I was demonstrating a forward roll in class the other day and for a split second realized I had no control over what was happening: I was completely upside down, couldn’t speak to the class, couldn’t even technically guarantee that I’d land and practice would carry on. Of course I did and it did, but it reminded me of something pretty important about ukemi: the art of falling safely when we are thrown.
I recognize what a loaded concept this is. Most of us spend our lives avoiding falling down – literally and figuratively. We fight hard against harm, vulnerability, death. We’d never willingly place ourselves in a position to be thrown (embarrassed, confronted, outwitted), never mind being responsible for our own safety (People are just supposed to be nice to us, aren’t they?). Yet for exactly half our aikido practice we’re up to just this.
To even get to falling, we have to be willing to attack. This comes in the form of grabbing or striking our partner in a clean, committed way. There are lots of folks (myself included) who spend a lot of their early practice doing not-quite-attacks: grabbing loosely, diverting a punch at the last minute, or ending a strike about six inches away from the target. All very nice and polite, but the person receiving the attack doesn’t really have anything to work with or learn from.
Again, off the mat, how often are we in the world having clean, committed interactions? For instance, saying what we mean clearly and sticking with it? Or risking another getting hurt if they’re not equipped to handle what we’ve brought?
There’s lots more to say about attacking but here I want to focus on falling. We’ve attacked and we’ve been thrown. That is to say, we fall. On the ground. Submit to gravity and our partner’s good technique. We practice specific ways of doing this so that we stay safe and don’t get hurt. Rolling is one of them. Falling on our side is another. In class we drill these forms over and over again until we’re able to do them in a smooth and relaxed way (and then we keep drilling them throughout the life of our practice).
As with everything take up newly, falling is neither smooth nor relaxed at first. It’s bumpy, it’s awkward, it’s unfamiliar, disquieting, humiliating. We don’t necessarily escape unscathed. It can hurt.
It hurts because we’re not used to it: because we’re stiff and armored, accustomed to keeping ourselves walking invulnerably upright through the world. It takes quite awhile to get to a point where we can take a fall that doesn’t affect us physically or emotionally.
This is one of many seemingly insurmountable challenges to move through when we start practicing. it’s the thing that can make our bodies the sorest and our minds the most freaked out.
There’s also the disorientation, which is what I re-discovered the other day. We spend so much of our aikido practice honing our relationship to our center, the ground, our partner, the space around us. We endeavor to know exactly where we are, our awareness expanding farther and farther out into the surround.
But then we’re in the middle of a fall, and there is an infinitesimal moment where we don’t—can’t—know where we are. We’re upside down in a roll, or we’re heading toward the mat having just had our feet swept out from under us. The grounding we’ve been working so hard to establish is gone, and we have to submit to momentary bewilderment.
This might be the scariest piece of it all: having no choice but to relax and surrender.
And it is how falls smooth out eventually. This is how we can do them faster, more precisely, without thinking about them. This is how they (believe it or not) become fun: when we’re okay with having no idea which way is up and can trust that the ground is there to catch us, the same way it has during those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times we’ve willingly thrown ourselves onto the mat.
When I’m teaching I always start falling practice with inviting everyone to heave a big sigh, let their bones and muscles go, land heavily, and stay there for awhile. Physically remembering that the ground – life – is there to catch us. Even when things feel confusing or terrifying or out of control. Time and again, we land.
What causes hurt and injury is our resistance to this. Ironically, when faced with uncertainty or fear, we stiffen up, try to control our bodies and the circumstances so that we don’t get hurt.
But there’s an aspect at the heart of every technique—every person, every experience, every moment—that is formless, devoid of time or space or up or down. Like death, it’s a place we fear and eschew, yet it’s a place of total peace. Allowing ourselves to let go, trust, and fall into it—even for a split second, on the mat or off—is one of the bravest things a person can do.
Keep falling. Keep training.