One moment I stride gracefully down the path to our barn. And then, Bam! I am on my back on the ice, gazing upward at sky and cloud. A jet inscribes a contrail at the edge of my vision. I am content to relax on the cold ground, curiously grateful for the tumble.
There is a phrase in Japanese, “Nana korobi ya oki”, seven times down, eight times up. This old saying suggests that resiliency and flexibility are integral to our practice on and off the mat. Compare this expression with the British “bloodied but unbowed”, which associates rigidity and control in the face of adversity with power. True strength lies in our ability to spontaneously adapt to stress and bounce back, like the willow bending under the weight of snow.
Aikido teaches resiliency through conditioning practice, and in particular the art of falling, or ukemi. The term is derived from the root verb ukeru: to receive. One receives the force of the throw, moving in a way that allows the student to cultivate an internal understanding of techniques through the absorption of energy rather than static resistance or compliance. Ukemi teaches flexibility and springiness, elasticity and suppleness. Chiba Sensei once said that the primary purpose of ukemi is the adaption to the unknown. The art of falling teaches us how to creatively adapt to stress and setbacks.
In the course of training, the aikido student makes a wonderful discovery: it is possible to lose balance without losing your center. You absorb the energy of a powerful throw and return to your feet effortlessly. Similarly, a crisis may leave you emotionally or physically shaken, but you maintain an abiding sense of wholeness through the unified movements of aikido. To be balanced and centered is to discover wholeness.
Ukemi teaches the student that falling can be joyful and safe, a celebration of our adaptability to the unforeseen. Instead of embodying defeat, the fall teaches how to acquire greater technical power because we learn the art through feeling rather than doing. I love to be thrown because I surrender my ego in the fall. In contrast, when I throw, there is always the possibility that the sense of self returns us to the shallow and external: how do I look? Is my technique strong? Is it effective?
These thoughts go through my mind as I relax on the icy path. The fall wasn’t particularly elegant – the wind was knocked out of me, and my head hit the ground.
Other mishaps may more positively reflect my years of ukemi practice. The life of a farmer and martial artist offers frequent opportunities to test one’s balance. For instance, I remember a warm autumn day. I stand on our flatbed trailer, levering half ton siltstone slabs to the trailer’s edge to be removed with the skid steer loader. The stones will become a stairway to our country dojo, Cloud Mountain Aikido – eight steps down a steep hillside.
I insert the crowbar beneath the edge of a big stone, leaning back to gain a bit more leverage. The bar slips. I fall backwards, off the trailer, narrowly missing the steel guardrail. As I tumble, I manage to push the 25-pound iron bar away from my path, and roll on the gravel parking lot. I stand up, unscathed and exhilarated: that is why I train! I am reminded of the great value of ukemi, and recall an aikido student who credits aikido with saving his life after a high speed roll off his motorcycle.
Even the rough falls – the humbling, rib slamming crashes to the ground – embody the principle of resiliency and adaptation. Aikido conditioning develops strong bones and good structural alignment so I don’t land in a twisted, spine torqueing manner. Resiliency isn’t tested when everything goes well, but when everything seems off – the death of my father and my deep sadness, multiple flight cancellations before I teach my first aikido seminar in Argentina, the monstrous pimple that appears right before a public talk, the sad eyes of the Syrian child caught in the stillness of the photograph, and all of the other minor and major irritants and crises that shadow our less than perfect lives.
Seven times down…. This particular wintry day finds me lying on the ground a bit longer than you’d expect. I am happy for this rare moment to sunbathe in the frigid Vermont air. And then I get up, always rising that one more time, buoyancy and humor the best antidote to the suffering and catastrophe that is also an inevitable part of living.
Benjamin Pincus is the Chief Instructor and Executive Director of Aikido of Champlain Valley. Located in Burlington, Vermont, Aikido of Champlain Valley is a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to creating a sustainable community and peaceable world through the study of the traditional Japanese martial art of Aikido. He also teaches at Cloud Mountain Aikido in Roxbury, Vermont.
Visit us on the web at www.burlingtonaikido.org, and Cloud Mountain Aikido www.cloudmountainaikido.com