Learning to fall is central to the practice of Aikido. Until you learn to fall safely, you are at risk of injury. One of the very first things you will be taught when you visit an Aikido class is how to take a forward roll (or “mai ukemi” in Japanese). The key to taking a forward roll is to learn to become round. This is done by making a wheel shape with your arms, turning your hands palm outward, and rolling from your forward shoulder diagonally across your back to the opposite hip.
The following video demonstrates how to take a mai ukemi from the kneeling position.
It’s important to be very careful at first, because if you roll wrong it can hurt (especially the lower back if you come down too hard). Begin your mai ukemi training from a kneeling position and roll slowly forward along the curve of your arm and back. A gentle push with your back foot will help start the movement.
At first you will find that you tend to have corners or edges that “bump” when you roll, this will usually be at the knee, elbow, and the shoulder. You should try to be as round as possible like a wheel. Be patient with yourself. Everyone has rough edges that will be “worn off” as you practice. Pain can be a teacher too.
When you feel ready, you can graduate to a forward roll from the standing position.
The only real difference between mai ukemi from standing and mai ukemi from kneeling is that you start a little higher. The best way to learn to roll safely from standing is to get low to the ground. You’ll learn how to take a roll from greater heights later when you have had more practice. For now, try to get low to the ground so that your “wheel” touches the ground smoothly as you begin the roll.
The round wheel shape of the arms is called “unbendable arm.” It’s made when the arm is extended in a gentle curve—not straight or with a locked-elbow—and the palms turned outward. Then roll across the curve of your arm, shoulder, and back to the opposite hip. Try not to let your elbow collapse or you may come down hard on your shoulder and risk injury. Be very careful at first when trying a standing roll, and don’t try to keep up with more senior students. You’ll soon be rolling as well as they do!
Stretch rolls or “baby” rolls are another good way to practice the basic shape and movement of mai ukemi. A stretch roll can end with a forward exit, where you continue in the direction you started, or with a sideways rollout (yoko ukemi). The video below shows a stretch roll into a soft yoko ukemi.
The most important thing to remember when taking ukemi is that the ground is your friend. In Aikido, the ground is a source of power (ki) and your ally. When you are thrown, you should be able get back up again and be ready for more action. In training, it’s as important to learn how to receive techniques (as uke) as it is to perform techniques (as nage). If we didn’t know how to fall safely, our practices sessions would be tragically short!
Devote the necessary time to learning to fall, and soon you will be able to enjoy the experience of flying!
Next article: How to Do an Aikido Backward Roll