52. The most effective martial arts technique is…

For my money, the most effective martial arts technique that I have ever had to use in a real life situation is…

Ukemi. Breakfalls. Seriously.

Forget about a reverse punch that could break a jaw, or a side kick to destroy knees, or an unstoppable throw or joint lock. The best thing I ever learned in martial arts was how to take a tumble.

I don’t think I’m prone to falling. However, as a typical middle-aged American male lacking somewhat in common sense, I found that my training in martial arts saved me from myself.

As a computer graphics teacher, I don’t find much cause in using my grappling skills in my work. Nor would carrying a two-foot long sword around as an accessory win me any points when going through airport security.  So while one aspect of my training in koryu martial arts might concern itself with self-defense, it’s not a major issue for me. I don’t frequent rowdy bars anymore, I live a quiet middle-class life in a location with relatively low crime rates, and I’m not in the military or law enforcement where I might truly have to use some combative techniques in the course of my duties.

But I have frequently found occasion to use my ukemi skills inadvertently, and it has literally saved my stupid rear end.

There was the time, for example, when I was wearily pedaling back to my apartment on a bicycle from a special iai training session in Japan. Luckily, I was going rather slowly. My legs were still aching from the training session so I passed the low-slung wooden houses one by one, taking my time.

Suddenly, from an open door in front of me, a little girl sped out on her tricycle like she was Speed Racer, cutting right in front of me. I turned my front wheel to avoid hitting her. That act cost me. The sudden turn caused my bicycle to go off-balance. I tried to right myself by turning into the disbalance, but the bottom of the sword case I had slung over my back got caught in the spokes of the back wheel. With the back wheel jammed, the bicycle heaved over. I was flipped face forward over the handlebars. Right in front of my accelerating forehead was a telephone pole.

In panic, but by instinct, I put out my hands to cushion the blow, as in a Takeuchi-ryu front breakfall. I wasn’t entirely successful. My forehead did hit the wooden pole, but the brunt of the force was absorbed by my hands, else I probably wouldn’t be here writing about this. I’d have been dead. As it was, I saw enough stars to populate a whole galaxy. I fell backwards, the bicycle falling on top of me.

In the periphery of my consciousness, I heard the little brat spin her tricycle around, zoom back into the house, and slam the door.

Seconds passed. Nobody came out to help me. I lay there for a long time, wondering if I had broken any bones in my skull. I saw Saturn. The Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy. You know those Warner Brothers cartoons where someone gets whacked on the noggin and stars spin around their head? That’s for real, man.

Finally, I shook myself up, gathered up my gear, righted my bicycle, and managed to get back home without any further incident. But boy, having some awareness of tumbling through space really helped me to keep my senses about me, at least enough to have survived the worst of it.

Then there was the time I was doing some home improvements. Yep. I think more red-blooded American males get hurt trying to do some kind of home improvement than anything else. I was digging out the root of a particularly pernicious weed that had grown into the size of a tree, I kid you not. The root was on a steep slope in my backyard. I had chopped and pick-axed most of the root out, but the central root was still stuck in the ground. I grabbed the end of it and pulled. And pulled. It gave a bit. Okay! I gave it one last pull, using all my strength…and it came out! Great…Except that I was standing with my back downslope, and when the root got yanked out, I found myself falling backwards.

Using my cat-like skills (ha! If I was a drunken cat, that is!), I tried to regain my footing. But the back of my shins struck the top of a concrete and cinder block retaining wall. I flipped over backwards, falling some three feet down to the concrete walkway. I clearly remember telling myself to curl up, like I was doing a back breakfall as in judo, aikido or jujutsu. Yep, great idea. I saved my back, but I forgot that the side of the house was just on the other side of the retaining wall. My head slammed into the wall, but I saved my back, and the wall was soft wood, so it gave somewhat. I had a terrible headache, but no real permanent damage that I can tell.

Undaunted, or simply too stupid to learn, I still do home improvement activities. The most spectacular home improvement ukemi happened when I was trying to chain saw some branches off a mango tree at my grandmother’s house. I was standing in the crook of the tree and decided I had finished for the day. One foot went to the ladder leaning against the tree. My left hand grabbed the top of the ladder as I stepped off the tree…and then the ladder slipped and gave way. I was falling face first to the ground from seven feet in the air, my right hand holding that chain saw!

Funny how your mind can really focus at a time like this. I realized in a split second that I didn’t want the chain saw anywhere near my body, so I stretched my right arm out, pointing the business end of the chain saw away from my appendages. Just like the way I practiced breakfalls in martial arts class, I turned my face away from the impact and bent my left elbow, placing it palm downwards in front of my head. I slammed into the ground doing a one-handed front breakfall, cushioned by my left hand and the balls of my feet. The impact of the fall caused my thighs and knee to also slam into the ground, causing some shock and strain to my leg muscles, but other than that, I survived that nearly fatal tumble without much injury. It could have been much, much worse were it not for my having practiced breakfalls so much.

And lastly: You’d think that you’d be safe in your own home. But no. I was taking a shower one evening, and was just about to grab a towel to dry off when my cell phone rang. I jumped out on the tile floor thinking to grab the cell phone, but I was dripping wet. The water caused the tiles to become slippery, and my right foot slipped and I was doing an unexpected butt-naked leg split, almost falling forward. Again, somehow I kept half my wits about me. I realized that if I continued to fall over, I would hit the corner of the bathroom sink with my head. Not good. I grabbed the sink to push my head away from it, but to do so and avoid slamming into it, my left leg continued to slide on the floor as I skidded. I saved my brains but tore up the meniscus in my right knee.

That later required arthroscopic knee surgery, but better my knee than another blow to my head. My wife thinks I’ve taken all the blows to my head I can endure, especially from high school football, and any more and I’d probably get more punchy than I already am, she thinks.

So, yes, I think years and years of tumbling and doing breakfalls had quite an impact on my existence. It saved my life more than any other particular martial arts skill I know.

As I spend some time with my mother, she also tells me that one of the great fears that senior citizens have is the fear of falling. When one ages, your sense of balance gets weaker, and you are in greater danger of falling. That’s deadly for a senior citizen. Because of weaker muscles, when they fall they can have a harder time getting up. Their bones are more brittle, and they can seriously injure themselves, hitting their heads against the pavement. Of the friends she knew who no longer came to her Senior Citizens Club, about a third passed away from some illness or old age, about a third got too sick or senile to appear at the clubhouse, and fully a third got injured in a fall, which led to their greater immobility and inability to easily move about and travel.

So more so, when I consider the perils of falling in old age, I’m most grateful for having learned to do breakfalls and rolls in budo training. It has saved me several times from more serious physical damage, and hopefully it will stand me in good stead as I age.

Finally, the other day I got an email from a karate friend who used to train with me in jujutsu. His work as a computer network specialist got so busy he wasn’t able to train with me for the past two years or so. But he had to tell me that jujutsu…and in particular, ukemi, saved his own life.

Like me, he likes to do home improvements. Unlike me, he’s usually a lot better at carpentry and home repairs, so he takes on even more ambitious projects than me. The other day, he wrote, he was reroofing his own house. There he was on top of his two-story house, a nail gun in one hand, a box of nails in another, the master of his own domain, standing proudly…when he suddenly lost his balance. He fell right off the roof.

He doesn’t remember much of what happened until he recovered from being stunned from hitting the wooden deck on the ground. However, his wife looked out a window when she heard the loud bang of his body hitting the deck. She saw him in a perfect front breakfall, feet supporting his lower body, two hands creating a triangle in front of his head, face turned to one side to protect it from slamming into the ground.

The impact was so powerful that he had a fracture in the ulna of an arm, and a fractured cheek because he didn’t quite manage to get his hands completely in front of his head, but other than that, he was relatively intact, save for his bruised ego. He wrote to me to make sure I tell my current students to really practice ukemi. It could save their lives one day.

Yep. So the most effective martial arts technique? For my money, it’s the humble method of ukemi.


8 thoughts on “52. The most effective martial arts technique is…

  1. Absolutely, a reason I think Judo or tumbling should be offered to all kids in elementary school. Your karate friend could have got much worse!!

  2. I agree one hundred percent…. I’ve heard more stories over many, many years about people successfully defending themselves with ukemi skills way more often than “fighting” skills.

    I would add though, in my experience, most people who don’t go into a thorough study of ukemi get just a very narrow view of the whole picture. Ukemi, in my understanding, doesn’t mean only falling down by it’s self. “Receiving (force) with the body” is sort of how I translate ukemi. Receiving incoming force with good posture, and if falling is necessary, doing it appropriately while keeping natural, good, functional posture so that minimal damage happens and continuing to have as much ability to function reliably as possible. This may mean a movement of half an inch or falling onto the ground and being able to counter attack on the way down or after the fall. Too many people are trained to, more or less, give up when thrown or to give with the force and then retaliate. I’ve been trained to counter as I receive force while maintaining a viable posture as much as possible and this is what is taught within our Jiyushinkai curriculum. Ukemi certainly should not be viewed as “losing”… it is, and always should be a major part of any truly functional budo form. If you slip, trip, get knocked down and lose your weapon, understanding the full meaning of ukemi in any tai jutsu and buki waza system is absolutely necessary. It must become instinctual just like recovering balance when we stumble while walking, etc.

    (I remember a famous letter that P. Porter sent to every judo teacher he knew many years ago stating that teaching ukemi should be stopped because it “taught people to lose.” I remember Kotani Sensei being especially amused by that letter and remarked how everyone should consider it because of the amount of understanding of judo that Porter had. Porter, I heard, thought that was a compliment.)

    I’m most likely preaching to the choir as the old saying goes. Happy landings…. 🙂

  3. Agreed, Chuck, and all the rest. “Ukemi” actually doesn’t literally translate as “breakfalls,” but “receiving (undertaking) body, as in having a body pliant enough to absorb an attack, whether deflecting it or taking the force without injury to one’s self.

    When I first started out in Takeuchi-ryu, my teacher showed how ukemi, if practiced correctly, led to a sense of one’s body even while falling or tumbling, that would be as good an offense as a defense. Later, I heard the story (I haven’t yet been able to verify it) of how a Takeuchi-ryu person forced an unusual draw with Yamashita, one of the four “kings” of Kano Jigoro’s Kodokan judo, in the early days. The bout went on for quite a while until Yamashita managed an over-the-shoulder throw, I think a seoi-nage. The Takeuchi-ryu person slammed into the mat and the judge ruled it an ippon, but then Yamashita stumbled away, clutching his arm, and then fell, writhing in pain. The Takeuchi-ryu person had used the force of the throw itself to help dislocate Yamashita’s arm in mid-throw. The judge had to change his decision to hiki-wake, a draw.


  4. …Oh, and the story about Porter’s aversion to learning ukemi. Wow. Never heard that one before. It’s like trying to learn self-defense without trying to learn self-defense, don’t you think?


  5. I had heard the story concerning Yamashita but I never heard that it was a member of Takeuchi-ryu. That was before there were any rules in judo shiai. There was a lot of “testing spirit” back in those days. In fact, when I first started going to shiai (I was twelve) there were no printed rules to speak of, in fact Charlie Palmer had gotten the IJF started a couple of years before and there really were no rules available. If there was a dispute over anything the senior judoka there made a ruling and everyone lived with it. Before too many years had gone by lifting the IJF rule book might give you a hernia; and it would take a room full of Philadelphia lawyers to argue what a rule might really mean…. I heard recently that there’s now an actual rule that everyone has to share 20% of their prize money with their “coach” when they win international level shiai. I haven’t wanted to take the time to read the current rule book, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It breaks my heart to see what most people call judo these days. Grumble, grumble, hrummmph…. I’m officially a “old guy” now so I can do that… 😐

    – Chuck

  6. My teacher used to race motorcycles for a bike company. He had to drop a new super bike at over one hundred some miles an hour. His break fall and tumbling training kicked in as he rolled away and the bike crashed and burned. It saved his neck knowing how to fall.

    The bosses greatly upset he wrecked their machine. They did not ask him how was he doing.

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