There is always this floating question about the nature of ukemi, what it is and what it isn’t. I don’t want to get too much into it as there is enough material out there already but I will try to share some experience of it. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of Chiba Sensei’s Aikido will know that it demands the best from you to achieve ukemi. Anything less is…. There were times that he would simply swallow you up in a massive wave. Suck you in and then spit you out and you then repeat it several times more. Physically you did what you did but quite often you would be emotionally drained or exhausted by the force of it. To just stay with it and not collapse, break down, seize up or wither was more than enough for most. Some think why is the uke so compliant. I can assure you if you were that compliant with Chiba Sensei he will not only suck you in but chew you up before spitting you out with contempt. No the thinking is all upside down and cannot see outside the box. It teaches us so much in how we handle ourselves and how to deal with a force that comes our way. The trouble with most analyses is that it is pre-occupied with fighting or at least their idea of what a fight is. Or worse still those who think that there is some divine spark there that makes our Aikido super human. Both schools of thinking are way off track. Even at the most intense and dangerous, and there was plenty of that where you sense the potential for destruction, we are still not fighting. Personally I always found that enough. I had no desire to cross the Rubicon and go to that “other territory” where serious damage is a millisecond away and possibly imminent.
There is another dilemma here and that is most look at the situation as the dominant position, the winner. The truth is how do you learn to deal with something that is stronger, faster, smarter, more experienced and worst of all, all those qualities put together. None of us wants to lose but between doing nothing and going for the kill there is another way. The saying is if you have to you have to but what about that space before it comes to that? Culturally ukemi is a part of Japanese society. I don’t want to get into the complexities of that, it s long story and I am certainly no expert on it. It doesn’t however take a genius to realise that historically a warrior culture had codes of conduct and I would hazard a guess, a bunch of wayward guys who could quite easily push those codes to the limit. A fight in those days would be fatal, provocation or breach of etiquette had to be dealt with and for most how would they navigate between fighting and running away? How could you hold your own or not lose face or your self respect and take it it as it comes? A rock and a hard place with dreadful consequences if you get it wrong. Even then sometimes it is just rigged against you, damned if you did and damned if you didn’t, you were not going to come out of this well. Life sometimes just isn’t fair. What about now and us in the various societies we come from? What would medieval Japan and its culture, even the more modern version have anything to do with us and most importantly how does this exhibit itself with Aikido, one of her creations?
It must be 10 or 11 years now. I was still teaching in Old St near the Barbican and would run a couple of private sessions prior to the main ones every evening. It was a quiet session and my student was primarily interested in how Aikido and later Iaido would impact on her profession, which was as a high flying corporate psychologist. She swore by the training, that it altered her capacity to see, think and deal with the needs of her work. I had often heard of how it could become a tool for work and here I had a student who completely agreed with all that. I took this seriously as her fees were £200ph in 2008 or £5000 for a weekend with major corporations. She knew her stuff. I would ask how it helped and would get various answers that related to her work but it was one evening when the question was flipped the other way around and I would find myself trying to answer a much more personal issue and something that mattered to her very much.
I knew she had gone through a divorce. Her best friend had gone off with her husband and to whom she would eventually marry. That is a tough situation to deal with but more was to come when she told me that they had moved to a property across the road from hers. I thought that was just nasty as it stunk of something really ugly and unnecessary. A power trip to spite her. Her question which took me by surprise was from the bases of Aikido as I understood it , how would I understand such a situation, what would the options be. I came up with a reasonably straight forward answer. I explained that in martial art, no, in human beings there is at its most basic fight or flight when challenged, perceived or real. There is, however, another option, you carry on and deal with each situation as and when it comes up, if possible. “You could go for them but they are not doing anything illegal even if their motives are questionable, you could also leave and move elsewhere if it’s that bad and as difficult as that may be” I would explain. “I have a daughter caught in the middle of all this” she countered back. I could feel the anxiety in her and the sense of injustice. It was obvious now, if she goes on the war path against “her enemies” it could be used against her, an unfit mother and risk losing possession. The cost to move, her schooling and her Grandmother being near means leaving is too disruptive and besides it would feel like running away rather than a wise choice. Sometimes that option may not even be there.
She stayed and carried on and ignored the ex and the new wife. She worked hard to not let it get to her and at least didn’t give herself away, even if for a mad but understandable moment she felt like letting loose with some very well placed “words”, words that could get her into a lot of trouble. Words that could create an unwelcome come back. She carried on which effectively deflected any “negative” energy and attitudes towards her. Fighting or running in this instance was not going to get a desired result. I say that unless you are one of those who just like to go for the jugular and damn the consequences. It was some weeks later when I asked her “Did the words help or was I talking out of my arse?” “No not at all” she said “They helped a lot.” She was extremely intelligent and her work demanded that intelligence whilst not losing any intuition. Something that many of us if not all lose at times when it comes to our own lives. On the mat I see it all the time but to see yourself on it or off it in other areas of your life is not always easy. Afterall we are all at the centre of that life and where it is all happening. We are too close in and don’t have the luxury of an “outer body” experience to see objectively where we are. So a friend, a loved one or even a Sensei, just someone else with a little experience can sometimes hit the spot. I am sure it wasn’t easy for her. But since when was taking ukemi easy?