At this point in my training, if there is one truth about Aikido I have been able to discover, it would be this: Aikido is circular, not just in movement, but in concept. Uke is as fundamental to nage, as surely as nage is to uke. To focus on one is to learn the other.
I’ve heard instructors tell me how important ukemi was to my Aikido. In the past I thought this meant I should take good ukemi for the sake of my nage. It was my gift to nage. I thought ukemi was about helping my nage look good and train more effectively. However, my experience at Winter Camp 2009 has altered my opinion.
On the last day of Winter Camp 2009, I took Yamada Sensei’s morning class. There, he demonstrated a throwing technique that required a huge extension and a low cut. Sensei separated us all into groups and told us to have at it.
Unfortunately, in my group I was the first Aikidoka in line. There were about fourteen uke waiting for me to throw them, but I just couldn’t figure the movements out. After about four failed attempts, I was unbearably embarrassed over my 5th kyu inadequacies. Sensei approached me and grabbed my uke from me. He demonstrated the technique for me once more and spoke sharply: “Extension! This is why I failed the shodan!” I was completely embarrassed.
I tried the technique two more times, and failed. I ran to the back of the line, forgetting to bow the next nage in, feeling utterly defeated. With my pride crushed, I readied myself to take the best ukemi I could for the nage in my group. I thought I could prove I’m not a totally useless Aikidoka by taking great ukemi. Maybe I could win back a little bit of my pride.
As uke, I exaggerated my movements, expended a lot of energy, and did everything in my power to maintain connection. I’m sure my ukemi wasn’t the best; especially in comparison to all the black belts and deshi present at Winter Camp, but it was my best.
Finally, the line went around until it was my turn as nage again. I bowed in with great apprehension. I was sure that my second time up would just be a repeat of the first, and I prayed to God that Sensei wouldn’t be around my group to see me fail again.
My first uke approached me. I met him, and to my surprise, I knew the movements. I understood then what Sensei meant about extension in this technique, and I understood why I couldn’t get my uke moving without it.
With my first uke I ran through the movement slowly. With my second, I got more of my hips into it, and by my fourth uke I felt like I wasn’t a total embarrassment. My fifth uke was an older black belt. He grabbed me, moved with me, and said: “There you go girl, you got it.” His words were encouraging.
This experience has convinced me of the interplay between uke and nage. The art is circular. The parts are interconnected. If you learn one aspect of the art, you are in a sense learning them all. Not until I was thrown some fourteen odd times did I understand what Sensei was trying to tell me. Not until I was forced to feel the technique did I understand what I needed to do to make my uke feel the technique.
So in closing, the lesson learned is this: Ukemi is not just a side note, or a means of making nage look great. Take as much of it as you can, and be grateful every time it is your turn to be thrown. If you want to be a great nage, become a great uke.