When I began my Ninpo training, I was not automatically handed a white belt. The tenth level required that I show proper etiquette towards the sensei, senpai, and other students. Rei ho is fairly easy to mimic in movement and speech, but not so much in spirit. That’s a post for another day. The more dreaded portion of the tenth kyu for myself was the ukemi. Ukemi (受け身), or the receiving body, can be taught, but must ultimately be experienced to fully understood. Our particular curriculum required the ninpoka to demonstrate that they could safely fall forwards, backwards, and sideways, and roll in various combinations of leg and arm positions to win their stripe. For myself, learning how to do this required a huge leap of faith in my instructors, and, perhaps more significantly, in myself. I grew up awkward and uncoordinated, very easily falling over for no apparent reason. This often resulted in magnificent injuries to which I could only explain with a shrug and the oft repeated phrase “I’m a klutz.” Asking me to intentionally fall down in a coordinated fashion at the time seemed, well, ridiculous.
For the length of my training, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ukemi. It took me seven months just to feel confident enough to test for my stripe on the white belt. I’m still not great at it and feel frustrated at the fear I still experience. However, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that there is an art to falling. In the more aggressive martial arts, we are taught safe falling techniques so that when receiving an attack from our tori (取り “grabber”), such as a sweep of the leg, we can land on the mats (and in real life the floor or ground) with very little injury. In addition, being a good uke for the tori helps the tori practice their technique with precision. Proper ukemi directly correlates to being able to continue one’s training. After all, injury puts me on the sidelines and just watching sucks.
There are a couple of key principles that help the novice to properly fall: relax your body, and go with the flow. Seems obvious in theory, but these principles are not so easily executed. When faced with danger, instinct activates the body’s defense: fight, or run away really, really fast. Adrenaline, cortisol, and a host of other chemicals are released at the signs of danger intensifying fear and panic. In the martial arts, facing danger is our modus operandi, after all, we are training to fight. Overcoming my body’s natural defenses, to say the least, was initially difficult. I wanted to stiffen on landing, I wanted to use my hands to catch myself, I wanted to keep my legs under me. Heck, I just wanted to run out of there and never come back.
In the beginning, I frequently landed very awkwardly, and thereby painfully. If I wanted to stay and train, I HAD to learn how to relax. My initial lessons involved overcoming my thoughts. In panic, the mats appeared either very far away from my head (I’m only 5’4″) or suddenly very close. How could I let myself just fall, and in a relaxed manner? You know I’m a klutz, right?
The artistry of falling was locked up behind fear, so I had to overcome the fear. No amount of explaining proper technique would help me get there.
When I tested for my stripe, I had to just go for it. I did the techniques as quickly as possible, I just wanted to get it over with. Surprisingly, I passed. I was so relieved I smiled for a whole week. When I started training for my next group of techniques, one large section required very precise ukemi as I evaded sword cuts. Geez, people. Can’t a girl get a break? Ha. As I practiced the techniques again and again, I found that if I focused less on the falling, and more on the evasion I wasn’t so caught up in fear. And that’s the key to the art of anything: whatever I focus on because the thing that shines through.
For the past year and a half, I find myself less concerned with the landing and more concerned with other, more important, things such as body position, giving my tori enough of my fighting spirit to make the practice worthwhile. To be sure, some things still scare me, such as receiving a full hip or shoulder throw, but I expect some day I won’t be scared of those. I hear my sensei, as he has me poised for some kind of painful technique he’s about to demonstrate saying “Relax.” I have to trust him, and myself that I won’t die or be seriously injured if I just let go of my tension and let things flow where they will.