When one first begins Aikido practice it is most likely to see Ukemi as a basic means of self-protection, whilst in the process of practice. A person learns to roll, backwards and forwards, and to fall in other directions so that Tore (the thrower) can practice with you in a safe way.
As time goes by a second stage of Ukemi begins to emerge, one finds a sense of flow and ease of movement; a deep process has begun. One learns to ‘let go’ of unnecessary tension, apprehension, stress and fear. One learns how to stay calm even when flying through the air, the same calm when subjected to painful techniques like Nikkyo or any other potentially uncomfortable situation. A different flow of consciousness begins to develop and, with it, a different connection with both oneself, Tore and one’s surroundings.
With diligent practice and self-observation one gains a new freedom, both like a small child and an expert trapeze artist being and feeling free and at the same time developing a continuity of consciousness and heightened awareness. It is in this stage where the opportunity lies to gain a deeper understanding of ones self. Only through honest non-judgemental self-observation can one aspire to a level of being where there is no real distinction in the mentality in practice between the thrower and the thrown. At this stage of Aikido practice, Tore (thrower) is taking Ukemi from the attacker in executing the technique. Tore and Uke are one, Yin and Yang (Japanese In Yo), not one person dominating another, just a harmonious interaction, like a gentle wave taking flotsam from the shore.
There are various stages and levels of ukemi practice. The first level is when you first start Aikido. Ukemi is learnt as a stylized gymnastic system, rolling forwards and backwards, sideways and how to fall face down as in receiving Ikkyo etc. For older and less physically able people this initial system is modified to suit the individual.
The next level is allowing someone to throw you. This takes getting used to and is done in a similar way to the first level and is usually produced in a mutually harmonious way allowing the beginner to gain confidence and trust in one’s partner, as well as also learning to let go of fear and apprehension. Just the simple breathing out as you fall takes time to get used to.
The next stage in Aikido is when you gain total confidence and fluidity, and can receive any Aikido techniques freely and confidently without fear and with a growing continuity of consciousness. One next learns kaishiwaza (or counter techniques) not with an attitude of competition or one-up-manship but with a mentality of flowing, conscious harmony, no winner, no loser.
It is only a small step to enter the next stage where everything, technique and attack are a kind of kaishiwaza, a constant harmonious giving and receiving with full consciousness. Everything becomes kaishiwaza, everything then becomes ukemi. These concepts are not just mental, but have to be practiced constantly with one’s body.
One of the most common mistakes made in Aikido practice is for Uke to attack the technique that he/she assumes Tore is going to make. Obviously, in a real situation, one would not attack or restrain someone and assume he/she is going to make a certain technique which you then tried to fight against, yet this happens all the time in many Aikido situations. This mistake is very impractical, counter-productive and a nonsense martial strategy.
As an example, when practicing Shomenuchi Ikkyo, the attacker will subconsciously attack the arm of the defender instead of the defender himself. In certain techniques the attacker is pushing tore in the opposite way he/she assumes the technique will be carried out thus leaving uke totally open for atemi. This syndrome is quite often done in an absent minded state based on past conditioning and is often accompanied by the attacker holding their breath and contracting the muscles, the concept of kokyu being completely missing. It is important in Aikido practice to have an ongoing development regime to develop a continuity of flowing consciousness with the ability to monitor one’s mental and emotional states on the level of non-ego, non-judgemental self-observation, physically, mentally and emotionally. This also equates to a powerful moving mindfulness meditation system which can be a vehicle for certain levels of mastery in Aikido and also an impetus towards our own personal evolution.