Ukemi – Learning to Roll with the Punches

This is the twenty-first 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.   

U is for Ukemi.

We discussed Uke’s role in training in the earlier post about Nage and Uke – The Relationship Between Partners. Uke provides an attack for Nage to work with, then goes with Nage’s response. It’s Uke’s job to support Nage in learning to do the technique well.

Ultimately, in most cases the technique will end with Uke being taken down to the mat and held in a pin, or being thrown. Knowing how to get to the mat safely – and even bounce back up again – is an important part of ukemi, or receiving technique.

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“When you fall, I will be there to catch you.”
~ The Ground

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It’s sometimes this aspect of ukemi – the graceful rolls and challenging falls – that draws people to Aikido. There is a lifetime of learning available in just this area of the art. Besides, falling and rolling is a lot of fun. If it’s been years (or decades) since you goofed around rolling on the lawn or doing gymnastics in school you’ll probably feel like a kid again.

Here’s a video that shows several ukes taking falls and rolls from a variety of techniques:

Learning to fall and roll

Some of the first things you will learn in class will be basic back falls, and slow forward and backward rolls, starting from your hands and knees. Usually one of the more advanced students will take you aside and show you how to let yourself down to the ground easily. Until you are able to do these reasonably well your partners will not throw you outright, but will give you a chance to stop and sort it out slowly without any added momentum.

Sometimes the idea of going tail-over-teakettle really freaks people out. You can work through that by starting low and slow, and staying relaxed. If you get scared, back off to the previous level until you feel more comfortable.

If you’ve done any tumbling or gymnastics you won’t have trouble with that fear, but you may have some habits to overcome. To do a tumbling somersault you go straight over, in a line down the middle of your back. In Aikido we want to avoid letting our head or spine contact the ground, so we roll over our shoulder, on a diagonal to the opposite hip. Our head should never touch the mat.

Eventually you’ll gain proficiency and confidence, and will be able to train a bit faster. Rolling is a little like riding a bike – it’s easier when you’re going at speed, but you can’t learn that way, you have to start out slowly.

Try it yourself.

Obviously the best way to learn any physical skill is with hands-on coaching from an experienced teacher. If this sounds like fun I encourage you to visit a local dojo and inquire about classes. Learning to do a thing correctly is well worth the investment in quality instruction. An injury can be very costly, in more ways than just dollars.

But I’m sure you’re curious about seeing how it’s done, at least. Here is an excellent demonstration of basic, beginning front and back rolls by Rokas Leonavičius Sensei of Dodžo – Aikido Šiauliai in Lithuania. Note that the floor he is on is actually a firm mat (padded). You can try these – or at least the kneeling/sitting ones, where you don’t have far to fall – on thickly padded carpeting, a soft green lawn, or even by wearing a heavy sweatshirt or jacket for some minimal protection.

Disclaimer: You know your abilities and body best; don’t come crying to me if you take on more than you can handle safely.

Falling like a feather

A more advanced kind of fall is a high fall, sometimes called a breakfall, because you break the force of the fall as you reach the ground. These are used when you are thrown in a way that you can’t roll out of a technique. You have to find another way to return to the mat without a heavy thud, and of course without being injured. The idea is to land as softly as possible. There are many varieties, depending on the technique and situation. Some have inspiring names, like soft high falls, feather falls, or dead leaf falls. Imagine a feather or falling leaf wafting gently to the ground. That’s the idea.

These are more challenging to learn, but well worth it. You can go your whole Aikido career without doing any high falls, if you truly are limited, physically. But my thinking is that if you can practice them, you should take advantage of the opportunity. You are likely to take an actual fall someday, slipping on gravel or ice, falling from a horse, or tripping off a curb. Knowing how to organize your body mid-flight, and land without reflexively putting your hands between you and the ground (or hitting your head!) could save you from a painful injury.

Here’s a great example of an especially soft and graceful breakfall:


Ukemi is half of Aikido. Falling and rolling are a big part of ukemi. When you train in Aikido you will spend time in class (and probably before and after class) practicing your falls and rolls. It’s tremendous exercise – great for core strength, cardio, and flexibility. You’ll develop skills that are useful both on and off the mat. And imagine the great feeling of accomplishment you’ll have when your partner can wing you across the dojo, and you land in a smooth, seamless roll, pop back to your feet, and come right back for more, laughing.

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.”