Tuesday, March 4, 2014

UKEMI; The Other Half

Ukemi sometimes translates as the art of falling away from harm. Taking ukemi is another way to practice kokyu royku, "Abdominal Breath Power". Ukemi is also an excellent way to practice maintaining the maximum amount of control over yourself in a negative situation. In practicing good ukemi, you learn that you can be in  a situation in which you might not win, but defeat is not inevitable. You also learn that it is often possible to respond to negative situations in such a way as to protect yourself from serious harm. These are both vital lessons for veterans whose warfighting training and experience is that the inevitable result of not winning, is defeat. In combat, there are no gray areas. But life is all shades of gray. This can be one of the most difficult things for any vet to learn to deal with when attempting to transition from the highly structured environment of the military with its clearly defined roles, expectations, hierarchies, schedules, and reliance on an externally imposed code, to the fluid, shifting, often vague and uncertain reality of civilian life. Aikido helps one to center, to re-establish an inner core. It helps restore the confidence in self, the sense of balance, which enables one to deal with the ebb and flow, the discontinuity of life. Practicing as both tori and nage helps one learn that one can win, without destroying, one can lose, without being defeated.

If the essence of executing an Aikido waza/technique is to be balanced, centered and in control of oneself, correspondingly, the essence of executing ukemi is also to be balanced, centered and in control of oneself to the greatest degree possible. Paradoxically, the way to maintain the greatest control of one’s balance, is to give it up! Walking is a process of deliberately allowing yourself to fall, generating momentum in the direction you want, then catching your fall. Running is actually the process of throwing yourself forward and then spinning your feet fast enough to almost catch up. In neither walking nor running should one loose control. Ukemi is the process of giving up one’s balance, but not one’s control. Uke can still retain control, at least of their own body, enough to ensure a safe fall or take-down.

When Todd Martin Shidoin, teaches a technique, he usually demonstrates effective ukemi, i.e. how to “give up” ones balance in order follow the energy flow of the technique. In doing this, he is able to maintain flexibility and the maximum possible control of himself throughout the technique. Todd sensei is able to do this because he establishes and maintains his centeredness and, no matter how vigorous, or hard, or improperly, or awkwardly the technique is executed, he remains amazingly relaxed, balanced, in control of his fall, and safe.

I talked about this with vets in my class today. They are beginning to grasp the concept of kokyu ryoku and relaxed centering, at least to the point where they notice when they are not doing it [which is significant progress]. But as the techniques get a little more complex, they take ukemi very stiffly, awkwardly and out of control. I’ve explained that what I hoped to help them learn was how to center and achieve control of themself in order to achieve non-violent control in negative situations. Now I want them to begin to utilize that relaxed, centered self control even in situations where they are ostensibly being controlled, i.e., when taking ukemi. Not only will this help them practice maintaining center, with practice, they will be better able to sense and flow with tori’s movement, which, in turn, it will enable them to protect themselves, and possibly even execute a reversal.

If we are teaching Aikido to vets with CRPTSD in hopes of giving them powerful tools they can use in the reality of their lives, we must recognize, and teach to, life’s myriad shades of gray. Ideally, it would be best to be tori, prepared and able to deal proactively with life situations as they come at us. However, reality dictates that at times we find ourselves having to react to a negative situation in which we find ourselves already enmeshed. In this second circumstance, survival may mean practicing effective ukemi.

Everything we learn and practice in the dojo can be, should be, expressed in how we live. I believe that only then are we fulfilling O Sensei’s dream of bringing peace to the world.

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