In my last post I wrote about ukemi 受身, or receiving techniques. Proficiency in ukemi is important in arts like judo and aikido where practitioners are thrown around the room and have to be able to land safely. How you receive attacks is critical in arts like karate and kenjutsu as well.
How you receive techniques is fundamental. When we start we are all a least a little stiff and scared. Whether it’s fear of falling and hurting ourselves, or the fear of getting hit with a stick or a fist, we react by tensing up. Relaxing when you know someone is going to pick you up over their head and throw you at the floor is tough.
The mental states of mushin and fudoshin are essential for doing good budo. I’ve written about the mental states, but these are reflected in the body and impact how we deal with attacks. If you’re afraid of getting hurt, if your mind is stuck on the possibility of pain, you’re not going to be able to respond properly. You’re going to be stiff and worried. Your state of mind translates very directly to your body.
Basic ukemi, whether they be breakfalls, blocks, or other methods of receiving attacks, have to be practiced until they are smooth and until we are so sure of them that we can relax when our training partner attacks and just focus on our partner. Our bodies have to have to be emptied of anticipation in the same way our minds are in mushin. Only then can we really relax into whatever needs to happen to receive a throw or other attack.
If you wonder about the use of the word “relax” in the last sentence, I use it because you can’t stiffen up for an attack. The Tao Te Ching nailed this one more than 2,500 years ago:
The living are soft and yielding;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
Living plants are flexible and tender;
the dead are brittle and dry.
Those who are stiff and rigid
are the disciple of death.
Those who are soft and yielding
are the disciples of life.
The rigid and stiff will be broken.
The soft and yielding will overcome.
Tao Te Ching Chapter 76
If you have any doubts, just try taking breakfall ukemi when you are tense and stiff. It hurts, and you’re quite likely to break something. Relax and be soft, yield to the energy instead of trying to resist it. I’ve seen people in their 70s and 80s safely take big falls in judo and aikido because they know how to be soft and pliable instead of stiff and brittle.
Once you get comfortable with the fundamentals of receiving attacks, and learn to relax into them, you’re ready to begin working on the fun stuff. When you can take falls casually, easily and without thinking about them, then you can start working on interacting with the attackers energy.
In aikido, uke (the person receiving the technique) and tori (the person doing the technique) are always clearly defined. In judo randori on the other hand, one of the things determined through the randori is who is uke and who is tori. Both people are working to destabilize and throw their partner. This is when the fun begins. There is nothing that states that because someone begins to throw you that you have to simply accept being thrown. I’m rather fond of kaeshiwaza, or counters.
The current rule in competitive judo is that for a counterattack to score a point, the initial attack must be clearly stopped before the counterattack occurs. Frankly, this is lousy judo. I cannot imagine a good reason why anyone would want to stop all that lovely attacking energy and then start from scratch. To me, the best counters flow seamlessly from the attack to the counter.
Nice kata of counters. Shows the attack, then the counter slowly, then at speed.
Take the energy that is attacking you and flow with it. When you are confident you can handle fully receiving the attack, then you can start playing with it. Every attack has a counter. Some have several. I’m fond of a version of tani otoshi against big hip throws and yoko guruma is often available when receiving kote gaeshi and other popular aikido techniques. The key is flowing with the attack and transforming tori into uke during their attack.
Tani otoshi is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s little more than applied sitting down yet is wonderfully effective against big hip throws. As tori attacks you drop your hips under their attack off-balancing them to the rear. At that moment, they cease to be tori and become uke. As you continue dropping your weight until you are on the floor you hold uke to you and turn a bit to make sure they land on the floor and not on you (OK, there might be more to it, but that’s what a good one looks like).
Not very fluid, but you get the idea.
Counters, kaeshiwaza, are advanced ukemi skills. Being able to do counters is a critical skill for anyone teaching budo. Students are stubborn. They will keep doing things wrong, giving away their balance and energy while attacking, unless there are consequences for doing so. Counters are the consequence. If tori sets up the technique properly then it’s not possible for me to counterattack. If tori leaves any sort of opening though, I’ll take it.
When a student gets to a level where their ukemi can handle an unexpected throw, they should start getting countered occasionally when they leave an opening. This avoids all arguments about whether or not an opening was real. If I attack, and I end up on my back, I know I left a juicy opening for someone. There’s no need to counter every time someone makes a mistake during practice. Just the knowledge that counters can happen tends to make people stand a little better and pay attention to not bending over at the end of a technique.
Counters are also fun on the folks who like to replace good kuzushi and technique with raw strength. It’s a concrete way to demonstrate the weaknesses of raw strength. Take all that raw strength that’s making you twist or bend and go with it. If someone is pushing or pulling that much, a counter of some sort will be available.
Yoko wakare is a lovely, flowing counter.
Attacks have weaknesses. If those are never demonstrated students won’t know where they are. Teaching people counters and how to find them does something else. It teaches them to see the openings in their own techniques, which is the first step in closing them.