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"Your Ukemi Was Really Weird Tonight, Zac."

This is what sensei said to me from across the dojo while I was reviewing a jo form with Hosogoshi after class. Hosogoshi and I looked at each other and I asked him what sensei said, but he shrugged his shoulders and was just as confused as I was. I asked sensei what he said, so he repeated it, and Hosogoshi and I were still just as confused. So I said, “Uh … OK.” and continued the jo form for a few more minutes while sensei folded his hakama. I had absolutley no idea what he meant, and he’s never said anything quite like this before, so I went to try and make some sense of this.

“My ukemi was weird tonight?”

So weird.”

“Uh … What do you mean?”

And so he began a lengthy explanation before Hosogoshi and I which I barely understood.

“So was it the way I was rolling? Were they too far or too short?”

No, that’s not it.”

“Well, was I too fast or too slow?”

Um, not really.”

The notion of ukemi is specific to aikido, absolutley necessary for good technique, and arguably the secret to becoming proficient in the art. In aikido, techniques are practiced generally between two people, the tori (thrower) and uke (person being thrown). Ukemi is what the uke does when a technique is practiced on them. Sensei was trying to explain the essence of ukemi and how I wasn’t doing it, while he became increasingly frustrated and impatient. Hosogoshi was there trying to help by throwing out some English phrases and translating sensei’s Japanese into my Japanese. Sensei would ramble off for a minute, look at Hosogoshi and ask him if he understood and he would answer, “Mmm, kind of.” and then sensei would look at me and I would say, “I don’t understand.” Which was true at first. But after about three attempts at explaining one particular point, I would slowly get what he was saying.

What he was trying to explain was that you have to move naturally and maintain your structural integrity when doing ukemi.

“So I need to move more naturally?”

No, that’s not it.”

He then told me when I was doing ukemi, I would anticipate the movement and move before my partner, making the technique nothing, and thus not aikido.

“So I need to slow down?”

No.”

He then told me when I moved through ukemi, I would leave my body behind making me weak and screwing up the technique.

“Oh! It’s like when you do ukemi for nikkyo (a particular technique) and you have to go to the floor a little bit to maintain your balance!”

Hah???”

At this moment I did my best not to punch him in the face and tell him he’s stupid.

He said something else I couldn’t understand and asked me if I understood, but I just said “kind of.” and he looked dissatisfied. Hosogoshi tried to help me out and said that I usually catch on to these kinds of things quickly somehow after sensei mentions them, but sensei still looked very much dissatisfied.

Sensei began to explain that he can tell whether someone is good or not at aikido by how they do ukemi.

Do you understand?”

“Yeah. You can tell if someone is good or bad by how they do ukemi.”

Hah???”

Are you serious?!

He told me to grab his hand and do ukemi. I moved, and he looked at Hosogoshi and said, “See, he sucks.”

He grabbed my hand and told me to move, which I did unsuccessfully trying to move him and he said, “See? This is horrible.”

I know very well when I practice with people lower than me that they suck because their ukemi sucks, and I can’t do aikido properly when they mess it up. I know I do this too sometimes with my seniors, but how am I supposed to make my ukemi better?

“Sensei, how do I get better at ukemi?”

You need more time. You cannot learn real aikido from a book, and you can’t learn it from watching it. You definitely can’t learn aikido through words. You have to do it through feeling somehow, and you have to do it with someone who knows how. Here, you need to learn proper technique by proper ukemi. You need to learn this through my body’s reaction to yours. You have to maintain a connection with your partner. You learn how to react to me properly, and then you’ll be good at aikido. After that, you should go somewhere else and learn from another teacher.”

He paused for a second and looked at Hosogoshi and asked him if he understood. Then sensei looked at me and continued:

You need more time. By August? I don’t know.” And then metaphorically threw his hands in the air saying it’s impossible.

And that was it.

He walked away and Hosogoshi and I were the only ones left changing out of our gis.

“Ukemi is really hard isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’m still really bad at it.” And Hosogoshi is as good as I can imagine.

He tried to explain that he knows how to move by cues given by sensei’s movement. He, and no one really, can remember perfectly every movement in aikido, or how to ukemi by working it out logically. He moves how he feels sensei thinks he should, and he does good technique. By doing this, he is stealing sensei’s technique.

Well, it was a night full of questions and answers. But I still have one burning question concerning the distance between my current level, and the model presented in these answers:

HOW DO I GET THERE NOW?!

This has very much consumed me since it happened, and all I want is to “do it”. But let’s see if this can manifest naturally: appropriately and without any unnecessaries … ne?

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4 thoughts on “"Your Ukemi Was Really Weird Tonight, Zac."

  1. I agree with jc. When I moved from Yonago to Kyoto, my Sensei seemed disappointed. I was about 6 months from testing for shodan, and he really wanted me to test with him. I agreed. He had 'raised me' as an aikidoka, and to test with my new teacher didn't seem right. I agreed to come back and train once a month, but it didn't keep, unfortunately.

    Sensei also appreciated that I'd travel around and visit other dojos. The little elements and pieces I picked up here and there are still a part of 'my aikido.'

    Aikido teachers are often dropping these mysterious hints and bits of advice. At my first enkai way back in the day, he and a senior student were (drunkenly) telling me that aikido is about one thing, and if I can figure out this one thing, I'd master the art. When I naively asked what that is, Sensei laughed and told me that he'd spent the past 20 years trying to figure that out. And now I am too.

    The most puzzling advice came later, similar somewhat to your post above. After my nikyu test, he complimented my solid technique, yet told me that my body hadn't yet taken on the shape (katachi) of aikido. Still trying to figure that one out…

  2. I'll bet if you go to San Diego and train with Robert's group as an Ushi Deshi you will make immediate progress.
    Sensei Strange also said he learned way more and faster from American masters than in Japan.

    Ultimately, because we move around and have different teachers at times, you need to incorporate your Aikido knowledge into the bigger picture of your combined art practice.

    Getting a Black Belt is something you have already done in Kenpo.
    But cross-training in other arts is where you put the puzzle together and make it your own.
    One art informs the other.

  3. Thank you for all the sincere comments.

    I went to the next class and sensei could tell that I was doing my absolute best to pay attention to ukemi even more than I usually do, and so he helped me as much as possible, in a very strict Japanese manner, which means he cares a lot, and probably is reacting to losing a student. But these things can't be helped. It's so interesting that martial artists can be so intelligent and rational, but when it comes to students and teachers, there's also a lot of emotional stuff to work through.

    If there's anything that Japan has taught me, it's to pay attention to what a sensei is trying to tell you, and to perceive movement somehow by feeling and practicing yourself … but I can't fricken wait to practice with a teacher who speaks English! I expect it will be a very different and thus helpful experience.

    Thanks again for the words guys. It's greatly appreciated.

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