After surviving through the first three steps, you've done the bulk of the work. Hang in there, champ, you're almost there. Pretty soon, you'll have some of the best ukemi in the dojo, and you know what that means?
Exactly—everyone will want you to be their uke when they demo for rank advancement. From what I understand, in Japan, those guys are pretty valuable commodities. If you want that promotion, you need to look your best, and the guy taking the spectacular falls is the one to do it. Most of the time, these uke's are repaid for their efforts with beer and dinner.
And do you know what else it means? Guess who gets to be sensei's favorite uke for demonstrating technique to the class? Yes, my fine, falling friend—you. Which means you get to feel what any given technique feels like coming from very, very skilled hands, and not everyone gets that opportunity. And by feeling it from uke's perspective, you have a very good chance of being able to eventually recreate it yourself in time.
So get ready, you're about to enjoy a very special position in the dojo. After you tackle...
Explore the variations
After you get the basic forward roll down, it's time to start exploring a few of the variations. Try these both on your own and also with a partner during ukemi practice:
1) Side rolls.
Solo: Start from a standing position but facing sideways, your right side facing the direction you're going to fall. Slowly start to lift your left leg out, until it tips you over sideways, over the side of your foot. (Do both sides, of course.)
With a partner: Have someone lift your leg for you. Partnered ukemi helps take the decision of when to fall away from you, which is a good thing. More on that later.
2) Opposite hand and foot rolls/air falls.
Solo: Just like it sounds, start from a standing position with your left foot forward, but lead with your right hand as you go down. This is basically the kind of fall you'll take from a guruma throw, such as in the Big 10 or from hiza guruma, etc.
With a partner: Get out the crash pad. Stand with your left foot forward, your right hand out in front of you. Your partner will hold that hand by your wrist. Slowly, he'll lower your hand, gradually pulling it across to your left side (don't move your feet!). Eventually, your body will coil as far as it can, and will spring out of it.
3) Sumi otoshi rolls/air falls.
Solo: Start from a standing position but with your back to the direction you're going to roll. Slowly lift your left leg up, right in front of you, until it tips you backwards (it will also turn you a bit to the right). At the last possible second, if your weight is primarily on the balls of your feet, your foot will spin and your toes will point in the direction of the roll.
With a partner: Stand with your back to the crash pad, your right foot forward, your left back against the edge of the pad. Your partner will be standing to your right, with your right wrist held in his right hand. Start to take a step forward (away from the pad) with your left foot. As you do, your partner will push your right hand to your right, rear corner, sending you flying. Weee!
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When doing all of this, there's one very crucial thing to remember: don't jump.
At this stage in a budoka's ukemi development, this is probably the most common mistake I see with flippy air falls (mine included when I was at this point). Something inside our brains says, Oh, we're flying through the air, so I need to leap up before I go down to get as much "air time" as possible.
Wrong. Unfortunately, that will screw everything up and you'll land incorrectly most of the time. It's called "falling," after all, not "jumping". Jumping tends to launch you too far forward, and you won't rotate enough in time to hit the ground in the proper flat position. You need to turn pretty much right underneath yourself. At the risk of sounding crude, I often describe it as trying to bend forward and put my own head between my legs and up my... well, where the sun typically doesn't shine, shall we say.
Which brings up to the last of the variations you ought to explore:
4) Flipping yourself.
That's right, you do a flippy air fall without anyone holding your hand for support or reference. Now, for the longest time, I seriously wondered what the point of being able to do this was. As a brown belt, I saw other people do it, and became determined to learn how, and spent a long time on the blue crash pad, trying to flip myself. And today, I see many brown belts and new black belts doing the same thing. I'm not sure what the allure is, but it seems irresistible.
I think, though, that now, I see some use for it. There's something about having such a complete and in-depth understanding of the falling mechanism that you can do it to yourself without any help that allows you to completely be at peace with falling. Once you've mastered it to that point, you can mentally let go of it, you can do it anywhere, any time, with whomever. Any lingering subconscious fears evaporate.
I'm not sure that even comes close to explaining my reasoning, but the more I think about, maybe I'll revisit the idea...
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There are other falls that come out, under certain circumstances, but I don't know yet how exactly you train for them. I never did; they just popped out. Maybe that means we don't have to worry about them if everything else is in place.
5) "Gator roll" air fall
This one tends to happen mostly with okuri ashi harai, the double foot sweep from judo. You start rotating sideways in the air, like the propeller on a plane. But somewhere in the air, you turn lengthwise and end up landing on your other side, just like any other regular breakfall. Not many folks I know can do this one, but it sure makes your partner's footsweeps look reeeeeeal pretty.
6) Backwards air fall
This one tends to happen with osoto gari in judo, or a really "enthusiastic" irimi nage in aikido. Essentially, you start falling straight backwards, like you're about to do a back flip. Again, somewhere in the air, you end up turning and landing like a regular breakfall.
You're almost there. Spectacular ukemi is within your reach. One more step...
Amazing ukemi, Step 1