Sunday, December 02, 2007

Faking reactions in ukemi

A while back, Dave Chesser at Formosa Neijia posted a pair of videos that, as he put it, strain credulity. An old Chinese guy making a student flop around like a ragdoll without even touching him. I posted a short comment there but I wanted to expand on it a little here with some more to think about regarding the differences between voluntary and involuntary motion.
The gist of my comment was that voluntary motion has a different character to it than involuntary motion and that the guy in the video seemed to have characteristically voluntary motion. In other words, it looks like he's faking the reaction. The official medical term for this is "F.O.S." Which acronym I won't expand upon in this family-friendly forum. But what did I mean by voluntary and involuntary motion having different qualities?
  • Involuntary motion, like a reflex or a spasm, occurs in one muscle group while voluntary motion recruits accessory muscle groups. As an example, voluntary motion blurs generalized, linked structures on x-ray, while involuntary motion (i.e. spasm) blurs individual structures. You can't make voluntary motion in a single part of your body without changing the muscle structure of the rest of your body. A couple of interesting demonstrations of this follow:
  • Look at the video below of ankle clonus. Try on your own to reproduce that quality of motion voluntarily. Alternately, get a doctor friend with a reflex hammer to tap your patellar tendon to elicit a knee-jerk. Then fake a knee-jerk and look for the difference in muscles other than the front of the thigh. It's usually pretty easy to tell a fake (voluntary)knee jerk reflex from a real, involuntary one.
  • As another interesting demo, get a partner to lie on his back and you sit at his feet. Hold his heels in your hands and lift them about a quarter inch. Then tell him to pick one of them up out of your hand. You will find that he cannot lift the leg without pressing down on the other heel to get support. Now, tell him to "fake" trying to lift it, as if he were trying to convince you that the leg was dead. If he is not really trying to lift the leg he will not be pressing down with the other leg.
  • Additionally, voluntary motion may be reversible – involuntary motion is ballistic. As an experiment, try throwing yourself out of a chair to standing position and alternate that with rising in a controlled fashion to standing. Compare your ability to reverse the rise and sit back down at some random place in the motion.


  1. I was sort of wondering how this might apply to aikido.

    I see lots of uke that look like they're throwing themselves down in response to the throw. In fact, it seems that having a good uke who can roll beautifully is one of the main things that makes an aikido demo good.

    Doesn't this fall into the category of voluntary action? What do you think?

    Formosa Neijia

  2. One thing you did not say about voluntary reactions. Any voluntary reaction depends on the task and circumstances. It can affect all of the muscles of the body and it’s modified by a lot of factors, such as instructions and the performer’s anticipation of sensory information. Most important thing is that voluntary actions require person’s attention.

    For example in that first video of Daves', you can’t see how the instructor manipulates the hand of his student when he uses his “energy” to “push” his student 10 feet away just touching the hand. But when the student say “see the master strike at me with you in between” the journalist say after that the masters hand trembles. Students’ attention was already there on the “masters” hand not the journalists’. The only sensory information journalist gets into his body is that trembling. How about the student? The student feels that journalist hands also trembles. First after maybe 180 ms, students reacts! And of course, the rest is the brains ability to transform that information to muscle spasm or jumping (which are learned actions). What we don’t know here and “master” do not tell is how he teaches his students or explain that “energy”. Most of them ( “energy” masters) teach their students that this “energy” feels like electricity and students interpretation of that can be “jumping”, “falling forward”, freezing and so on.

  3. Unfortunately, Dave, I think you’re right. Much of the time it appears that to make aikido work you have to have a partner that knows what you’re doing and the ‘proper’ way to jump for it to make it look good. I’d even say it is this way in almost 100% of demonstration aikido. But this is not how it is supposed to be. My instructors and their instructors have always preached to us that you never jump to make a technique appear to work. This is both dishonest and dangerous.

    There is a fine line between jumping and cooperative practice and it is often hard to teach. Uke does want to flow with tori’s motion, but this is not to make tori look good. It is actually to diffuse the technique that tori is moving into. If uke flows naturally and properly with tori’s motion then tori has to get everything just right to get something looking remotely like the technique.

    Uke also wants to go with the technique because it is a learning process for uke. There is a point during any technique (I call it the point of no return) where uke is committed to falling. Before this point uke has some control over the system and after this point uke mostly only has control over how he falls. Ukes that fall before this point of no return are jumping, but after this point of no return uke had better go with it or he is more likely to get hurt.

    With a good bit of cooperative practice, uke can not only learn where this point of no return is but can push it farther, so that uke retains the potential to reverse the technique for longer. But uke has to learn that once he’s gotten to the point of no return that he’s lost and needs to stop exerting and take a fall.

    I suspect that it's the same way in some of the Chinese IMA.

  4. You're right on too, Faik. There's a lot I didn't say about voluntary and involuntary motion. And you listed some good points - especially the point about attention. We talk a lot about this in terms of foreknowledge.

    Aikido (and maybe Chinese IMA) is sorta in an odd niche in the martial arts world. In the beginning you can't expect the complete novice to understand and exhibit the proper motions and strategies and etc... So practice has to be cooperative and attacks have to be at least somewhat choreographed (or at least more controlled). Part of that control is the fact that uke and tori begin with foreknowledge but try to act as if they don't have foreknowledge.

    But you want to progress toward the point that tori's response is effective no matter how uke attacks. We eliminate the foreknowledge as we free uke up to attack different ways. Occasionally we even switch the foreknowledge thing around, allowing uke to use any foreknowledge he has to defeat tori's technique.

    But by the people get somewhat proficient at dealing with controlled attacks, they often have some seniority issues and have an emotional investment in their rank and the class structure, so it can be hard for them to start freeing uke up to attack harder, faster, differently, etc... They start thinking that controlled attacks equate to free attacks instead of just modelling free attacks. I think this is where a lot of aikido folks get into trouble with delusions about the efficacy of the art.

  5. "There is a fine line between jumping and cooperative practice and it is often hard to teach...I suspect that it's the same way in some of the Chinese IMA."

    Yes, we have exactly the same problem. Sometimes my teacher wants me to "struggle" against a certain technique by giving him pressure in a certain way. He does that to teach me responses to specific moves. So he wants me to resist sometimes.

    But other times, he wants me to "go with the flow" by absorbing the joint lock. When I follow the motion, I sometimes have a good chance of escaping, which goes against people's natural tendency to tense up.

    The problem is I never know if I'm supposed to be resisting or going with the flow, and my teacher (God bless him) usually isn't too clear unless I do what he doesn't want.

    Part of the problem for both our arts is likely sensitivity. We have to be sensitive to the changes the attacker (tori?) makes so that we'll know when to escape the lock. But the more sensitive you are, the more you're likely to roll out of it early. Heck, that's exactly what you SHOULD do. Waiting until someone has clamped it on is waiting too long. And yet, that's sometimes what a beginning student needs to feel.

    My teacher has said that teaching beginners is a hard job for just that reason. He has to sacrifice his joints to some extent and risk a bit of injury or they'll never learn to really apply the technique.

    Good post.

    Formosa Neijia

  6. I last watched Lawrence of Arabia many years ago, but I can still remember my favorite line: T.E. Lawrence laments that "yes, we can do what we want, but we cannot want what we want."

    In a world of cause and effect, what could ever create voluntary motion? Only the power of free will. A power whose existence some deny, but I digress...

    The ultimate question is not whether their motion is voluntary, but who is ultimately making the choice.


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