Recently, I set out to review a lot of videos of what people seem to be holding up as “amazing aikido” teachers and demonstrations. My goal was simply to observe what attributes they had in common, what characteristics inspired people to consider these examples of Aikido to be better than others. I looked at videos regardless of style or affiliation, paying special attention the videos and teachers which have received the most popular accolade for their ability to perform and demonstrate; these included people like O Sensei, senseis Christien Tissier and his students, Shirakawa Ryuji, Moriteru Doshu and Waka Sensei, teachers in my own organization, and many others.
I found that they did have many things in common. Great posture, and a powerful energetic presence (no slouching or tired movements). A clear focus and respect for ukes; no dismissive attitudes or perceived arrogance. Powerfully executed techniques resulting in big throws, crisp minimal movement with big impacts; no fumbling or stumbling. Certainly, any student of Aikido knows that big technique is hardly the goal of our art, and aggressive “Yang” movement is only one aspect of our study; however, in demonstrations of ability we are drawn to, and give our respect to teachers who can demonstrate these external attributes versus more calm and passive outcomes.
However, as I watched more and more videos, I found myself paying more and more attention to the ukes; how they attacked and responded, their spontaneity, their energy, their ability to receive shihan-level technique and make it look effortless. After watching about 20 teachers and several dozen videos, I came to an important realization; the most important asset of a great Aikido teacher wasn’t the teacher himself/herself.
Question: What makes an amazing Aikido teacher?
Answer: Amazing ukes.
My realization was that every one of these individuals that the Aikido community was revering as great teachers had fantastic ukes who could take full-power, full-speed technique in any direction. They had spontaneous, effortless responses that allowed the teacher to fully display their technique without slowing down or holding back. A great teacher simply cannot display well with ukes whose responses are limited, or are tense/resist technique; the teacher has to protect their ukes by moving within their limitations, thus handicapping their own actions and ability. The abilities of a teacher’s students define the limits of the teacher.
The next time you see an Aikido demonstration video in your YouTube, Facebook or other social media stream, start paying more attention to the ukes, and what their abilities say about their teacher – rather than just focusing on the teacher’s performance only.
So, after coming to this conclusion, I thought to myself: “what is the first step I must undertake in order to become a great teacher myself?” And of course, the answer was “learn how to cultivate amazing ukes in my dojo;” to learn how to encourage the development of “shihan-level” ukemi among all of our students. This, of course, presents another dilemma; how does one create amazing ukes? In America, there is no common knowledge of breakfalls as might have been expected of students in Japan, many of whom for decades were exposed to Judo as part of the public education system. Certainly, one isn’t going to get very far just by commanding the students to improve, or just by sharing instructional videos; even teaching focused ukemi classes only goes so far, in my experience. In the end, I think the answer to this question is simple, but it’s not easy: real change and inspiration requires leadership by setting the example one’s self.
Question: What makes amazing ukes?
Answer: Instructors that are twice the uke that they want their students to be.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve discovered that when I am out practicing ukemi before and after class, so are our students (ato geiko). When I am exploring difficult or advanced ukemi, or trying to innovate new movements, our students become curious and start doing the same. I think across the Aikido world (and all martial arts), we as teachers are predisposed to “rest on our laurels;” once we feel we have earned our positions, we don’t need to maintain our levels of effort, energy, output, and learning that we generated in order to get there (heck, that’s probably true of our marriages and careers too). In many traditional Samurai koryu arts, the instructors took all the ukemi; despite this fact, in modern Aikido most teachers never take a fall, even when they are supposedly training. Certainly we have to modify our training due to age and infirmity, but I believe 90% of the time ukemi is stopped is because ukemi takes an immense amount of energy, not because the instructor is too old or injured. I would rather believe that than the teachers’ egos don’t let them take the role of “receiver of technique” (traditionally the more junior role, the receiver of instruction). Ukemi, like technique, must change one’s entire life, but when you “stop using it, you lose it.” I suspect this goes not just for the ability to receive a technique, but the sensitivity that goes along with it.
During my martial career, I was always impressed the most by teachers who didn’t tell me what to do, but did it themselves. I was always most inspired by those that showed and practiced abilities I did not have, and who were generous enough to help me gain those abilities if I tried hard enough. And I had the most respect for the teachers who set a professional bar of commitment and dedication, by constantly pouring their effort, passion, exploration, and drive into their art at a greater level than any of their students.
I am constantly surprised by what I can still learn in my ability to move and receive technique, and how my commitment to exploration helps to transform our Dojo as well as my ability as a teacher.
Question: What about people who say ukemi is just training to lose?
Answer: Ukemi isn’t about giving up, it is the art of removing limitations of movement.
I’ve heard many times (often from martial artists more focused on “combat” or competition applications) that the pursuit of ukemi is deeply flawed, that training to take breakfalls is just mentally “training to lose.” I would agree that one has to work through periods of learning ukemi when one has to be pro-active and pre-disposed toward taking the fall rather than fighting back, stopping, reversing technique; this is necessary for removing gaps between motion and response. But these can be temporary, and ukes can come back to focusing on maintaining a more martial mindset once they’ve integrated new ukemi skills.
To counter, I would observe that I have visited a number of dojos who train with the “never surrender” (e.g. never ukemi) mindset to various degrees, and without exception none of those dojos I visited had very impressive nages. I imagine it would be like a lifetime of training while wearing weights – but never being able to take the weights off. When every technique that one performs is met with a mountain of stubborn resistance tailored to the technique being performed, the nages (and eventually the teachers) either only experience stunted expression of their techniques, or they wreck all their partners.
We can’t create dojos where only the instructors practice effective techniques and “win;” there may be an unexamined impression that these Aikidoka recognized as amazing teachers never took ukemi but were always powerhouses of technique – always giving, never receiving. On the contrary, I’m willing to bet all of these people took their time getting good “at the receiving side” at some point in their development.
If ukemi is “the art of removing limitations of movement”, then having teachers set an example regarding the exploration of ukemi is the practice of “removing limitations from the dojo”.
Teach first by doing, lead by being the example, create change by making change in yourself. As stated by O Sensei – “the Art of Peace begins with you.”