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.