004) Week of 9/15/08: The Role of the Uke

We explored the role of the Nage last week.   This exploration naturally led us to also have to look at the role of the Uke.    This week, we will seek to explore the role of Uke in an Aikido dojo.

In many forms of older, Japanese martial arts, the Uke was a role played by the teacher, or a more senior student.  This allowed the teacher to see, feel and experience what the student was learning.  This allowed for a very sensitive and specific feedback system.   Obviously, this does not take place in almost all Aikido dojos.  In most Aikido dojo’s the teacher does not serve as an uke and the students interchange roles between being Nage and Uke.

Traditional forms of Aikido do not have competitions.  Competition is antithetical to the higher goal of Aikido- harmonizing with the attacker.  One cannot harmonize at the same time as compete with someone else.  This ideal places a tremendous amount of responsibility on the Uke to serve as the attacker in a manner that promotes learning without leading to unnecessary strife and conflict.

Students have heard me talk at great length (and far more frequently than they might want to hear about this subject!) about the importance of the role of the Uke in our dojo.  Before I talk about the traits that the Uke should demonstrate, I will highlight what I DO NOT want the Uke to be:

1)  Aiki Bunny: An Aiki bunny is an uke who is so remarkably sensitive to all forms of energy and movement, that this person is already on the way down to the mat (or slapping out- depending upon the technique) before the Nage is even half-way through that given technique.  The Aiki-Bunny displays a remarkable capacity to become airborne, or hit the mat, displaying the superhuman expression of energy that emerged from the Nage’s execution of a technique.

2) Uber Uke/Bionic Uke: The Uber Uke has the superhuman capacity to counter-react to any potential movement that the Nage might engage in.  No matter what technique the nage is going to execute, this Bionic Uke has countered that technique, demonstrating a superior degree of martial ability to far exceeds the pale of any normal human being!

Each of these types of people can be observed in most dojo’s at one time or another.  A really good dojo will find a way to get that person to stop playing these absurd roles and/or find away to see to it that this person’s skills are put to use at another dojo.  Both of these roles impede good training for both Nage and Uke.  So what am I looking for in an Uke?

1)  Teacher: The Uke’s role is first and foremost one of being a teacher.  This is a lot of responsibility for a person to have.  A beginning student frequently does not understand how it is that he/she can actually be a teacher.  The answer to that is quite simple.  BE HONEST!  There are certain requirements to being a good, honest teacher:

A)  Good Attacker: If you do not attack in an honest and sincere manner, how can you ever expect that Nage to learn how to handle a real attack?  This obviously means that the Uke must learn how to execute realistic attacks at varying levels of intensity and speed.  However, the Uke MUST be able to attack in a manner that does not injure, always overwhelm, always “defeat” the Nage.  The Uke, as teacher, must know who the Nage is and attack sincerely at a level that the Nage is challenged, yet can learn from that experience.  Even if the Nage cannot perform a technique every time does not mean that this cannot be made into a positive experience with help from the Uke.

B)  Good Feedback Giver: The Uke must be able to provide HELPFUL feedback to the Nage.  The Uke will know if one has been guide off one’s center.  The Uke will know if one is being guided or forced through a technique.  the Uke will know if their is unnecessary tension in the Nage’s technique.  The Uke will know if the Nage has created openings for the Uke to exploit and attack further.  The Uke must be able to be in the moment and take note of what is being experienced so that feedback can be given to the Nage (positive, negative, and everything in between).

2)  Good Ukemi: The Uke’s job after attacking is to receive the technique.  This first means that the Uke must learn how to receive a technique (get locked out, or end up on the ground) in a safe manner, without getting one’s self hurt.  This means that the Uke must learn how to immediately sensitize and shape one’s body to the forces and movements that come with receiving a technique.  This will “inform” the Uke how to remain safe.  As the Uke progresses as an Aikidoka, the Uke will begin to recognize that being sensitized and able to shape one’s self in a fluid manner can be used to neutralize an attack.  This is a more advanced skill that SHOULD ONLY BE DONE UNDER THE DIRECT INSTRUCTION AND SUPERVISION FROM THE TEACHER.  Otherwise, the Nage might mistake what is being done and this could result in an unnecessary conflict.  At the highest level, the Uke can use this sensitivity, connection and fluidity of movement to counter a technique with a technique.  Once again, THIS SHOULD ONLY BE DONE UNDER THE DIRECT INSTRUCTION AND SUPERVISION FROM THE TEACHER.

3) Training partner: The Uke is training like everybody else.  Being honest and helpful with your fellow students will allow everybody to progress at the fastest and safest rate possible.  If your role as an Uke is not helpful, then you are slowing the progress of everyone, including yourself!  Harmonizing with positive energy is a necessity to make Aikido work with realistic attacks at high speeds.   If you cannot do this at all levels and speeds of practice, then it is unlikely that it would suddenly occur in real life.

The role of the Uke is difficult, challenging, yet informative, and instrumental to your success in learning Aikido.  Shugyo exists both in the role of Uke and Nage.  In that manner, we can all strive towards developing our Aikido to the highest levels!

Marc Abrams Sensei