Showing posts with label uke. Show all posts
Showing posts with label uke. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Being Senior In Japan

Iseki Sensei in his dojo.  Photo Copyright 2016 Peter Boylan

I was in Japan in November to take my 5th dan test in jodo. I arrived a week before the test so I could prepare. My friend Bijan had come along to take his 4th dan test. There are so many people who’ve been training for decades in the dojos in Japan that I’ve never really had to think about what seniors have to to.

Bijan and I had arrived at Iseki Sensei’s dojo and we were ready to go. The regular class has a variety of students; from 5th dan-holders like Mr. & Mrs. Fujita all the way to unranked beginners. I’m still not really used to being on the senior side of the room in the dojo in Japan, but that’s where I am.

Matsuda Shihan visits a few different dojo around Osaka that look to him for leadership and teaching.  Iseki Sensei’s Yoshunkan Dojo is one of them. Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai is another.  Both Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei are 7th dans who were highly ranked before I started jodo.  The nafudakake (name boards) in their respective dojo are loaded with senior students ranked 5th, 6th, and 7th dan. All these high ranking students in a dojo where they aren’t the teacher. What are they doing?

Traditional dojo, especially koryu bugei dojo, aren’t run the same way dojo for modern arts like judo, kendo and aikido are. The teachers don’t demonstrate techniques and have everyone try/copy/follow along. They don’t run them like drill sergeants with the teacher barking commands and all the students leaping to do what is called out. All those high ranking students are wonderful resources that traditional dojo make frequent use of.

Practice in the dojo may start out looking familiar. In Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo we start with the basics, but it’s once we’re warmed up and past the basics that things start to change from the more well-known models of practice. We pair off, each junior with a senior student, never two juniors together.  In traditional dojo one of the key responsibilities of senior students is working with beginning and junior students.  Developing good fundamentals is too important for the dojo and the future of the art to allow beginning and junior students to flounder without strong, experienced supervision.

Even in a small dojo, the teacher can’t be everywhere. Senior students are responsible for a lot of the learning that happens in a traditional dojo. In traditional dojo like Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei lead, the seniors have a lot of responsibility. They aren’t there just to polish their own skills. Being a member of a koryu bugei comes with a broader responsibility than just paying your monthly dues and getting your lessons from sensei.

During my last visit, when we lined up to bow in, it was clear that I was well into the deep end of the dojo. I can’t pretend to anyone that I’m one of the juniors anymore, not even to myself.  The juniors get embarrassed if I try to line up below them, and the seniors don't wave me away anymore when I offer to help take care of things in the dojo. After the warm-ups, the seniors lined up one side of the dojo and the juniors lined up on the other side of the dojo.

We worked our way through the paired kihon practice, with the seniors acting as uchi tachi (as uke is called in Shinto Muso Ryu). Iseki Sensei called out the techniques and the seniors guided and directed the juniors’ practice by adjusting the spacing and offering the correct opening for each attack being practiced. As the juniors practiced honte uchi and hikiotoshi uchi and maki otoshi  and the other fundamental techniques, the seniors were responsible for helping them learn the spacing and range of each technique.

After working through the kihon, we moved on to the kata. The Kendo Federation’s standard jodo is made up of 12 kata done as a pair with jo and tachi. For this part of the practice, each junior was again paired with a senior. This time the senior’s responsibility was to guide the much more complex application of the kihon  techniques in the kata themselves. For this the senior had to know both the jo and tachi side of the kata deeply.

This, for the seniors, meant not just going through the motions of the tachi side correctly. The senior had to adjust the speed and intensity of the attacks to match the lessons the junior was learning. Too slow or gentle would have resulted in  the junior not being challenged. Too fast or hard and the junior would have simply been crushed under the power of the senior’s attack. Either way, the junior would not have had  the opportunity to learn anything from the practice.   

The junior I was partnered with only knew the first 7 kata, so when we got up to the eighth one we cycled back to the first kata and worked through that again. Sensei will decide when a student is ready to learn a new kata. On the senior side, I had enough work adjusting the way I performed the tachi’s role to suit the learning level of the particular person I was working with.

My technique was challenged when it was time for the seniors to practice with each other. Then my partners pushed me to the edge of my skills and made me reach for a little bit more. The week  before the godan test, Fujita San, one of Iseki Sensei’s godan students, worked with me almost every day, acting in the role of senior so I could learn the lessons Iseki Sensei, Hotani Sensei and Matsuda Shihan wanted me to learn. Fujita San kept the intensity and power of the practice at a high level so I was always challenged to do just a little bit better.

The responsibility of being senior in the dojo doesn’t end with helping juniors learn to practice. In Japan, the seniors make the dojo function. Sensei doesn’t worry about taking care of the dojo or introducing new students to the routines and jobs around the dojo. At the end of practice, it’s not the newest students who are running to grab a broom and sweep the dojo.  It’s the seniors. Just as we are training in a martial way, each dojo has its own way of cleaning up, taking care of the dojo, and running practice. It’s not Sensei’s job to introduce new students to customs and rhythms of the dojo. That’s the job of the seniors.

When I go to Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai, it’s the seniors who run to get the covering for the tatami mats unrolled and secured before class. After the class the seniors run to roll it up and put it away. When a new student starts, the seniors quietly explain the proper formalities of bowing in to the dojo, and the starting and ending formalities for practice. The seniors help new students figure out what sort of equipment they need, and give advice as to where to get it.

Often someone will have brought some omiyage (souvenir or treat from a trip), or some other treat to share with the dojo. After practice is over, it’s the senior students who get the cups out, pour the drinks and distribute the treats, not the beginners. When it’s all done the seniors make sure everything is cleaned up and put away.

One of the signs that you’re really a member of the dojo is when people start letting you help out with a lot of these things. There’s no hard and fast rule about this, but until you’re allowed to help, you’re sort of on probation with the members of the dojo. You can offer to help, but more often than not your assistance will be politely declined.  When people start letting you help, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted. When people start looking at you like you know what you’re doing and they are looking to you to lead something, you know it.

Helping out and taking care of things for Sensei is one of the best ways of saying “Thank you. I appreciate you teaching me.” Being part of a dojo in Japan is not simply an economic exchange. All budo in Japan, not just koryu budo, have a significant social and cultural aspect that may be quite foreign to someone who trains in a commercial dojo where you simply pay your dues and come to class. When you join a dojo or a ryuha, you’re joining a living group with traditions and ways of doing things that you are expected to learn and contribute to. Everyone takes care of the dojo, sweeping and cleaning and washing. Everyone finds ways to take work out of Sensei’s hands so she doesn’t have to worry about all the details of running the dojo.

Just as the seniors are the ones that Sensei relies on to help the juniors get the most out of practice, they are also the ones Sensei relies on to keep the dojo running smoothly. The seniors in the dojo don’t get to rest on their rank and seniority. Instead they are expected to assume more responsibility, whether that is by guiding junior students’ practice by being effective partners, or helping clean up after practice, or coordinating an enbu (demonstration) or some other dojo activity. I’ve been around Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo for so long that I really am one of the seniors. Now I have to live up to that responsibility.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Not the throws. Watch the ukemi!

I step wrong and my partner takes advantage, tips me slightly, steps across in front of me, dropping as she goes, finishes the pivot and draws me further forward, further off balance, and onto her hip, continues turning drawing me further off balance onto her hip, rising turning and I’m airborne, flying past her shoulder. Looking down I see the ceiling framed between my feet the instant before my back slams into the mat and I slap with my hand.

That’s a textbook ukemi. It’s what we think of when we talk about ukemi. There’s a world more to ukemi, receiving techniques, beyond taking safely taking spectacular falls from powerful fall. Big falls are the most visible and obvious form of ukemi, but they aren’t the only ukemi skills to found in budo practice.

In judo and aikido we tend to focus on the big falling techniques as ukemi, but anything where you are receiving an attack is a form of ukemi. “Ukemi” is  受身 which is literally “receiving body.”  When we approach ukemi as how we receive whatever happens, there are a lot more skills that are clearly ukemi.

In budo, the obvious thought for ukemi is how to receive attacks. For judoka like me, one of those is how to receive being strangled. I happen to like attacking shime waza (chokes and strangles) in newaza, so often I find myself teaching people how to handle, how to receive these attacks. The ukemi for shime waza starts with dropping your chin to try and get it in the way of the attack. After that there are tricks for dealing with particular types of attacks that can allow you receive the attack and neutralize it. These are all forms of ukemi.

The obvious form of ukemi are the blocks that karateka learn for receiving attacks, punches and kicks. Blocks are the most basic way of receiving a strike, but everything that has strikes and thrusts has ways of dealing with them. Think about how your art deals with striking attacks. Those techniques are ukemi. In the Nage No Kata of judo the first response to an overhand strike is to blend and throw the attacker with seoi nage. Karateka learn sophisticated blends and redirections. With swords there are kiri otoshi and suriage techniques.

In Shinto Muso Ryu there are many techniques for receiving sword attacks by the jo side. There is also the skill of receiving jo thrusts when you are on the tachi side of training. There numerous places in the kata where tachi has to receive a thrust. Taking a stick to the solar plexus is hardly what I would call the highlight of training, but learning to receive these shots properly is important. That’s ukemi.

The ukemi that may be the most interesting is the ukemi for dealing with joint locks. Raw muscular resistance is not recommended. Oddly enough, the trick is to relax into the attack. The joint can move and stretch better if you’re relaxed. The muscles that can provide physical resistance to the attack work better from a relaxed base, and are stronger when their opposites aren’t firing as well. This ukemi may be harder to learn than the classic breakfall ukemi. Like breakfall ukemi you have to learn to stay relaxed when things go wrong and something is happening that would normally be unpleasant. With breakfall ukemi the unpleasantness lasts a moment. Joint lock ukemi doesn’t end quickly. In judo randori, people hate to surrender too easily, so they will resist as long as they safely can (and some stubborn fools resist longer than that). It takes patience and real effort to learn good ukemi for joint locks.

There is a lot to be learned under the heading of ukemi. You have to learn discretion about what can be successfully resisted, and what should be accepted and submitted to before you get hurt. That discretion is a big thing. I tell students that unless they are going for an Olympic medal, resisting an armbar probably isn’t worth the health of their elbow. That goes for other techniques as well. The safest course is almost always to go with a technique and take a fall rather than resisting. It takes a lot of practice, and more than few bumps, bangs and bruises to learn to discern when a technique can be resisted and when it shouldn’t be.

In any art, but particularly in judo, our ego will tell us that our partner shouldn’t be able to throw us.  She’s too small.  He’s not good enough. She’s not fast enough. He’s not strong enough. My ego can come up with a million reasons why I shouldn’t accept the technique and take the fall, reasons why I should use what I know about receiving the technique to jam it and block it. Learning to ignore our ego is another part ukemi. Learn to do what is healthy and good, rather than what makes our ego feel good and getting injured because of it.

Over my years of practice, I’ve found good ukemi skills to be the most useful things I’ve learned in the dojo. Tripping, falling off my bike, slipping on the ice, these are all places that use the big ukemi skills.

As your ukemi skills increase, so do your range of options. Judoka are notorious for reversing attacks. Until your skill at just accepting the attack and absorbing the energy becomes fairly sophisticated reversals are difficult. As you develop and feel for more and more subtle movement and the direction of the energy coming at you, it becomes easier and easier to take an attack, flow around the energy and turn it into a counter.  Yoko guruma is wonderful for this. Flow around your attackers energy and the thrower becomes the thrown.

If you resist so hard that your opponent can’t even begin an attack, you’ll never get the counter. Or worse, your partner will find a way around your strength and throw you anyway. Ukemi is one of the best ways of learning to do that most common of all martial arts corrections, relax.

Ukemi skills don’t work when you’re stiff. Taking a fall when you are scared and tense hurts. We all do it as beginners, and I remember that discomfort. Learning to breath and relax whatever happens takes time and experience. It’s as useful a lesson outside the dojo as it is on the mat. Life is full of surprises, pleasant and otherwise, but breathing and relaxing will get you through most of them pretty well. Not just slipping on the ice, but slipping verbally, or dealing with that rude, pushy guy in the office. Just breathing and relaxing, instead of tensing up and diving straight into the oncoming energy, often will let you take control of a difficult situation and turn it around.

That’s a fundamental aspect of ukemi, of the skill of receiving any attack. Don’t tense up.  Stay relaxed. Things hurt more when you’re tense. You just can’t move or think as well when you’re tensed up. Learning to relax and flow with the energy coming at you can make all the difference, on the mat or off. We tend to get tense and stiff when we’re feeling defensive, and that drives an entire set of reactions that an opponent can manipulate. In randori, if you’re defensive you become overcommitted in certain directions and you can’t respond well to attacks that don’t come from the direction you’re committed to.
Relax, and you become more stable and more flexible. You can relax and absorb the attacks from the side as well as the one barrelling in from head on. If you’re all stiff, you can only resist in one direction. Just because you are all set to resist in one direct does not put your opponent under any obligation to attack from that direction. Relax so you can flow with whatever comes your way. If you need to negate that attack, you can do that better when you’re relaxed. If you need to counter, you’d better be relaxed for that too. And if the best thing is to accept the attack, go with it, take the big ukemi and protect yourself that way, you want to be relaxed for that too.

Notice I didn’t say what kind of attack. It’s doesn’t matter if the attack is physical or verbal. If all your energy is focused in one direction, you’re going to get taken down by anything coming from another direction. Learning to receive is a critical skill.

As a massage therapist once told my friend Wendy "You can recognize martial artists the moment you lay your hands on them. They always relax to pain."

Relax. Do your ukemi.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I am obsessed with developing proper koshi. My iai teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, has been kicking my butt about my koshi for decades, and I’m getting so monomaniacal about it that I wonder why he hasn’t pushed me harder. Whenever I see him, he always makes point to remind to work on my koshi. He is over 90, and still has powerful koshi.

Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2013

So what is koshi? That’s a little tough, because koshi not a clearly defined medical term. Koshi includes the lower back, hips, waist and pelvis. It may be a little vague, but it’s a really good term for a critical area of the body when doing good budo.  That’s because the koshi is the platform that the upper body rest upon.  If the koshi isn’t solid, everything else will wibble-wobble around without any power or control.

Kiyama Sensei always tells me ”腰を入れて” or “put my koshi in”/”use my koshi.” This is subtly different from what people mean when they say “use your legs” or “put your back into it”. Proper use of the koshi is something more fundamental. Good koshi isn’t just about giving power, though it does that. It also gives stability in a way that is critical for being able to use the power in both your legs and your upper body.

When I swing a sword, thrust with a jo, or throw someone in judo, the quality of the technique is limited by how well I can use my koshi. It is the platform that the technique rests upon. When I swing a sword, does the weight and movement of the sword disrupt my balance and stability? If my koshi isn’t solid, it will. On the other hand, if my koshi is solid, I can increase the power and effect of my swing significantly by small movements of the koshi. The koshi ties my whole body together and allows me to direct all the power of my body into the swing of the sword, the thrust of the jo or a throw in judo.

koshi is related to what exercise instructors and trainers refer to as the “core.” The koshi combines the muscles of the lower back and the lower abdomen and ties them together with the pelvis and hips. The lower back muscles have to work with the abdominal muscles as a single unit. They can’t be fighting each other, and one can’t be overpowering the other. These muscles then attach to the pelvis from above to create a single, solid platform.

The stability of that platform is critical in whatever form of budo you are doing.  Most beginners using a sword will tend to sway back and forth like a metronome when they swing the sword. As a beginner swings the sword down, her body is pulled forward from its balanced position. As she raises the sword back over her head her body comes back to center and sometimes even sways past center to the rear.  Without a stable koshi, the beginner has no balance and no control.

The same problem arises when thrusting with a jo.  A martial artist who doesn’t know how to apply her koshi tends to thrust with just her arms, or worse, tries to power the thrust by tipping her upper body into the thrust. This doesn’t increase the power of the thrust, but it does leave her badly off balance and unable to do anything until she has pulled her upper body back over her koshi.

On the other hand, if you power a weapons thrust by driving forward with the legs and transmit that movement and leg power through the koshi to the upper body to the arms and then the weapon, you get a very powerful technique that can actually pick up and move someone (if you can find an uke who is willing to suffer through this). The koshi has to be rock solid for this to work. If there is some point where the hips, pelvis, abdomen and lower back aren’t properly connected, the moment your thrust encounters solid resistance everything will fall apart. Without a solid koshi, when you thrust into a solid partner (someone with great koshi!), your own energy will force your upper body to bend back, away from the target, even as your legs and hips are driving forward. This is disasterous.  The thrust loses any effect on the target and instead knocks you backward and off balance.

Koshi is fundamental. Nowhere is this more true than in empty hand arts. I was watching some budo demonstrations on youtube, and what consistently stood out to me was that nobody had good koshi.  Everyone demonstrating had weak koshi.  Their bodies were all over the place.  Whenever tori threw uke or took him to the ground in a pin or joint control, tori was leaning into the technique instead of driving with his legs and koshi.

I’m a judoka. If you lean into a throw or a pin, it becomes trivially simple for uke to take control from you and reverse the situation. With a judoka that can mean that three-quarters of the way through the technique, when you are sure uke is going down, you suddenly find yourself in flight going over and past uke before you hit the ground.

So how do you develop koshi? The most obvious first step is to have a solid core. That’s not complicated or mysterious.  There are thousands of sites and videos that detail exercises for building a strong core. I’m not going to spend time going over that ground. I will talk about learning to feel and use your koshi well. The first check is to stand up.

Just stand up, close your eyes and feel where your head and shoulders are in relation to your hips. Because the koshi are so fundamental to everything we do, small changes in the angle and relationship between your koshi and the rest of your body can have outsized effects on your stability and technique.  Where are your hips and pelvis? Odds are if you dropped a plumb line from the base of your neck, your hips would be a little behind it.  

That’s not where you want it. You want your hips and pelvis under your shoulders and your shoulders under your head. Take a look at the video of Kim Taylor above. He does a strike with the tsuka of the sword yet his shoulders and head are never in front of his koshi. All the power of his koshi is punching right through the end of the tsuka. The same thing happens when he turns and does the thrust with the sword. He doesn’t over extend his arm.  He doesn’t lean forward from the waist. He pushes the sword forward from his koshi.

That’s where the real power comes from.  Find where your koshi is, and then adjust it to where it should be. Can you feel the difference? Get familiar with that feeling. Really learn how it feels to stand like that. Now try walking.

It’s more difficult than we expect to move from our koshi when we walk because we have all sorts of habits from everyday life. These make walking difficult to do without paying a lot of attention to it. The upside is that walking is something we do all the time. We don’t have to go to the dojo, and we don’t need a skilled uke to practice moving with good koshi. We can practice this any time we walk, even at work.

The first thing to practice is just walking while maintaining a stable, connected koshi. This is the first step towards having a solid koshi to apply to budo. When you walk, do your head and shoulders stay over your koshi? Or are you a citizen of the 21st century whose head is permanently tilted forward and down, ready to check your iPhone at a moment’s notice? Can you duplicate the feeling of stability you have when standing still with a solid koshi while walking normally?  Once you get that, you’ll be ready to start introducing good koshi into your budo.

Koshi alone isn’t everything, but without good use of koshi, it’s difficult to progress in your practice. 

I want to give a bow of thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman more editing and advice on this one. You can read her excellent martial arts blog at 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke

In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.