Next to mai ukemi (forward roll), the next important type of fall you will learn in Aikido is how to fall or roll backwards (in Japanese “ushiro ukemi”). Many Aikido techniques require the ability to fall backwards safely. This type of fall can be dangerous in a couple of ways:
1) You can fall backward hard and strike your head against the floor
2) You can position your head wrong and roll backward over your head, harming your neck
The most important consideration is to protect your head when you fall backward. This is especially important if you were to fall on cement or another hard surface.
The following video demonstrates how to roll backward from a sitting position.
Starting from sitting is a good way to begin training ushiro ukemi, because you will learn the basic form properly from a relatively safe position.
A backward roll starts all on the same side. If your right foot is forward, you will bring your right knee to your right shoulder, then roll on the right side. Your right foot will also be the first foot to touch the ground as you complete the roll.
Important safety tip: Tilt your head away from the shoulder you are about to roll on. For example, if you are rolling on your right side, tilt your head to the left. This will position your head correctly so you won’t hurt your neck.
As you roll backward, curl your body up tight in a ball. Then when you exit the roll, straighten your opposite leg. This uncurling action will help give you the momentum to finish.
At the end of the roll, your feet should touch the mat first, before your knees, and your toes should be curled under (no flat-footed ending).
Once you have the basic movements mastered, try it from standing.
Beginners often try to do ushiro ukemi from standing by leaning backwards and falling down. This mistake can hurt your back, because you will come down hard. Instead, tuck your back leg to the side and then sit down gently before continuing into a backward roll. Remember: the most important priority is to keep yourself safe!
Again, everything will happen on the same side. The forward leg will come up to the shoulder on the same side. It will also be the first foot to touch the ground.
As you return to a standing position, try to minimize the amount of footwork. Just come gently to your feet and return to a natural stance.
Safe Ushiro Ukemi
Although we train to roll backward for ushiro ukemi, it is not always the safest way to fall. At Aikido of Salt Lake, we prefer a form of ushiro ukemi that consists of a roll across the back rather than over the shoulder. This variation allows you to quickly create distance between you and nage (the person performing the technique) with less risk to the head and neck.
To learn this variation, start in a sitting position with the legs open. The ukemi begins by rolling from the edge of one hand, along the arm, and across the shoulders and upper back to the opposite side. When you finish, you should be facing in the opposite direction (180 degree turn).
From a standing start, tuck one foot and lean to the side, again beginning the fall on the edge of the hand and rolling across the arm and shoulders/back to the opposite side.
You can quickly come back to your feet by continuing the movement and pivoting on one knee to face your partner.
Reminder: the most important thing to remember when taking backward falls (of any kind) is to protect your head.
Learning to fall safely is essential to training Aikido. Good ukemi skills with give you and your training partners confidence that you are ready to receive any technique safely. Most importantly, you will be able to continue your training for many years to come with a much lower risk of injury.
Next article: 3 Steps to Learning a Soft Break Fall (coming soon)