The Importance of Ukemi, Rhythm, and Timing in Aikido

How Aikido is Taught at Goleta Aikido with Ki

This online article was originally published in print form in Aikido Today Magazine, March/April 2000 edition. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.

Author's foreword:  This summer, I am fulfilling a dream I've had for five years - to do the special 5-day-per-week June to August summer sessions at Kenji Ota's Aikido with Ki Dojo in Goleta, California.  Ota's unique teaching environment has produced remarkable success with advanced ukemi for children and adults.  I first met Ken Ota and his students at their summer weekend seminar in July of 1992.  When I saw 8 and 9 year old boys and girls doing ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, shihonage, iriminage, kotaegeshi, and kokyunage on each other - at real life speeds, safely, and smiling - when I saw 12 and 13 year old girls doing full randori - I knew something special was happening in Goleta. --John Sing

sensei_ken_ota.png

Kenji Ota Sensei and his son Steve Ota Sensei are the authors of the well known Panther Productions "Aikido Training Videos".  Today we talk with Kenji Ota Sensei about his unique suggestion for raising our level of Aikido practice through emphasizing Ukemi, Rhythm, and Timing.

Kenji Ota Sensei was taught Aikido in the 1960's by Koichi Tohei Sensei and Isao Takahashi Sensei.  Ota Sensei was born in Lompoc, California, and started practicing Judo in 1938;  he started ballroom dancing at about the same time.  Ota Sensei has been teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing in Goleta, California (near Santa Barbara) for over 35 years.  He is probably the only Aikido/Judo teacher in the USA who is at the same time a Arthur Murray Dance Triple Gold Star Medalist, the highest possible Arthur Murray Dancing rank possible.

Due to this unique background, Ota Sensei's Aikido teaching style emphasizes advanced Ukemi and extremely powerful Rhythm and Timing.  Let's investigate what he has to offer.


Q:  Sensei, you feel extremely high emphasis on advanced Ukemi as the first and most important ingredient for good Aikido.  Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Ota Sensei:  My experience has been that advanced Ukemi (breakfalls, high falls, kickouts, 'body-only-slap', etc.) is the most important, essential skill necessary to allow Aikidoka to progress as quickly and proficiently as possible.  But for surprising reasons in addition to the traditional reasons you might expect.

We discovered in Goleta that with advanced Ukemi speeds, students would naturally begin to develop the speed, rhythm, timing, and endurance necessary to do Aikido at real-life speeds.  I am responsible to see that all my students can express O'Sensei's "Way of Loving Harmony" not only in the dojo but outside in real-life situations.  In order to do that, long ago aI started to develop ways to teach each of them to be able to do Aikido at real-life speeds, both physically as well as mentally:  and to do it smoothly, relaxed, enjoyably, accurately, and subconsciously.

Now, I am well aware that high speed Aikido training, improperly done, will surely cause serious injuries.  Yet, no one could ever do good Aikido at real-life speeds unless you've specifically trained at those speeds and levels.  We have successfully developed training methods and tools that can safely and reliably create this kind of high level Aikido training for everyone.  The foundation that makes it all possible is high technology advanced ukemi.

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of the profound possibilities for Aikido teaching and skill development exploiting advanced high technology training methods for teaching ukemi. 

Q:  What is the value of advanced ukemi, both to students and the dojo?

Ota Sensei:  The story of my women students explains it best.  I started teaching Aikido and Judo to women students at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) over 35 years ago.  Unlike the men, I knew the women wouldn't tolerate 'toughing it out' - they would have to know how to do ukemi technique properly and safely.  We brought a direct student of Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo), Ms. Keiko Fukuda (that that time she was the highest ranking woman judoka in the US, she was the US Judo Federation's Women's Technical Advisor) to come and teach us proper advanced ukemi, all the fine points.  Ms. Fukuda was a perfectionist, everything had to be perfect, or she wasn't satisfied.  So we learned all the advanced ukemi from her.

The result was, my women students immediately started to progress faster, have more fun, come back more often, and could throw the men harder than the men could throw them.  We started with 100 women per quarter.  We were told by the end of the quarter, we'd be lucky to retain 25 students.  Instead, next quarter we had 200.  Within a year we had to turn students away because the classes were so full.

Why?   We discovered that as the women's UKEMI technique became advanced, they enjoyed being thrown harder, faster, for longer periods of time, at real life speeds, AND they were more relaxed (no fear of injury), and had much more FUN.  Nage's techniques also took a quantum leap forward - because there was enough repetition and speed to imbed 'subconscious' muscle memory - and it was happening in very short periods of time.  Yet we were able to do this with speed, relaxation, and grace.  So, using this technology, we started to place high emphasis on advancement in Ukemi skills, breakfalls, airfalls, proper slapping with both the hands and the feet.

What happened next was unexpected.  We found that these advanced, high speed safe ukemi opened new doorways of Aikido training ideas and exploitation of new scientific discoveries and technologies.  We've been able to teach certain Aikido skills in 3 months that would normally take 3 years using traditional methods.  Advanced high technology ukemi was the reason.  I strongly wish to raise awareness within the Aikido community of these kinds of possibilities. 

Q:  What profound Aikido possibilities are you talking about?

Ota Sensei:  Because of this use of new technologies (many adapted from gymnastics) to augment traditional Aikido training methods, we have proven it possible to train very advanced, very "dangerous" throws, very HARD and FAST, over and over again, safely, night after night.  Beginning students at our school can safely learn breakfalls within 1 or 2 months, and they like it.  We actually have to hold back the eager students from doing full speed breakfalls on the regular mat until they're really ready.  With all of these advanced ukemi skills and experience, we have been able to safely implement training in Randori on a nightly basis.  Advanced students can be doing full speed Randori, safely every night for years.  As you can imagine, they become good.  Because of this training, my students have sufficient Randori training time to be effective in real life situations.  Again, without superb ukemi, you couldn't even begin to approach this level of training. 

The benefits and value of this high technology approach has proven itself in very realistic situation:  One of our black belt students was jumped by eight gang members one night as he was walking through a dark street on his way home - and he went into automatic pilot Randori mode.  30 seconds later, 3 attackers were on the ground with immobilizing injuries from hitting the ground, the others scattered and ran.  The police couldn't understand how this could happen, the gang was notorious for excessive violence on their victims.  Our student said, "I didn't have any time to think, I never even hit anybody, I just did Randori like I'd done in every class for 4 years".  Thanks to Randori training, this student is alive, because no man could hit as hard as the ground hit those criminals.

These are startling developments in Aikido learning and teaching capabilities.  And they can be done by anybody, if you have the right technology, drills, and know how to use them.  That's what we've spent the last 35 years developing - the knowledge on how to use these technologies safely and effectively.  We wish to share this knowledge with the Aikido community at large, to whatever extent any of you are interested. 

Q:  You talk about knowledge to implement new teaching discoveries and technologies to augment traditional methods.  Can you give some examples?  What do you mean by "Crossing the 10,000 barrier"  and why do you feel it is so important?

Ota Sensei:  Let me explain the reasoning behind our approach.  We can see in today's athletes that new high technology training methods and equipment are required to compete at an international level.  There are good reasons that Aikido training should improve along the same lines, while still preserving the time proven essence of traditional methods.  So what have we learned?

Recent sports research has scientifically discovered that 10,000 to 20,000 proper, accurate repetitions of any individual technique (in any sport) must be performed before the student is able to accurately reproduce the movement smoothly, accurately, at speed, with precision and control, under pressure.  That's for each technique.  Do a little simple math, and it's obvious that even 50 repetitions per day, five days a week, it will still take you 9 months before you cross the 10,000 repetition mark.  Now repeat that for each additional Aikido technique or ukemi.

steve_ota.jpg

Sports science, as well as the military, has well proven over the years that in order to create usable, accurate, powerful skill, you must train for the specific circumstances and situation that you will use that skill.  To perform Aikido at real life speeds, both nage and uke absolutely have to be able to train the 'fast twitch' muscles - the ones you must use to perform Aikido at real life speeds.  To train 'slow twitch' muscles, and then wait for the cross-over to speed (i.e. traditional Tai Chi training) takes years and years.  And, the fast speed training is never complete until the student has sufficient mat time and endurance and experience at the actual fast speed.

It's no wonder that people hurt themselves trying to do ukemi!  Slow speed, "safe" ukemi, does not prepare one adequately for high speed Aikido training or advanced high speed ukemi.  Without enough accurate, correct repetitions at speed, all it takes is one bad fall by an untrained student.... it is easy to see why so often ukemi training stops at this point.  Understandably, no teacher wishes to have injured students.  The end result in Aikido today is that with traditional ukemi training methods, very few students will ever train often enough to "cross the 10,000 barrier" and gain the requisite skill for advanced ukemi.  And that condemns the entire dojo to having to remove high speed, real life training for everyone, with the exception of a very select few.  And it doesn't have to be this way.

I am saying that with new technology, combined with new drilling methodology, we are all now capable of addressing these challenges successfully.  The benefits and possibilities to Aikido practice are profound. 

Q:  What are some specific examples of the Aikido training methods and tools you are talking about?

Ota Sensei:  Let me give you as many examples as space permits.  Let me emphasize, I am talking about much more than gymnastics landing pads and jumping barriers for ukemi.  I am talking about an integrated high technology knowledge approach using innovative drills we've specifically developed over the years to address the physical and mental requirements of ukemi.

The tools are not rocket science - adapted from gymnastics: specialized crashing/landing pads, foam barriers, specific mat types.  The key is the psychological ways that we drill;  the rhythm, timing, and duration of the drills, and which drill is selected and when.

jeffjulian.gif

The main problem in teaching advanced ukemi is the fear in the student's mind about landing.  We've developed a large portfolio of drills, specific to each type of ukemi.  Then we start the students on their 'journey of 10,000 repetitions' using these drills which allow the student to learn rolls, slap rolls, airfalls, full body slaps, kickouts, etc. repetitively without injury for the inevitable mistakes in the early going.  Fear of doing ukemi over high barriers is instantly solved by raising the landing pad on the far side of the barrier.  When the mind is free of fear of injury and pain, the student is free to learn.  We 'trick' students into believing they can do it - and of course, they end up doing it safely and enjoyably.  Finally, of course, we wean the students onto the real mat as they become ready.

Tradition claims that 'hard mats' cause students to refine their technique more quickly.  I disagree, because of the scientific findings that it takes a minimum of 10,000 accurate repetitions before a skill is learned well.  Especially for today's American, it simply takes too long to do 10,000 repetitions when each 'mistake' means long delays until the next repetition!

Furthermore, no matter how good the ukemi, on even a normal mat, no uke can take full speed ukemi falls in the hundreds of repetitions, night after night.  With the right drills and equipment, we can, and you could too.  With this and a whole lot more thinking along the same lines, the end result has been that in 6 months, we can move a student from near beginner to good proficiency, because we've been able to reproduce the required 10,000-20,000 repetitions, safely, for the 'fast twitch' muscles to get trained, for each technique, all without injury. 

Q:  Is it true that the teaching of Aikido/Judo to young children played a major role in developing this technology?  How did you develop all these drills?  And what role did the children play?

Ota Sensei:  My goals for Children's Classes are the same as for adults.  If the child doesn't develop the skill to safely do Aikido techniques on the playground for real, AND the wisdom and humility to know when and how to use it kindly, and when not to use it, then I have failed the children and their parents. 

andreas teaching lela ikkyo step 4 smaller.jpg

Our Children's Classes have been our best teachers.  We teach classes of up to forty 7-10 year old children, 4 times a week, two hours per class.  If you want to know if your teaching methodology is good or not, try doing it the same way with children.  Children don't lie.  They're more honest than adults.  If it's interesting, if it's good, they'll learn it quickly and accurately.  If not, they don't come back.  You can't talk to them, you have to show them.  I believe everyone should teach children; they will teach you vast amounts about humility, your own personality, how to give positive reinforcement, and teaching kindly.  The children will teach you far more than you will ever teach them.  This is a whole separate area in itself that I am willing to share knowledge and experience (see the Aikido for Children Ota Web Page).

And you know what our beginning children or adults like the best?  UKEMI.  They LOVE bouncing on the crash pads.  They love trying to jump over foam barriers.  They love even more learning how to do it safely so they can jump up and do it again.  Our children sometimes arrive for class 15 minutes early, because they know if they're early, the adults will be there to supervise them practicing jumping and bouncing and doing all their advanced ukemi.

This is how we figured out ways to teach 7 year old children how to do ukemi, as well as make it fun.  We also created similar methods to teach them ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, shihonage, iriminage, kokyunage, all with a bare minimum of talking.  Our intermediate children all know the eight basic Aikido techniques well enough to teach it to their classmates, without talking, by showing it to them.  This is where the real learning takes place, as I tell them, "if you can't teach it to someone else, you yourself don't know how to do it yet".   This foundation is what produces the efficiency in our children's classes.

We successfully learned many other things that all have to be combined together to produce the results we were after.  One is, never be too fussy with the child's technique.  Show them what to do, in a fun but non-fussy way.  As they get older, they will automatically refine their own technique in beautiful ways you could never imagine. Backlead their bodies kindly, don't talk about it, their minds (just like adult's minds) will wander in an instant.  Give them enough repetitions.   Give them your spirit, kindness, and be an example that they will respect.  And keep their minds off balance, keep them always wondering what's going to happen next .... the RHYTHM and TIMING of the class must keep them as interested as possible every second.

When your children students love and respect you, when they are interested in what you are doing, when they quickly learn Aikido from you, THAT is when you really know what you are doing.  That is when you will have developed the rhythm and pace in your classes that will attract adults and retain them.  We learned that adults really weren't acquiring Aikido skills properly and quickly enough until we started using 'adultized' versions of children's drills - FUN drills, over and over again.  That is how we developed the vast majority of our large portfolio of drills and knowledge - thanks to the children.

Q:  Do you have any final suggestions that you can give us about advanced ukemi?

caitlin high fall over barrier smaller.jpg

Ota Sensei:  Using new technologies properly applied, any dojo could teach advanced ukemi very early on.  By properly applying these teaching technologies, tools, and ideas, Aikido students could all learn to properly do at least 5 different basic ukemi, including the airfalls, side slap, kickout, full-body, and the 'no-arm-slap'.  The main gymnastic technology is safety designed crash pads and foam barriers.  The drilling methodology we've developed intelligently integrates these advanced ukemi skills into innovative Aikido drills specifically designed to cross the '10,000' repetition barrier in performing Aikido techniques.  These high technology training methods and tolls can easily be adapted to accommodate all students at different levels of age and health.  Young, vigorous students can reach startling levels of skill much more safely and quickly.  Advanced ukemi, and high speed with safety, is within reach of far more Aikidoka than you could ever have imagined. 

Q:  Thank you, Sensei, for a very different and interesting perspective on Ukemi and Aikido possibilities.  Now, can you elaborate more on rhythm and timing?  What do you mean by rhythm and timing in Aikido techniques?

Ota Sensei:  Obviously, Aikido is much more than being able to do fast, good ukemi.  Here I would like to address rhythm and timing in Aikido technique - these factors I also feel are insufficiently stressed in today's Aikido.  Again, this is through no fault of current instructors,  You cannot teach what you've not experienced yourself.

Have you ever wondered why elegant, skillful practitioners of any sport or skill look so good?  Because they have an elegant, rhythmic timing specific to themselves and whatever skill they're performing.  Watch any very high level Aikido sensei perform elegant technique, for example, O'Sensei, Koichi Tohei in his prime, Kenji Shimizu, and many others.  You can clearly see intangible, classical rhythm and timing in their movements.  The question is, can this rhythm and timing be taught?

I assert the answer is clearly YES.  Furthermore, I also assert that there is a specific, optimum rhythm and timing for proper, efficient, graceful performance of each Aikido technique.  In Goleta, because we have practiced high speed real life Aikido training speeds night after night, safely, we have over 35 years experience in what exactly is that proper full speed Aikido rhythm and timing to bring the unique centrifugal force characteristics of each Aikido technique to full bloom.  Very few other schools have this kind of experience, and we are willing to share it.  We have discovered by trial and error, what is the optimum rhythm and timing for each attack and technique, thanks to our nightly 2/3/4 attacker full speed randori sessions.

Rhythm and timing is especially important to Randori.  Aikido's roots is based on multiple person defense - at the same time, wanting to resolve with Harmony and without violence.  It is only with proper rhythm and timing can you truly survive and thrive in one of our 3 minute randori drills.  In fact, in a 3 minute randori drill at real life speeds, doing a technique with physical strength is a deadly liability, not an advantage.  You'll tire out after only 30 seconds.  Rhythm and timing removes the need for physical strength and allows you to relax and actually thrive in a 3 minute randori.  Rhythm and timing at real life speeds of attack spontaneously births powerful centrifugal force Aikido techniques.  The flow of Ki becomes like a rushing river.  And need I say, advance ukemi is the foundation key to creating this essential Aikido practice experience. 

Q:  How can we teach and learn rhythm and timing in Aikido techniques?

Ota Sensei:  By it's very definition, rhythm and timing cannot be practiced at a slower speed than you will actually perform.  Rhythm and timing changes as the speed changes, just like a waltz has a different beat than a tango.  Therefore, ANY effective, real life, real speed Aikido rhythm and timing, along with associate proper technique, mental attitude, and relaxation, cannot and does not appear below the high speed of advanced ukemi!

Therefore, to create this skill of rhythm and timing at the high speed of real life Aikido, in the shortest time possible, one must specifically drill, practice, and train at that high speed often enough to be able to develop and feel the proper rhythm and timing for each technique at that speed.  Backleading is the primary methodology to teach the proper rhythm and timing from an advanced student to the learning student.  By learning the basic rhythm and timing through backleading, and then drilling the Aikido technique often enough at high speed, natural rhythm and timing will appear simply because you'll be too tired to do anything else!!  Such is the beauty of high speed safe 3 minute randori Aikido training.  You can and should, of course, start out slowly enough and build speed over time, but the true high speed rhythm and timing only appears by practicing at the high speed of advanced ukemi. 

Q:  Now, that sounds like a big challenge!

Ota Sensei:  I say it is easy to address using the methods outlined above, and I'm willing to share how we do it.  Again, the secret is in the types of drilling you use (including backleading), drilling which exploits the high technology training equipment and using advanced ukemi.  In over 35 years of performing and teaching ballroom dancing and Aikido, I know that rhythm and timing can be taught, and it can be taught easily, IF you have the experience in knowing how to do it.  Using backleading, the proper repetition drills, and requisite advanced ukemi speeds, you will naturally pick up the rhythm and timing and imbed it in the 'fast twitch' muscle memory of the student, safely, easily, and with a great deal of fun.

Q:  Is it possible to learn rhythm and timing from Aikido alone?  How do you improve rhythm and timing in Aikido if you don't know it already?

Ota Sensei:  I know that all of my Aikido students over the years, the good ones all had rhythm and timing - but they made rapid progress through a very unexpected (but logical) channel:  ballroom dancing.  Any Tai Chi / Aikido / Judo teacher will tell you of the required skills of sensitivity, leading, following, footwork, balance, and that indefinable 'style' that is required for truly elegant technique.  I know from my experience, my students couldn't learn rhythm and timing completely from Aikido.  The good ones all became really good immediately after they started to become good ballroom dancers; and then, their footwork, timing, and rhythm all spontaneously started to appear in their Aikido.  (see the picture of Ken Ota Sensei and his wife Miye dancing!)

Ken_and_Miye_Ota_ballroom.jpg

The very definition of rhythm and timing implies a harmonious relationship between nage and uke(s), just like dance partners.  For years we've known that dancing and Aikido have a lot in common; the power, grace, and rhythm from both comes from a beautiful sense of timing, rhythm, motion, movement, leading, and body awareness and control.  So, I suggest, to truly develop your powerful ability to use proper rhythm and timing and to truly remove the need for physical strength in Aikido, do yourself a social favor and become a great ballroom dancer.

Most of you don't know that Bruce Lee was also a champion cha-cha dancer.  Koichi Tohei was a great dancer.  And after all, what good is great Aikido if no one likes you?   Koichi Tohei said, "10-man randori is not impressive if no one in your life likes you.  If everyone in your life and family likes you, if children always like you, then that's Aikido.  Loving Harmony in life, THAT'S impressive". 

 

Q:  Your reputation is based not just on your innovations in teaching philosophy, but on your total approach to teaching "The Way of Loving Harmony" as an approach to life.  What general suggestions would you like to close with for all us as teachers and students?

Ota Sensei:  Rhythm and timing applies not only to the performance of Aikido techniques.  I believe you must also combine the elements of rhythm and timing into the Dojo class atmosphere, the Aikido teaching style, along with the Aikido practice itself.

I suggest we want to teach these three kinds of skills (advanced ukemi, rhythm, and timing) to Aikido students from the very beginning.  I am very happy to share 35 years of experience in developing technology, innovation, and specific drills to safely teach ukemi, rhythm, and timing at the higher speeds required to rapidly teach children and adults proper blend of rhythm, timing, movement, smoothness, subconscious muscle memory, and relaxation required for them to spontaneously perform powerful Aikido techniques and "Loving Harmony" attitude, both on the mat and in life.

Each of these factors are interlocked, and must be blended in an appropriate manner.  By adding advance ukemi to our practice of Aikido techniques, and thus releasing the beautiful flow of rhythm and timing at higher speeds - we will then dramatically increase our ability to relax and let go of need for physical strength; off balancing uke very easily, and peaceful resolution naturally begins to occur.

Aikido is a beautiful art, composed of many interrelated pieces - non can be separated from another.  I hope I have piqued your interest in these three important areas, and I invite you to dialogue with me for further information.  My aim is to spread these possibilities and knowledge to the greatest extent possible - and to allow each of you a chance to use whatever experience we've created here in Goleta to further your own practice of Aikido.

Thank you.