, and intermediary goals.
Too often students wishing to learn soft ukemi experiment a couple of times with drills they have seen online or been shown, but their pursuit doesn’t progress beyond occasional random exploration. They don’t commit to an actual goal – “I WILL be able to consistently perform soft breakfalls in one year”, and thus, after a year their ukemi is not much different. Fortunately, you can accomplish an immense amount of change in one year, even six months. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and committing to yourself that you will arrive.
- Be ambitious. If we dream small, our accomplishments will be small, and may fail from lack of critical momentum. Don’t let self-doubt or even the doubt of others hold you back. I started down the road of soft ukemi because somebody I respected told me “well, you are a big guy, of course you’ll never be able to fall softly”…. and I set out to prove that statement wrong.
- Visualize. Select the type of ukemi you want to be able to master. Visualize what you will look like doing it. Keep a picture or video at hand that you can regularly use to remind yourself of what you will look like when you succeed. Believe that you can and will make it so, even if you’ve never accomplished a change as significant as this one before.
- Commit to a goal date. One year is plenty of time, even as part of regular training. Even as a beginner. For more experienced students, three to six months of dedicated training may be enough.
- Create a milestone plan with intermediary goals. Most of the good soft ukemi styles out there have drills and intermediary skills you can master before tackling “the whole enchilada” – write down what skills you need to master, and pick goal dates for each of them (three months, six months, etc.). Don’t take shortcuts, master each step.
- Define success thoughtfully. It’s easy to watch a video and say “That! I want to look like that!”, and not realize you might be pursuing the wrong goal. The objective of soft ukemi is not to look impressive. It’s about making the act of training as uke as deep and fascinating and rewarding as being nage. It’s about cultivating a quality and grace of movement that defines all of your movement. So, before you start defining success as “I want to look like that person who is 40 years younger than me”, make sure you have considered more introspective and quality-based goals like “I want to receive every technique as if I am dancing”, or “I want all of my training movements to feel effortless and fun.” Goals like these can be more rewarding, and provide more valuable feedback along the way than comparing yourself to another.
- Be dauntless but be realistic. Don’t let anyone else set limits on you, but take an objective look at your real limitations; don’t pick a goal that your body won’t be able to deliver on due to age or infirmity. Listen to your doctor. If you set your goals right, you might be able to achieve them (and still look impressive as heck) even though you limit yourself to rolls or backfalls.
2. Build core competency
Sadly, we Westerners typically have no strength in our core muscles, or even awareness of them. More importantly, we have no understanding or feeling of how to connect our balance to our core, especially when we aren’t “right side up”. Instead, a lot of our ukemi consists of: 1. Standing. 2. Flinging ourselves into a roll, essentially out of control until the roll completes. 3. Flinging ourselves back to standing. It is absurd to think that our role as uke is to be passive recipients of what is given to us by our nage, to be surrender control and our ability react and adapt until the technique has completed.
- Nage should never feel they had to “slow down” or limit their technique.
- It is uke’s responsibility to adapt the relationship so they are not threatened by nage’s technique.
- Uke should be energized, completely relaxed and in control of their body and momentum at all times, retaining an ability to change directions, stop, or reverse the technique at all times. A technique should never be characterized by resistance or “stopping” nage; this creates a very brittle situation for ukemi and injury.
- The quality of uke’s breathing and uke’s connection to both the ground and nage should be uninterrupted.
All of these things require a strong and aware “core”. You can build this core through Yoga and Pilates exercises, particularly inversions which will challenge your breathing and sense of balance. You can also explore some of the drills in the following links to get you started, all of which emphasize a slow motion, deep and unbroken connection to the ground with a quality of calm and control.
3. Learn how to compress
Another problem Westerners often have is a surprising inability to bend at the waist, and compress around our centers. This may come as a fear of injury, back pain, or inflexibility, but usually I find it is a mental barrier where our muscles actively resist letting us “fold over” ourselves. As a result, this forces our rolls to be bigger – and more lopsided – than they need to be. The more you are able to comfortably squeeze yourself into a small ball, and bring one or both of your feet close to your hips, the more you will be able to “smooth out” the lumps and corners that get in the way during your rolls and breakfalls.
- Master the butterfly stretch. It’s really underrated. Make certain you keep your lower back straight – avoid letting your back “curl” forward over your feet. Try to bring your feet in as close to your center as possible. Avoid “bouncing” or “fluttering” your knees (don’t take the “butterfly” name too literally), try to get comfortable working your knees to the ground. Of course, this is a great exercise to maintain while reading books or watching TV.
- Another simple exercise is performing slow, soft forward rolls while imagining you have to “roll under a table”. As you complete the roll, tuck your feet in as close as possible; let your knees open wide; tuck your body forward so your weight comes over your feet, while reaching forward with your hands. Try to keep the entire roll as small and as low as possible, ending up with one knee down and your feet beneath you(click on the image below for a link to brief youtube video demonstration).
4. Open your hips and ankles
A lot of Aikido dojos implement “deep horse stance” stretches into their warmups, and these stretches have a lot of benefits. Those benefits do not include getting you all the way to the ground while keeping your feet flat and and your balance/core completely under control. To do that, you need to explore “flat foot deep squats”, also known as aboriginal squats or baby squats (just look at any toddler picking something off the ground; we all knew how to correctly lower ourselves to the ground when we were infants). The objectives include discovering how low you can bring your backside to the ground while still standing flat; building leg and ankle strength with correct joint alignment (knee over toes); discovering how a squatting pose can be a “rest” pose. As an added benefit, the aboriginal squat is also great for lower back pain and sciatica! Here are a few great guides to get you started:
5. Connecting to the ground is more important than jumping back up
A useful Aikido training drill is to have uke “pop up” from being thrown and attack nage again as quickly and relentlessly as possible, so nage doesn’t cultivate a sense of comfort and false security after throwing an opponent. This is good for nage, perhaps less so for uke. Drills where uke “kips” or pops right back into nage’s attack zone are especially hazardous; while these are impressive to watch, they are tactically unwise, and contrary to the cultivation of soft ukemi principles. It’s hard not to be impressed and distracted by martial acrobatics!
Instead, I feel it is martial, useful, and helpful to instead explore how quickly you can regain self-control and become dangerous on the ground. If you have observed or trained in any judo or jujitsu, martial artists can be very effective on their back, on their knees, or in a crouch. There are even exercises in Karate and other arts where martial artists practice kicking from kneeling or crouching.
Here is my exercise to cultivate this feeling of connectedness to the ground. As uke during regular training, every time you take ukemi:
- As quickly as possible get your feet and hands beneath you.
- Find your balance and center; be ready to spring, roll, step, or attack in any direction.
- Focus powerfully on nage (you don’t necessarily have to look directly at nage however).
- Rise like smoke – softly, smoothly, and under continuous and conscious control. Show no openings for attack.
Remember: “soft up = soft down.”
6. Cultivate mindful movement
While I have become known for my soft breakfalls, this has become the focus of my personal study. I try to be conscious of where I put my feet before I lower myself to the ground, so that I can slide into seiza or a roll with no additional movements. I try to lower myself slowly and smoothly, without the slightest tremble or imbalance, easing smoothly into the next movement. I try to maintain a sharp, proud, straight posture at all moments. When I rise, I try to make the simplest, most minimal movement possible to place my feet beneath me and rise like a samurai before his emperor. When I roll, I try to maintain a sense of balance and slow motion control as I transition from my squat into my roll, and my roll into my rise. When I am still or in seiza, I am always erect and poised to rise. When I am standing, I am always balanced and poised to lower myself or turn. Even when I sit in anza (cross legged), I explore sitting with a perfect posture, and moving so that I can rise from that position in one smooth, flowing motion.
In this way, my actions as uke are a form of meditation from start to finish, and are an opportunity to explore and express a quality of movement in all movement. In addition, I find this cultivates a dignity and power of movement which is a worthy goal in and of itself!
7. Eliminate the slap
Imagine the moment when you, as nage, are receiving a powerful and fast yokomenuchi attack. Even if you tenkan to dissipate the force, the greater the “gap” (distance) between the attacking arm and the receiving (blocking) arm, the louder the sound and pain that is generated by the impact. If uke is really attacking hard, shomenuchi and yokomenuchi can really start to hurt! Alternatively, the sooner nage connects to the attack and the smaller the gap that is closed by the attack, the softer the impact.
In hard (“old school” or “judo”) ukemi, the slap comes from the body rotating first, with the rotation of the upper body and hand delayed. In soft ukemi, the hand becomes a gentle ‘feeler” for letting the body know where the ground is without looking.
This principle was the basis of how I developed my own ukemi; if I could eliminate the “gap” between my hand and the ground, the impact would be eliminated as well. Theoretically, if I could touch the mat before my feet left the ground, there would be no impact at all. In practice, this isn’t possible, but it is a guideline that has helped me soften my ukemi significantly. Here is an older video where I lay out one method for exploring how to eliminate the slap (click on the image for the youtube video link):
As you watch soft ukemi videos or receive ukemi instruction, look how the hand precedes the fall. The hand touches early, and the body goes to the hand – usually by folding over oneself (click on the image below for a link to quick youtube video tutorial):
8. Do the reps
I can’t convey how many times I have spoken to students at seminars who tried to learn soft ukemi, but when I ask them if they committed to 50 or 100 ukemi before or after every class they just act embarrassed. No matter how sincerely or intently you explore softer ukemi, unless you get in thousands of repetitions your body will not internalize the changes and make them automatic and instinctual. Ukemi taken during class doesn’t count, since you will have other things occupying your attention than improving and changing the quality of your ukemi movement.
Instead, my rule of thumb is that you must commit to doing 50 or 100 ukemi as a part of EVERY class, either before class starts or after it ends. That sounds like a lot of ukemi, but the good news is this doesn’t have to be an endurance trial; there’s no reason you can’t do 10 or 20, take a breather, and repeat until you get your repetitions in. It only takes one second to do a roll or breakfall, and five minutes is more than enough to get your reps in.
This step cannot be left out. It will define your Aikido. You won’t be doing them alone – as you start regularly doing repetitions, others will join you. You will be proud of your accomplishment. They won’t tire you out, they will energize your class training. Do the reps!
9. Reprogram your keiko
Pretty much every tip thus far needs to be explored outside of regular keiko, where movements can be isolated, and slowed down to a controlled speed. These movements need to be experimented with, without fear or danger from failure, and without pressure from a training partner. Eventually, however, the lessons learned need to be “eased in” and integrated into your regular class training.
Almost every Aikido dojo I have ever visited (across many styles and organizations), the training environment was very supportive of everybody training at their own speed; nages generally are tolerant and helpful when their uke is trying something new and need to slow the technique down a little. Hopefully you don’t train in an environment where experimentation is discouraged, or where nage may injure you if you don’t do what they expect.
First, let nage perform their technique – but disengage at the end, step away, and do whatever drill you are working on. This will let your body associate not being rushed and performing new movement with technique. Don’t be afraid of looking like a beginner; chances are you will just make everyone interested and curious!
Next, slowly stop disengaging, and instead maintain contact with nage while you slowly explore the ukemi drill you are working on.
Finally, start letting the drill execute at a more natural speed and timing.
Of course, if you are making big changes in your keiko, make sure you speak to your instructors first and get their support and advice. It’s important not be a disruption during keiko, and Sensei have responsibilities to nurture all of their students, not just you.
10. Let your own style evolve
Finally, it’s important to realize that what you finally achieve probably won’t – and probably shouldn’t – look exactly like what you initially envisioned. Your body is different than anyone else’s, you have different strengths and limitations, and most importantly you have different things your want to cultivate in your Aikido path. So, as long as you continue to be guided by the qualities of movement that you identified as your goal, you shouldn’t be disheartened or distracted by the fact that the ukemi you develop looks nothing like anyone else’s.
Don’t be dazzled by the big falls you might see; but if they start happening, see how far you can go. Always be guided by how the movement feels to you, and how it leaves you feeling after class, and how it leaves you feeling when you get up the next morning. Ask yourself if what you are developing is something you could explore your entire life. Ask yourself what is making you stronger, and what is harmful or helpful to your mental and physical well-being. Think like a scientist – develop theories and hypotheses of what works and why, and then set out to try variations to test and destroy those theories. Find ways to move that fit your body as an expression of your Aikido and your values, and fit seamlessly into your time as nage. And of course, be ready to throw out conventional wisdom about the need to do breakfalls or rolls at all; find different solutions that defy expectations.
And when you succeed, please share your successes with me (guy at asu dot org)!
Addenda – Check out this wonderful video on flexibility and movement by GMB Fitness: https://www.facebook.com/GMBfitness/videos/1007602262628584/