I apologize if I lured you into this post expecting some super secret trick to developing great ukemi skills. Alas, there is none, not that I know of, anyway.
I write this because some of the shodans in the morning class have commented on how their air falls are not what they'd like them to be, and compliment me ad naseum on my falling. This fall in particular, , the one where you do a flip with your wrist twisted up, seems beyond their grasp (at the 1:10 mark):
It's a tough one, for sure. That, and the fall from sumi otoshi, are some of the scariest (a flippy fall from o soto gari, where you start going backwards, is pretty hairy, too).
They mentioned how they admire many other great ukemi artists in the school, such Nick Lowry, Kyle Sloan, Greg Ables, Christian Lamson, Cameron Seimans and Damon Kornele (and many more).
While they all have wonderful ukemi, I don't know what their secrets are. I only know how I got to where I am.
1) While I'm now 35, I started aikido—and learning ukemi—just as I turned 20. I learned recently from a show on the Discovery channel that the adolescent mind doesn't finish "re-wiring" until a person's mid-twenties. And the last part to be re-wired? The part responsible for "higher reasoning".
We're young, we're fearless, we don't really know any better. Which is why, I understand, we would send a bunch of 19 year olds to storm the beach at Normandy. They just did what they were told. Ask a bunch of 30 something soldiers, and they'd probably say, "Screw you, I ain't goin'!"
I honestly think guys who start when they're younger develop great ukemi a lot easier than guys who start when their older (there's probably exceptions, but generally, I think it's true).
2) I did a lot of it. I mean a lot. No, seriosly, a LOT. For example, during the course of a normal class, while everyone else was doing rolls across the mat, getting two or three in, and then circling back to the side where they started, stopping to chat a little, then doing a couple of more rolls when the way was clear, yours truly got out the big blue crash pad. I started on one side and rolled. I stood up immediately on the other side, and rolled back the other way. Again, and again, and again, without pause, stopping only when everyone went on to do the walking kata. By that point, my legs had turned to jello; they were so weak, I could barely stand on them.
During class, while working on techniques, I took the fall. A lot. I stood in as uke for demonstrations whenever I could, and fell, a lot. I notice that many people these days don't fall much when practicing. But that, to me, is where the difference lies. There's a subtle but significant difference between falling (and feeling comfortable about it) when you choose to and falling because you have to, before you even recognize it's happening.
My guys in the morning class fall beautifully when we line up and practice falls on the blue crach pad. But when we get out on the mat, and a fall surprises them, they crumple like beginners. I don't think they're hopeless, though. They're in their 30s, but they're still fit, coordinated and athletic. We just have to get them past the fear, to get it so ingrained in their subconscious that it becomes less like talking or singing and more like just breathing.