Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How to be an honest uke

One of my ongoing blog features this year is I am working my way through Henry Copeland's excellent list of principles that make aikido work, and adding commentary from my POV at this point in my journey.
The next idea on Henry's list is, "Uke provides honest responses."  This is a kinda funny concept (funny-strange, not funny-haha), because outside observers are forever griping about aikido sucking because it appears that the attacker just jumps on the ground to make the defender look good (and that does happen some).  But on the other hand, we are always telling our "attackers" in class to give stronger, better attacks - attacks with better intent - to be an "honest uke."
I personally dislike choreography in aikido class.  When I hear an instructor tell a class, "uke attacks like this, so tori does this, which causes uke to do that, so tori responds with this thing..." I have a hard time not rolling my eyes.  I don't have much use for an instructor that writes uke a script for uke to follow. 
I tend to almost go to the other extreme away from choreography.  I tend to tell uke something like, "Ok, come at me and let's see what it looks like if I respond thusly."  My instructions to uke are usually more like, "Try to survive this thing without hurting yourself," instead of "attack just so, then fall down right there."
But actually, neither extreme is correct.  You don't want uke to attack like a knucklehead and jump on the ground for you, but you also don't want an uke that tries their best to confound everything you do.  Both extremes make for poor learning of bad aiki.
So, what specific instructions can you give uke for how to behave without giving them some sort of deterministic script?  I tell uke...
  • Start from just outside touching distance.  This is one of the basic assumptions of most aikido, at least at the beginner level.  From this distance, in order to touch tori, uke has to take one large step forward.
  • When unbalanced, give yourself to the unbalance at least a little bit.  You (uke) will never learn to survive unbalance if you refuse to go there.  This doesn't mean jump on the ground to make tori look good.  It just means don't refuse to move.
  • Recover and reorient. Whenever you find yourself off-balance, or realize that your attack missed, or tori is not standing where you thought he was, stand up and turn to face tori.  Anytime tori diffuses your ability to attack, move to a place where you could be a threat again.
  • Fail gracefully.  If you want to recover, reorient, and continue to attack then do it safely.  Don't be crazy about it.  And don't refuse to roll out of something if that will keep you safe and uninjured.
 I think Henry's "Uke gives honest responses" is mostly just a shorthand for these four points.
Patrick Parker
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