The Art of Falling is Hard to Master

Falling is an important skill for a martial artist. Learning how not to get hurt in a fall is perhaps the most useful skill you can develop. But it’s deceptively hard to master. Falling requires repetition after repetition, filled with achy shoulders and skinned knees (or skinned shoulders and achy knees, depending). When I was 11 and starting judo, I spent a number of classes at the beginning just falling. Sure it was boring, but now 30 years later, I’m glad for every class I spent doing it.

In general, there are several basic falls: the back fall, the forward roll, and the breakfall. To this, you can add the back roll as another basic fall, as well as forward fall for plopping on your face and a forward fall that you slide into (common in aikido), and a side fall. And the truth is there are a good number of other falls. In my time in aikido, I’ve seen about seven or eight distinct kinds of ukemi beyond the standard three. There are a lot of ways to fall.

Today, I went into one of the practice areas and just practiced ukemi (falling). I was there by myself and while falling over and over by yourself for a half hour doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your lunch hour, there I was. In the end, I made about 180 falls covering five different kinds of ukemi. Including trying one I hadn’t done before. I hadn’t had an ukemi session like that in some years, and it felt good. The practice allowed me to rediscover some things about my body and to tweak some bits of ukemi that had been slipping over the past couple of years. But learning ukemi and practicing ukemi has a number of other benefits beyond learning how to fall.

Learning to fall is learning how to control fear: the fear of falling, the fear of getting hurt, the fear of failing. When you’re learning, you’re learning not to mind falling face first into the ground or to tense up with you’re falling blind backwards. There are different kinds of falls, like there are different kinds of failures. You’re taking something that could be really bad, even fatal, and learning how to turn it into an opportunity. When you first learn a new fall, it’s clunky and it hurts. But later, the hard edges smooth out. You get more comfortable. It even kind of hurts good.

The hardest part of ukemi is getting up. After all, when you stand up, you’re lifting your own body up every time. Five or six times is no problem. 100 times, and you’re thinking you suddenly gained ten pounds. But getting up beats just lying there, waiting for someone to crush you, every time. Standing up means you can turn around, control the distance from the other person, re-engaging as you go. Standing up means the fall didn’t beat you–you beat it. But the art of falling is hard to master, and taking some time to work on it pays off in more ways than on the mat.

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