Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ukemi: The new cardio craze!

Okay, ukemi isn't really a new cardio craze—but why not?

I remember when I first started aikido years ago, just prior to my 20th birthday. I was a good 20 or 30 pounds overweight (I'd been that way since hitting puberty), and made no other lifestyle changes other than attending aikido classes 3 times a week.

I remember the ukemi practice we did at the beginning of every class kicking my ass. Fall down, get up again, fall down, get up again, fall down, get up again. Backwards, forwards, sideways... I think I lost 10 pounds or more in the first several months just from that!

The problem is, the older I got, and the more advanced I became, the more I started "leading" classes instead of "doing" them. Ukemi practice was gradually replaced by sitting around, watching everyone else, drinking coffee and giving input when needed.

And I'm paying for it. My lifestyle in general has slipped and I'm probably in the worst shape of my life (and that's saying something).

One problem I have with doing just about anything is getting bored easily. I'm constantly thinking of new ways to do something, to shake things up, to make it interesting. Which, as far as exercise goes, I understand is a good thing, otherwise your body acclimates to a given activity and stops progressing.

All of which brings me to that aforementioned ukemi cardio craze! That I'm starting. With myself. They can be done with a class, too, but at the moment, I'm keeping the pain to myself.

Around the Clock

Instead of doing 6-8 back-falls, then 6-8 side-falls, 6-8 front-falls, and then forward rolls (mixed with chatting with other folks), I'm trying an "around the clock" approach.

I start with a forward roll on one side (12 o'clock). When I come up, one leg will be in a position that naturally lends itself to a side-fall (let's say 3 o'clock). When I come up from that, I'll do a back-fall (6 o'clock) and then a side-fall to the other side (9 o'clock). Lastly, I'll end the set with a front-fall (yes, from standing). Get back up, and do it all over again (if I started with a forward roll, I'll do one on my left next, and go the other way around the clock).


I did this a lot as a brown belt, and I think it helped my ukemi develop faster and better than just the normally rolling across the mat. I would take a crash pad, stand on one end and do a forward roll (sometimes ending flat, sometimes rolling up) and end up on the other side of the pad. I'd stand, turn and go back the other direction, and so on (also alternating left and right sides). Back and forth, over and over and over and over. Usually until my legs had turned to jelly and I could scarcely stand any longer.

Not only does it give you a high number of reps and a fabulous workout, it also tends to take the fear and conscious analysis out of it, so you're just cruising on subconscious autopilot, which is where you want your ukemi anyway.

End to End

The mat space in the dojo where I'm at is rather large, but rectangular, so going from one end to the other lengthwise is quite a stretch. I like doing just about any kind of drill, solo or partnered, that way, but ukemi is another good one.

Try doing side-falls: fall on your right side, stand, turn, fall to your left, repeat.

If you do back-falls, continue the motion by rolling over completely backwards into a standing position so you'll actually gain some ground.

Knock Down

Sometimes it's kinda fun to get a partner to follow you around as you slowly walk around the mat and interrupt your movement one way or another in such a way that it causes you to have to fall. You don't know when it's coming, or which direction you'll go, so your conscious mind gets more comfortable with being surprised.

Shomen Ate Line

This is a good one my friend and fellow budoka Scott uses. We'll grab a blue crash pad and get everyone in a line. The first person stands in front of the crash pad, facing everyone else (but not right up against it, give yourself a bit of room to take a step back). Everyone in line takes turns doing shomen ate to the first guy, and when they've all had a turn, the next guy gets to get hit.

It not only helps folks get used to doing back-falls as a response to energy outside of their control, but teaches them relax while doing it, AND gives everyone a very real understanding (especially new students) on how they should be doing shomen ate in kata (even when they're uke and don't actually get to knock anyone down).

Rocks in a Pond

This one can get a bit tricky. Basically, one person just gets down on their elbows and knees and curls up into a tight little ball, and everyone in lines does a forward roll over them. For the particularly adventurous (or stupid, depending upon how you look at it), you can add another "rock" right next to the first one, and jump over two people. Or three. Obviously, the chance for injury to all parties involved jumps quite a bit, so it requires advanced skills. And balls. (Also you could use soft object to roll over instead of people.)


This was a common practice with one of my older teachers, usually in judo I think.  Have everyone get in two lines, each on a corner of a large, imaginary square of mat space. The first guy in the line on the right starts off by doing a rolling breakfall from his corner to the opposite corner of the big square space. Once he's out of the way, the first guy in the second line does the same to the other, opposite far corner. After you've rolled you go to the end of the other line. Constant activity, not much time to chat, plus a little "awareness" practice (so you don't hit the guy who rolled before you).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Me, You, Us

Based on my own training over the years as well as observing the training of other students, it seems like there is sort of a three-step progression that occurs.

What I Am Doing?

When we first start out, our focus is mainly on our own bodies. We learn what our feet should be doing, what our hands need to do. We practice our positions, memorize certain choreography, learn terminology, get accustomed to a new culture. For the beginner, it's actually okay that they don't necessarily have kuzushi or off balance, that their timing is off. Build the plane first, then fly it.


It's also a time when we focus on what to do when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict, which is to say, defending ourselves, just staying alive.

What HE/SHE Is Doing?

Once we get the hang of all that, we can begin to think about the meaning behind it. When I do a given technique with all the appropriate footwork and hand positions, what is that supposed to do to uke? Sure, up until this point, we may have been told  or shown what's supposed to happen—uke falls down, or taps in submission—and the higher ranks working with us gave us that response as we practice.

But now we have to understand why it happens. Part of that understanding comes from a conscious realization, but the majority of it comes from a physical, kinesthetic viewpoint; we feel what's supposed to happen to uke. Having it done to us a great number of times by someone with experience is teaching us what to look for (or feel for) when we do it ourselves.


Now we can do more than just react, to survive the onslaught. We can now return what uke threw at us.

What Are WE Doing?

At last, we can now marry the two perspectives. I'm not only aware of my own body, but uke's body (and mind) as well. We're no longer two separate entities; my movements are connected to his.


We're no longer concerned just with survival, nor are we caught up in conquering uke. We join the energy, go with it, become the energy. We're dance partners, flowing together and whatever happens, happens.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A little punch drunk

Sooo, some of you may have seen the recent fight between Ronda Rousey and Alexis Davis.  If you haven't, you can watch it in it's entirely below. Don't worry—it will only take 16 seconds.

In the judo world, Ms. Rousey has served as something of an evangelist of the art (not so much in word as in deed), dominating her competition with trademark judo techniques, from hip throws to her bread-and-butter submission, juji gatame.

Case in point: during this particular bought, she makes very quite use of ogoshi straight to kesa gatame to end it before she can even manage to break a sweat.

Which is great. Hurray for judo, and all that.

Here's the thing. This example actually troubles me a bit. As long as your interest in judo is solely sport-oriented, then never mind, you probably needn't concern yourself. But if you look at judo in any measure as a viable form of "self defense" you may be in for a rude awakening—or, get put to sleep as the case may be.

Because if any of us (myself included) want to assume judo will save us "out there" on the proverbial "street," we should realize that in order to make judo a sport, one that be practiced with minimal injury, rules needed to be set in place. Rules that made it "illegal" to do certain things to your opponent that would  most likely will cause significant harm, such as leg and wrist locks, or—you guessed it—punching someone in the face. (Although, I'm sure many a competitive judoka will tell you that that rule doesn't necessarily stop opponents from slipping in a little chin music under the radar.)

So, while Ms. Rousey's performance may underscore many judoka's faith in their art, to me, it also points out a rather glaring weakness in it when it comes to self defense. If I train to deal with someone who can hold me in something like kesa gatame, but who is also nice enough to refrain from grinding my face into hamburger meat, what would I do in a true self-defense situation where my attacker isn't playing by any rules but his own?

And that's what troubles me. My particular school has never been interested in competitive sport judo, which leaves me to wonder, why am I doing it? Sure, there are the usual internal, personal benefits that come with the study of any art, and enrichment of the self and the spirit, so on and so forth, which I don't mean to devalue or dismiss. I just wonder how many folks out there are aware of the chink in judo's armor.

It's for this very reason that I dislike the practice of assuming a "turtle" position when grappling. In the context of sport, I get it, makes sense. Work it, drill it, break it down, score your point, go nuts. But otherwise, why on earth would I bother?

If I'm in an honest-to-goodness fight, and the other guy turtles up on me, well my friend, that's as good a time as any to run the hell away. Call the cops, for Pete's sake. Or, I suppose if you'd prefer to stick around and finish the poor bastard off, why mess with any fancy-pants upside-down, roll-around, arm-lock-choke nonsense, and just stomp on his head or kick him in the kidneys till he's peeing blood?

And if I'm the one who turtles up in a real fight, then I'm an idiot for thinking the other guy isn't going to do exactly that, and frankly, almost deserve the inevitable beating I get.

The same could be said for tate shiho gatame, of course. A bad guy isn't going to bother holding my like a teddy bear; he's gonna mount you and start treating your face like a speed bag. Anyway, you get the point.

So, where does that leave me? Well, while I certainly don't intend to start punching people during judo class, I would actually like to address some of these vulnerabilities in my practice. I still may not be able to withstand the human thresher machine that is Ronda Rousey, but against your run-of-the-mill ruffian, maybe I could at least save my pretty face.