The Art of Falling

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.

Purification through dedication: Get on that crazy train as soon as possible.

I remember the fright I felt at these words, “Remember, what you give out is what I will respond with…”

I was tasked with sparring with my one female sensei, a 2nd or 3rd dan, and immediately felt overwhelmed.  I had no idea how to hit, or kick, or where to aim.  I certainly didn’t desire to feel more pain than necessary, I had only just started my journey as a ninpoka.  I swallowed the lump in my throat and made an attempt at a strike, which was easily countered by my way more experienced partner.  I paused and considered the next attempt: a kick.  Again, this was easily countered.  On we went for what felt like an eternity, but was only like two minutes.  That was two years ago.  I have traversed many of the same nerve-wracking scenarios since then, faced with far superior opponents wondering how I would get through.

I am an average height woman in her prime (some would call this “middle age”), who has very little real-world experience with fighting.  Anything resembling fighting in my life has been in the dojo, under controlled conditions.  Facing down someone bigger and stronger is my weekly bread and butter.  What I do intentionally to overcome my biggest opponent yet: myself.  I got into this crazy mess because I felt a strong call from my (Heavenly) Dad to get myself into the dojo as soon as humanly possible.  I was 45, why in the world would I join this crazy train?  But, being an obedient daughter, enter the dojo I did.  Two years later, I find myself reminiscing and remembering my super-scared self facing fear and harm.  I didn’t want to give it my all that night, I wanted to run away.  And now? Bring it on.

Whoa.  That was bold.  Considering the knocking knees of the first sparring I ever experienced, I must ask myself, what has changed in so little time that you’d be so brash?  Consistency.  Bruises.  Sweat.  Humility.  Confidence.

Showing up saved me from myself.  My femaleness, with all its gloriously wild emotions, needed taming.  I was one-woman wrecking ball of panic and unadulterated fear, flailing helplessly at the real enemies of my life.  I sorely needed several variations on seoi nage to my spirit more than a few times to wake up my true self.

Overcoming self needed to have cleaner throws, and focused strikes.  Facing down something, or someone, bigger and stronger than you requires a mental toughness not easily obtained in the arms of a comfy chair.  Heck, it’s not easily obtained on the mats either, but the lessons, though more punishing, are purer and more thorough.  Facing one’s self, quite the likely the most frightening of life’s enemies, takes grit.  One can’t get there sitting and dreaming of the illusory “some day.”