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Ukemi & Push-Hands

In aikido I am very consciously striving to become better at ukemi by reacting to movements appropriately. This can be extremely difficult because each partner and each technique will be different, and so you must react appropriately, naturally, immediately. What I mean by “appropriately” is that you must follow your partners lead without beating them to it (moving to where you’re supposed to be before your partner does anything), but doing so without giving excessive resistance. While doing ukemi, if you do nothing, then the particular technique you’re partner is doing is probably lost and would require a different technique altogether. If you resist everything your partner does, then that could change the technique as well, or make it very difficult for your partner to learn to do the target technique. For those who criticize aikido as being too scripted to be considered a practical martial art (including myself a while back), some one truly proficient should be able to execute a working technique under any circumstance, but that takes far more skill than I have, and could also seriously injure the partner. The best two adjectives I can think of to describe appropriate ukemi are “full” and “alive.” If you do nothing in your ukemi, the technique your partner is trying to do is empty and probably won’t work. But, if you ukemi appropriately then the technique is alive and constantly changes reacting to the movements of your partner. SO, appropriate ukemi is very important, and I’m trying to learn how to do it.

Yesterday while I was watching a Tai Chi Chuan “push-hands” video on youtube, I had a bit of an “Ah-Ha!” moment related to the nature of ukemi.

When two people are doing competetive push-hands, they remain in contact the whole time maintaining movement that is “full” and “alive”. Appropriate, natural, immediate ukemi, and you never even had to tell them about this term “ukemi”! (Well, those terms would describe highly skilled push hands probably). When doing push-hands, if one person stops everything and does nothing, then they get pushed over very simply. Because no one does this, push-hands is always full because the person is always trying to not get pushed over. This is “full” technique. Also, each partner is reacting to each other competitively so the technique is alive because at any second something is changing. In this way, any physical competition that includes two people who make contact are naturally doing some kind of ukemi(?) I think it is just especially evident in push hands because it focuses on concepts of “non-resistence” and “flowing” over “antagonistic” movements.

Have I gone too far? Is ukemi incorporated into any physical competition that includes two people that make contact with each other?

In trying to be good aikidoka, perhaps we can apply ukemi to the activities and relationships of our daily lives. Is it possible to have a life that is “full” and “alive”? Is it possible to have a life that is not “full” and “alive”? Do you have relationships with people who do nothing when interacting with you? Do you have relationships with people who constantly resist everything you attempt. These can be very annoying qualities in a relationship … and by doing bad ukemi I am subjecting my fellow aikidoka to this everytime we practice together! It’s a wonder they keep inviting me back to class! I sure hope I start performing appropriate ukemi soon.

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4 thoughts on “Ukemi & Push-Hands

  1. As one who formerly trained in aikido, and now in taijiquan, I think you're spot on in your analysis of ukemi. It is as the uke, you learn to yield, stick and follow.

    I remember an old aikido saying that went something like you had to be uke for 10 years before you could begin to be shite. It wasn't until I started getting deeply into taijiquan that the meaning of that saying became clear to me.

  2. Rick: Wow thank you! I'm just doing my best to feel it through. Your story about the 10 year ukemi really makes sense, and I look forward to the long road.

    DR: Unfortunately no, we haven't had a seminar in a long time. But I tried to find a picture to best show the image of what we do, and this looks just like what we do. (From my experience I don't know how you could do aikido without it.)

  3. Although as you know I am mostly ignorant on aikido, I am fairly good in push hands. However, I understand what you mean by “full and alive” – in push hands we express it as “not forcing, not leaving”. A weak push hands is not good push hands, neither is a strong, destructive one. Full and lively is something in between, yet not quite a compromise between weak and strong. Nonetheless, free way push hands is both empty and full, reatreating and advancing, feinting, leaving on one side while holding the other. From a taoist perspective, it encompasses all the extremes to be a whole

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