On Being an Uke
In jiujitsu, we practice techniques one-on-one, with one person attacking and the other defending. The tori is the person defending, and uke is the person attacking. That means that when the tori does their jiujitsu on the uke, the uke gets smacked around, thrown on the ground and often put in some type of a submission hold.
I love being an uke–if you know me and you go to our school, you may have noticed. My favorite throws to take are the irimi nage throws (“entering throws”—the smooth, re-directing throws without strikes that are most often associated with aikido). There are no foot trips, no wrist locks, nothing where I’m worried about my shoulder being ripped from its socket… I just either get knocked backward and rear-roll out of it, or I forward-roll out of it. My classmates sometimes comment on how happy I look, standing back up from one of those throws. It’s actually kind of fun and feels a bit like being on a roller coaster.
Of course, some throws are smoother than others. Sometimes I get hit pretty hard, tripped, smacked, knocked around, smushed and smothered, joints locked up in an extremely not-fun way, and sometimes all I can do is focus on how to protect my bad left knee. I’m generally okay and I generally get right back up. Sometimes I am feeling resilient and can go hard, and some days I feel a little tired and so I ease up on the attacks.
That being said, being an uke is really important for two reasons:
Reason #1: By being the attacker, I’m helping my classmates to learn effective self-defense. I aim to attack in a way that is realistic enough to give my partner something to work with. So, if I’m throwing a punch, I might slow it down, but I still punch so that they have to block or move out of the way in order to not get hit. I shift my body weight and step in to meet the target as I would if I really wanted to take that person’s head off. That way the tori can learn to read my body language and adapt. As they improve, I increase my aggression to give them a sense of what it is like to be attacked outside the mat, by someone who doesn’t care about them and does want to hurt them.
They need to know what it’s like to defend a real strike or grab and to relax, to quickly recover and get into the right position to take down their attacker. Sometimes I give a little resistance, to make sure they are doing the technique correctly. Being a good uke sometimes means playing the bad guy, being not nice and giving them a sense of reality…building slowly up to it so they are challenged—but not traumatized. This way I’m helping prepare my tori physically and psychologically for the street.
Reason #2: I get a great workout—building stamina, improving breathing, flow, and flexibility. It’s important to train at an athletic pace. The more reps I get in, the more practice my partner gets as well, and the more conditioning we both experience. The less time we spend talking and trying to analyze a movement intellectually, the more time we have to practice the physical movement and gain muscle memory. As an uke I have innumerable opportunities to improve my falls, react reflexively to having my joints locked, and to protect myself as I am taken down. The more I do it, the more I relax, which is super important to my own self-defense and self-protection. I’m happy that I can take a fall and get back up again, because I’ve practiced how to fall properly for many years. Years ago when I started jiujitsu, I was totally scared of falling. That’s why students at the white belt level start learning how to fall way before they are expected to take falls (green belt).
The same thing goes for being scared about getting hit. That’s why we are taking self-defense, right? No one loves receiving a hard block, or being hit with atemi (light, distracting strikes), or having joint locks or chokes applied…and no one is expected to take these at any speed without tons of practice. Some people are naturally more adept at being an uke more than others. Some people may have injuries (like my knee), or they are older or more frail, or they have low pain thresholds that make them very protective about their bodies. However, I can say from experience that the more “uke-ing” I do (if that’s a word), the easier it gets. And it helps to train consistently.
So, if you are reading this and you really don’t like to have to be the uke, or if you don’t see why it’s so important, just keep in mind that you can’t have one without the other. Plus, when you know how it feels to take the technique, it will help you know how to perform the technique. If you are quite sensitive to pain, with a little desensitization and persistence you’ll get tougher. Remember that no violent attacker is going to hold back from attacking you because you’re injured, or old, or weak, or disabled, or because you’re in a bad mood. They’re going to want to attack you even more!
What if it’s scary? Relax. Your best mode of protection is letting the person you are working with know where you are at. If you’re not ready to take a fall, let the instructor know you are having trouble. They can usually tell, anyway, and they can help you work up to it slowly. By avoiding the subject altogether, you’re not helping anyone. Part of jiujitsu is learning how to communicate, as much as it is learning how to roll with the punches. Jiujitsu isn’t always pretty. Neither is anything that attempts to mimic violence. There’s little to no magic in martial arts. Instead, what we train to do on the mat is the best of what we will be able to do out there in the streets.