Nage and Uke – The Relationship Between Partners

This is the fourteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

N is for the Nage/Uke relationship.

In a typical Aikido class the instructor demonstrates a technique, and then we pair off to practice it with a partner. The partner who responds to the attack and executes the technique is the nage (NAH-gay), or one who throws. The partner who provides the attack, and then receives the technique – that is, falls, gets thrown, or is pinned – is the uke [OOH-kay], literally one who receives.

We switch roles back and forth as we train – acting as Nage and Uke in turn – so we can practice both sides of the interaction. First, I attack you a couple of times, and you practice doing the technique. Then you attack me.

Nage – One who throws.

Nage’s role is easy to understand. Our partner grabs our wrist or shoulder, throws a punch at our gut, or aims a strike at our head, and we do something about it. Usually that something is a combination of moves. First, we get out of the way of the attack so we don’t get hit, or so the grab doesn’t affect us so much. Second, we deal with the attacker in some way – throwing or pinning them.

That’s usually what people first think of when they imagine what “learning to do Aikido” entails. They picture being Nage – defending themselves, and hurling their attacker to the ground. But it’s only half the equation – if that.

Uke – One who receives.

The part of Aikido that Uke does – attacking and then receiving the technique – is called ukemi [ooh-KEHM-ee], or the art of receiving.

On the most basic level, it makes sense that in order for you to practice responding to an attack, you are going to need someone to attack you. In that sense Uke is like a pitcher tossing balls to someone who is learning to swing a bat. I grab you, or throw a punch at you, so you can practice doing Aikido techniques. Simple.

If you were pitching balls to a friend, you would adjust the speed and complexity of the pitch to be appropriate to your friend’s level. If you were playing with your 7 year old neighbor kid you’d lob nice, slow, consistent pitches right into the middle of their strike zone. You wouldn’t hurl your best fast ball, and then celebrate when they missed it. You are trying to help your friend develop their batting skills. As your friend gains skill and confidence you can increase the speed, and start offering more challenging kinds of pitches.

In the same way, if you were a brand new white belt, I would give you nice, easy, predictable strikes, or calm grabs from a standstill. Later we’ll get to running at you while shouting, grabbing you from behind, swinging full-speed at your head, or punching like I mean to go right through you. And maybe some buddies will join me in attacking you, too. And by then you’ll be able to handle that, and you’ll think it’s great fun, chucking us across the room as hard and fast as we came at you. Later.

But ukemi involves more than just attacking, and then falling or rolling. Here’s where it gets a little more subtle. I give you a good attack to work with, and then I also participate in the technique you do in response. I don’t just turn to a sack of potatoes, waiting passively for you to do something to me. That’s a victim thing. Or worse, make your life difficult while you try to execute the technique. That would be like pitching a ball to you, and then grabbing the bat so you couldn’t hit it. Instead, I actively move with you, supporting you in learning to do the technique well.

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“ATTENTION: Using force to stop your partner from completing the techniques is prohibited.”
~ Attributed to Morihiro Saito Sensei, (per Aikikai Jerusalem
“Saito Sensei posted this sign in his Iwama Dojo around 1987 / 1988.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In my experience, there is at least as much to be gained from learning to be a good uke. As Goldberg Sensei says, “Uke isn’t just waiting their turn, they are doing Aikido too.” Both sides of the partnership are integral to Aikido training. Aikido is just as much about ukemi as it is about learning to deal with the attack and do the technique.

Sensei gave us a beautiful image for this a few weeks ago: a simple curve. One side is convex and the other concave – yang and yin. We cannot have one without the other. They are two inseparable sides of the same shape. Nage and Uke are like this – it takes both to do Aikido.

Resistance is futile.

Good ukemi requires us to feel what’s happening and go with it. That means if we attack, and our partner slips out of the way, whirling us around to the left, we should actively participate in going around to the left with them.

“What?” you may well ask. “Why would you let them push you around like that?”

It’s a really difficult concept to grasp, even after months or years of training. Even more difficult to embody. We’re so used to fighting back! But resistance isn’t just futile, it’s counterproductive. If we are denying or fighting against what’s happening to us, then we cannot join with the direction of the energy and find a way to work with it. Worse yet, if we are acting on our thoughts about it rather than being present, feeling our way through, and responding to the actual situation, then our actions will be completely inappropriate.

It’s a little like whitewater kayaking. Suppose I mysteriously find myself in a kayak, zooming down some rapids. There are a few options available to me. I could resist for all I’m worth, planting my paddle in the sand, paddling backwards, trying to stop or go back the way I came. That’s going to take a lot of effort, and I will likely end up exhausted and capsized. I could deny that it’s actually happening, throw my paddle at a passing tree in a fit of frustration, cover my eyes, and curl up in a ball. That will probably get me wedged between some very big, very wet rocks. Or, I could paddle with the current, moving into the flow, zipping between the rocks, along with the water. And as I went I could begin to assess my situation, noticing the where the calmer parts are along the edges, and work my way safely to shore when I see an opportunity.

This last option is obviously the one we want to choose in kayaking. It’s less obvious when someone is bodily moving us in a direction we hadn’t planned for, but just as advantageous. If we can go with the movement, and stay calm enough to pay attention, we can find opportunities to arrange for a good outcome. In Aikido this can mean receiving the technique safely by falling or rolling smoothly out of it. It can also mean being able to feel our way into even better options, including those where our partner ends up being the one who falls or rolls out of our technique. If we are fighting, resisting, or denying, these better alternatives aren’t available to us.

Good ukemi is necessary for good technique

Here’s the really tricky part to wrap your head around: It is through practicing ukemi – learning to feel what’s happening and to go with it – that we learn to be a better nage.  As Chetan Prakash Sensei, of Redlands Aikikai, taught once during a seminar, if we can’t receive the energy of the attack, how can we respond to it and use it? Aikido relies not on fighting with incoming energy, but on actively getting behind it and helping it along.

In this way, Nage and Uke are inseparable, each developing crucial skills, and both responsible for creating beautiful Aikido together as partners.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”