Ukemi for Beginners, Part I
Ukemi (“receiving” technique) is probably the most useful and crucial set of physical skills you will learn in this art. My ukemi training has given me the greatest sense of freedom and confidence out of anything we do, and has without a doubt saved me from serious injury at least twice. If you are training correctly, it’s pretty unlikely you will ever be in a real combat situation if it is not part of your job. However, it is extremely likely that you will one day trip, slip, get jostled or pushed, have a biking/skating accident, or be in a car accident, all of which can be mitigated using ukemi.
Plus ukemi training is just fun. Even when you’re bad at it, it should be fun to practice, using mats or grass and messing around, jumping, falling, rolling, and just experimenting. If you just stick with it, one day you find that you can do the superman dive roll pretty easily. It’s mostly just about being comfortable.
For most people though, getting comfortable taking a real fall or throw on a hard surface will require a lot of practice. The only way to improve your ukemi is to practice regularly and frequently. If you’re really stiff, or getting bruised up every time you practice, you might not want to do this type of training, or find yourself looking for ways to avoid it. But there are things you can do to make it less painful, and therefore harder to come up with those excuses not to do it.
For new students in particular, warming up and stretching before ukemi (or any training) is an important step to avoid injury. As you progress to a more advanced level, it is advisable to practice cold occasionally (and cautiously) to learn what that feels like and in what ways your body may react differently. In real life, you probably won’t have spent the last twenty minutes preparing before you suddenly have to take a roll or breakfall. After training, cool-down and stretching are also important to avoid soreness and promote increased flexibility.
2. Use mats.
If ukemi training is causing excessive pain, or injury, practice on a softer surface. Use mats, blankets, or soft grassy areas to practice rolls until you no longer feel any major problems using that surface. Some people advise starting out on a hard surface so you don’t “develop bad habits,” but if you always have small injuries that inhibit free movement, or never want to practice ukemi because it’s too painful, you won’t improve either. It is probably true that people who start out learning ukemi on hard surfaces get better faster, on average, but only if they practice regularly, and don’t get injured being overzealous and end up unable to train while healing.
If you’re having difficulty with ukemi, get the gross movements down first on a forgiving surface. Then you can move onto something harder, and refine the smaller problems. Eventually the only surfaces that will be difficult or painful are hardwood floors, concrete, or uneven ground, and you can work on those until you feel confident.
3. Start close to the ground.
Depending on your body type, your flexibility or shape might not allow you to get as close to the ground before committing to the roll as a smaller, more flexible person like myself. But the more you practice getting low first, the more your body will adjust, stiffness will disappear, and balance will improve.
Start out in a crouch, or if you like, with one or both knees already on the ground. Use your hands to control your weight as you start to curl into the roll and lower yourself to the ground. I used to make new students practice rolling by lowering themselves, under control, until their shoulders were literally on the floor before allowing them to commit to the roll and go over. That’s a little extreme, but it does promote an attitude of control and refinement, and allows you to find the right space for your head and limbs to fit into a comfortable ball.
For forward breakfalls, you can start out on your knees practicing on a mat, and progress to standing or jumping, and using harder training surfaces. Similarly, back and side breakfalls can be done from a crouch first and progress to more difficult scenarios.
4. Loosen up.
A lot of new students have problems rolling because they are trying to make themselves into as small and tight a ball as possible. This is a mistake. There should be some space and shock absorption in the roll, and the body’s shape actually changes subtly as you progress through the movement. That process is not something that can be explained or taught; it’s dependent on your body and has to be felt and developed individually. But you can’t figure it out if you’re too tight. Being tight and tense creates angles and corners you can hit, and it prevents you from breathing properly, being sensitive to the ground, and adapting your shape. Ukemi literally means “receiving,” as in receiving the ground, or a punch, or a wall. Avoiding injury requires you to be relaxed and adaptable.
One way to get over being too tense is simply rolling around randomly on the ground like a baby. Don’t try to do specific rolls or techniques. Just act like a baby. Crawl, fall over, lie on your back with your knees bent and rock your weight around. Try different ways to get from lying on your back to your hands and knees, and vice versa. Just play and get comfortable with the ground. The ground is your friend.
Be sure you are breathing through the entire roll. One way to prevent cheating is to count out loud as you are moving through the roll. It’s annoying, and it’s not really the “natural” way to breathe through a roll, but if you are holding your breath it can help to break that habit. Later you can work on inhaling and exhaling naturally as you move, and not interrupting your body’s rhythm when you can avoid it.
These steps are just suggestions, and are primarily meant for students having difficulty with ukemi training. Use whatever works for you, and keep going!
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 2/24/06. Author retains all copyrights.)
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