Slips, trips, and falls are one of the biggest causes of injury and accidental death in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. With winter coming soon for much of the Northern hemisphere, slipping is going to be even more prevalent! I suspect that the same can be said of pretty much every other modernized country, where food, water, sanitation, and healthcare are available to the majority of citizens. Despite all of our technological advances, we are still beholden to the laws of gravity! Martial artists talk about self defense all the time, but many of them neglect ukemi (breakfalls) in their training. I can tell you, from personal experience, that you are vastly more likely to use ukemi to protect yourself in real life than any other technique you learn in the dojo!
|Kaiten-ukemi (rotating/rolling breakfall) as done in Aikido|
Learning to fall is the specialty of “soft” arts like Aikido, judo, and jujutsu. This makes sense, since those arts specialize in techniques that either throw the opponent, or force the opponent to fall or roll to escape. In order to train those techniques safely, everyone in the dojo has to know how to fall and roll properly. Generally, there are four types of ukemi–mae (front), ushiro (back), yoko (side), and kaiten (rotating/rolling). There are some subtle variations of these, but they can all be categorized in these four primary groups.
To practice mae-ukemi (front fall), it’s best to start from your knees, as it can be a rather frightening thing to practice, at first. You will want to be “standing” on your knees, with your head turned to the side, your forearms raised in front of you and held flat, as if against a wall. At this point, all you have to do is try to straighten your legs, which will make you fall forward. The impact of your fall should be distributed along your forearms, from fingertips to elbows. Once you are comfortable with this, you can start from a standing position, then squat halfway down, and shoot your legs back to make yourself fall. From there, you can work up to a “dead tree” type of fall.
To practice ushiro-ukemi (back fall), you can start from a seated position to get a feel for when to slap the mat. The slapping seems strange, but it does serve a purpose–two purposes, actually. The first is that it spreads the impact of your fall over a wider area. Imagine dropping a hardcover book flat on its face, as opposed to dropping it on a corner, which would damage the cover. The second is that it tightens the muscles of your back and sides, protecting your ribs and spine. To begin from a seated position, you should tuck your chin to keep your head from hitting the floor, and put your hands in front of you so it is easier to slap. Then, simply push yourself backward, maintaining a curve in your spine. When your shoulder-blades touch the ground, slap your hands as hard as you can on the ground next to you. Be sure to keep your arms close to your sides, as the higher you slap, the more stretched out the muscles of your back and sides become, and the less protection your ribs and spine will have. Once you have the timing down, you can practice from a squat, and then from standing, and eventually from a jump.
To practice yoko-ukemi (side fall), you can also start from a seated position. Again, you will want to start by tucking your chin and bringing your slapping hand in front of you. At that point, push yourself to the side so that you land on the side of your back. This is something that confuses some people, because they think they should be landing completely on their side when working on a side fall. If you do that, you are likely to injure your shoulder. You want to land on the edge of your latissimus dorsi muscle, with your shoulder pulled in front of you when you slap. This will spread out the impact of your fall, and keep your shoulder from being crushed. Once you are comfortable with the timing and landing, you can work it from a squatted position, and then from standing, and eventually from a jump, just like the back fall. Be sure to keep your bottom leg flat against the floor, and the other leg should have the foot planted on the ground behind your bottom leg. If you don’t, you can end up with your knees or ankles slamming into each other, which is quite painful.
To practice kaiten-ukemi (rotating/rolling fall), you can start from a kneeling position. The motion of this technique is something like an angled somersault. Again, it is important to tuck your chin to keep your head from hitting the ground. You will use the arm on the side of your body which has your knee off the ground to form a circle, from your shoulder to your knee that is on the ground, with the back of your hand on the floor. Maintain this circle as you drive yourself forward with your back foot. You will want your body contact with the floor to travel from the back of your hand, up your arm, and from your shoulder down to the opposite hip. When the hip touches the floor, you should end up in a side fall position, and slap the mat as hard as you can. The side fall positioning of your legs will keep them from slamming together when you land, which can be very painful. Once you are comfortable with this, you can try it from standing, and then running, and then even jumping.