Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Many times, over the years, students of all ages have told stories of unexpected falls occurring in their everyday lives. One fell from a horse, one slipped on ice in the driveway, one was tripped in a soccer game, another recently went over his bike handlebars, and so on. These folks were grateful to be able to get up, brush themselves off and go about their business, rattled, but undamaged. This is neither coincidence nor luck. These were people who have fallen, here at the dojo, literally thousands of times. They learned how to safely fall from a wide range of positions and to be thrown in virtually every direction.
Whether it’s an icy sidewalk, a slip on wet grass or an unexpected trip, sooner or later everyone falls. Of all the techniques you are going to learn in the dojo, falling skills may be the thing you are most likely to use to prevent serious injury. Many people go through life without ever having to punch and kick their way out of a situation, but everyone eventually falls.
Pay attention to the fine details of your falling skills. After all, falling on mats when your body is already warmed up is a breeze after a little practice. But this is by design. Our practice and facility are designed to avoid injuries. We start beginners with techniques that are relatively easy to fall from, we only take down each other at a pace and with an amount of force determined by ones ability to safely fall, and we insure that folks are warm and loosened before having to become one with the mats. We also have the best mats money can buy. This safety net can create the impression that ones falling ability is adequate, when in fact, there might be a lot that could be improved. Things you can get away with on a padded surface may not be so forgiving on asphalt or ice.
We are fortunate to have a practice that includes a full repertoire of throws and take-downs. Many martial arts styles do not have this and few martial artists have the opportunity to develop highly skilled falling ability. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, a martial art specializing in powerful throws, said, “By taking throws time after time, one must learn how to take falls and overcome the fear of being thrown. Then one will become unafraid of being attacked and be able to take the initiative in attack”.
Falling skills (and some other things) are part of our practice called ‘ukemi’ which means ‘receiving the technique’. This is where we learn to yield and avoid the force that the opponent is applying. Tall grass blowing in the wind bends, lies down, and then stands up again. The same wind might break or uproot a seemingly unmovable tree due to it’s ability to resist- to a point.
'A tree that does not bend is easily broken.' - Lao Tsu
Ukemi takes a while to fully appreciate and martial artists who don’t practice styles that specialize in throws and joint locks often completely fail to understand ukemi. They often will point out that a person is just going along with the technique, not resisting, or is throwing them self rather than being thrown. These comments betray the fact that they have not fully experienced the speed, power, and potential danger involved with receiving throws or joint locks from a skilled person. They do not understand that sometimes you must actually throw yourself in order to prevent a joint lock from breaking an elbow or wrist and that you must be ahead of the technique in order to protect a joint that is locked and about to break. They do not understand ukemi that is late is ineffective.
Resistance to a good technique allows kinetic energy to build, like river water rising behind a dam and being pushed as more water comes down river. When there is too much force the dam will fail and all that built up energy is suddenly and violently released with the power to move cars and even buildings. The same can happen when a person resists a throw or joint lock. Something has to give. The person receiving the technique may be uprooted and all that built up force then hammers them to the ground, or, like a tree branch, a bone or joint may give before ones stance fails and this results in a break or dislocation. This is another reason why Palace Hand doesn’t use rooted karate-like stances. If the stance doesn’t give, something else will. Karate stances are good for karate, but they must be instantly abandoned once one is caught in a throw or joint lock situation. This is not just theory, I have witnessed serious damage caused by failed ukemi.
Of course, in a self-defense situation staying on ones feet is more valued than falling safely, so we work on that as well, but not by developing an ‘unmovable’ stance. Our unique footwork, with heels raised, helps to strengthen the toes, feet, calves and core while improving balance control. As we practice strikes, as we get pushed around holding targets for each other, and as we practice techniques on each other we further challenge and develop our balance control. In fact, throughout our practice, having good posture while maintaining our own balance and taking away our opponents balance, in many ways, defines ‘proper’ technique. It is fair to say that no matter what we are working on, we are either improving capabilities for staying on our feet or developing our ability to receive technique without injury when we can’t stay on our feet.
There are countless ways you can be injured by falling or being thrown. That is what makes throws so effective. Not only does taking down the bad guy provide an opportunity for your escape, there is a very good chance that your attacker will not have the skill required to land without injury. It doesn’t take much to cause your attacker to land badly and hard. And there is truth to the old adage ‘The bigger they are the harder they fall’.
Take your falling skills seriously. Ukemi can allow you to escape or continue to defend yourself should you be knocked down. Quick and effective ukemi is what allows the practice of throws and take-downs with speed, force and spontaneity. As your ukemi improves you can practice at an increasingly more effective level. Let yourself be thrown with enthusiasm. Because sooner or later, everyone falls.