A new student recently sent me an email asking me if it was appropriate for him to use resistance when training in our dojo.

This has been the topic of numerous Aikido forums. The question’s been posed to me many times by many students. I’ve often wished I’d written down the answer so I could just hand it to the next person that asks me. This time I did. Here’s the reply I sent him.  These comments reflect the culture we try to cultivate here at Budo Dojo.  This may not reflect the culture of your local dojo.

This is a prickly question with more than one right answer. It’s a good question to be asking.

In aikido we use the terms nage and uke. Uke generally initiates the attack,nage receives the attack and throws or neutralizes uke, uke receives the throw and takes ukemi. The term uke refers to receiver as just described, although clearly both partners are receiving something. The term nage refers to throwing although the response is often a pin (or neutralization) rather than a throw.

Taking ukemi, or receiving a throw, is yang to the yin in self-defense. You attack, I throw you (defense yin), you take the ukemi and fall so that you don’t get hurt (defense yang). In other words they’re two sides of the same coin, both with a function of protecting oneself. Said differently, not taking good ukemi can result in horrific personal bodily damage. We always think of self-defense as learning to receive an attack and then throwing or pinning someone. Being able to gracefully receive the throw or pin is equally critical in self-preservation.

True budo involves growing spiritually and learning to embrace and respect your partners rather than fighting with your opponents. The end result is a more enlightened and skillful budoka (martial artist) who can continue to train to a ripe old age, continually refining the art over many years. On the other hand, practicing fightinglimits the opportunity for you and your peers to learn both good and bad movement. Practice becomes an exercise in aggression, resistance, struggle, and frustration. These words are, to me, the antithesis of art. If your goal is to win the next UFC championship… you’re in the wrong martial art.

This naturally raises the question… how do you know if the martial art you’re practicing is bullshit if you can’t test it through physical resistance? The natural answer is… you can’t. Which is why there is a place for physical resistance in our training. The trick… and the prickle of your question… is determining the difference between the right place and the wrong place.

Here are some notes to help differentiate the two places:

  • Never deny another student an opportunity to succeed.

It’s okay to provide some resistance to show your partner the weakness in their technique. But if you deny the opportunity for your partner to successfully execute the technique altogether, then you’ve denied them an opportunity to ever learn the technique. As uke, it’s your job to help your partner learn the technique with you. Sometimes taking good ukemi means helping lead your partner into the right place to execute the throw. You’ll be grateful for that correct attitude when your technique isn’t working and the other student you’re training with helps you find the correct movement.

  • Never value the technique more than your partner.

In other words, if you have to choose between succeeding in your technique or saving your partner… you must always choose saving your partner. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how strong the urge can be to succeed in the technique no matter what. Especially if your partner is giving you a hard time. Be watchful for this. Always make sure you’re not hurting your partner. Always make sure your partner has a safe place to fall.

  • Always remember you are climbing a mountain with everyone else in the dojo

and that the only way to succeed is to climb the mountain together. You help the others and they in turn help you, and together you’ll reach the summit. This requires mutual encouragement and respect. If an instructor tells you something or corrects your movement… always thank them. There may be times when you feel the critique is unjustified or simply wrong. Nonetheless, you thank them. It’s not about being right or wrong… it’s about correct attitude and respect in the dojo. Embracing respect in the dojo and in your life is the most important lesson you’ll ever learn. Showing respect in the dojo cultivates a culture of mutual respect throughout the dojo and shows both your teachers and your peers that you understand this. This will in turn earn you the greatest respect. It follows therefore… respect and demonstrate respect to your peers, both senior and junior… because they are all your teachers.

  • If you are called up to take ukemi for the instructor the attack should be strong, sincere and committed.

But it is not an appropriate time to wrestle or spar. This is the time when the instructor is trying to illustrate a principle. Uke’s role is to be a conduit to effectively communicate the lesson at hand to the students. This is not uke’s time… this is not sensei’s time… this is the dojo’s time.  Speaking for myself… when I’m teaching, I choose the uke that I think will best illustrate my point. If I don’t trust the response of how a student will take ukemi… I won’t use them. It’s that simple. It’s not a question of can I throw or pin that person with this technique. It’s a question of how can I best communicate what I want students to understand. Students often take pride in being called up to take ukemi for the instructor. They should. It’s a nod of respect and trust. The people who take ukemi for sensei during class are the best students in the class. A student who wants to receive this form of recognition and respect must practice taking good ukemi.

  • If you are practicing with a partner and either you or your partner is having a difficult time with the technique it’s a good time to ask the instructor for clarification and advice.

If you take ukemi for sensei during this semi-private instruction, it is appropriate to be strong in your attack. The goal is generally to demonstrate how to receive a strong attack and respond efficiently, effectively, and with limited physical strength. It is the responsibility of the instructor to be able to receive a strong attack and respond appropriately to that attack. However, never forget that appropriate isrelative… and an extremely aggressive attack may result in an extremely aggressive response. This comes back to the idea of mutual respect.

  • Horseplay should be limited. Not eliminated… but limited.

If you’re working with a strong senior student and they’ve indicated that they are open to playing stronger, harder and faster… that’s fine and appropriate. However, students should not wrestle across the mat interrupting others training and it should not go on for more than 1 minute. After 1 minute… break…. start over. This isn’t wrestling class. The goals and motivations should be different.  It’s not a sport…. it’s not a death match. It’s spiritual and physical training in budo.

  • Sometimes taking gentle and non-resistive ukemi is the lesson.

In these cases you will be missing the lesson altogether if you resist your partner. Learn how to find the value in this kind of training as well. Learning how to be responsive to your partner in a light and gentle way is necessary to learn good ukemi.

  • It’s easy to forget that when you’re practicing you already know how you’re partner will try to throw you.

This provided insight can make it much easier to block your partner’s technique. Essentially, it’s not a level playing field. At advanced levels of training this is an opportunity to practice kaeshi waza (reversals) and oyo henka waza (modifying or changing techniques to make them work). This is, however, not kihon waza (basic technique). Beginners should focus on learning the basic technique because it’s foundational to all future training. This goes back to the earlier rule… do not deny your partner an opportunity to succeed.

  • The flip side of this is that when you attack your partner you are giving yourself over to your partner.

You have to trust that your partner will receive your attack as a gift that allows both of you to train. You have to trust that your partner will not hurt you… and your partner has to earn and retain that trust. Without that mutual trust sincere and beneficial training is impossible.

Read these notes carefully until you understand their meaning and intent.