The Art of Dodging Bullets

My first martial art was taekwondo, but the senior student in the club was enamored with aikido. He talked about it all the time, regaling us with tales of elderly masters who could subdue multiple attackers without striking a blow, and best of all – who could dodge bullets. One story had it that an aikido master was working for the U.S. special forces in Vietnam as “the little old man in the shack” – the guy the new recruit is supposed to kill as his first assignment. Of course, the recruit would empty his gun without managing to hit the old man, who would quickly disarm him.

I had some doubts about this story. For one thing, if you had such a valuable asset – an old man who could dodge bullets and might be able to teach others to do the same – why would you repeatedly put him at risk of some lunk getting off a lucky shot (or an unlucky ricochet)? But our classmate insisted he knew someone who had been through this training. And we were at least willing to be in awe of the idea. We wanted this martial arts journey on which we had embarked to hold the promise of remarkable things.

At the time, though, we were content with our training. Nonviolence and bullet-dodging might be appealing ideas to the mind, but body and spirit wanted to kick hard, punch hard, sweat hard, and face off with opponents doing the same. Aikido went on the to-do list, under “eventually.”

Twelve years later, I did join an aikido dojo. By then I was a little less ignorant. I’d figured out that the story my classmate told was probably just a scene from a Remo Williams novel, or the movie based on it, with Joel Grey as the Asian master. [Here is the trailer, and another funny clip.] I had also learned that Morihei Ueshiba, aikido’s founder, did reportedly claim experiences of avoiding gunmen’s bullets. But I held no fantasies of attaining such a skill. By this time I knew martial arts would be a lifetime pursuit, and I simply wanted to get better at it.

While attending a seminar, I’d seen a demonstration in which the aikido instructors performed with such a relaxed air of grace, power and control – I thought it was worth exploring, so I joined their dojo. I was training actively in karate and had no intention of giving that up. So it was karate on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and aikido on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. I managed to keep up this schedule for a few fine years. During that time, I encountered all the standard questions one hears on forums and from skeptics:

Does that aikido stuff really work? Doesn’t it depend on compliant attackers? As attacker, or uke, aren’t you just practicing giving up?
When they go to throw you, wouldn’t you just let go and clock ‘em?

To which I replied, Yeah, sometimes I wanted to…but that isn’t really the point.

To me, the point was that I had joined this practice to learn something, not to prove something. I wanted that quality of movement the instructors seemed to embody – relaxed, in control of themselves, in control of their partners. It made sense to adopt their training methods in order to obtain it, and I did so, even when it was difficult or annoying. Perhaps this was made easier by my karate practice, which included armbars and throws. I saw aikido not as a source of new techniques, but a means to improve my other art. Right or wrong, it helped me to empty my cup, and I was rewarded. I gained better posture, better footwork, an ease of movement and flow that I had been lacking. I gained tremendously in my ability to work with partners through intense exchanges. I began to lose the tight shoulders and general rigidity so many “hard stylists” suffer from. I must say that aikido as a method of practice served me very well.

Over time, my understanding of ukemi evolved, and that’s the real topic of this post. Ukemi – the art of falling, or the art of receiving an attack, – is the job of uke, the person who initiates an exchange by attacking, and takes the fall when nage applies a technique. Does uke need to be compliant in order for nage’s technique to work? One thing is certain: Uke needs to cooperate in order for nage to learn. Sophisticated wrist locks and throws are not mastered in a day. Partners must work together to feel how to make techniques succeed. Resistant ukes frustrate learning and encourage nage to force it, or muscle through the technique. Look around; you’ll see plenty of that – but good technique is not about reducing it to brawn. By resisting, uke also puts himself at risk of injury, both by making his joints rigid… and by pissing off his partner!

As a beginner, I took these as reasons enough to “go along,” and I did think of it to some extent as “going along.” This was a “throw-centric” view of training – that its purpose was to master techniques (throws, locks, and pins). Ukemi was a necessary evil, since someone had to be thrown, locked or pinned. Uke learns how to take falls without getting hurt, in order to serve as nage’s practice dummy. Uke complies so nage can learn, but it’s agreed they’ll become less compliant at more advanced levels.

I later came to see other values in staying committed to the attack and connected with nage – i.e., not just letting go & “clocking ‘em.” It’s a good and often intense education in maintaining balance, flexibility and control under duress. You learn to continue your attack from positions where others would be sprawled on the pavement. It also teaches you to feel the process of nage’s technique, to sense weaknesses and openings. It’s aikido’s version of “sticky hands.” Also, in many cases, disconnecting from nage simply means nage clocks you first! So it’s important not to think simplistically about this kind of practice.

But I got a whole new take on ukemi after I took a few years off from aikido, then returned to a different dojo. The head instructor was a real hard-ass, and there was something different about the ukemi. The students went at it with an energy and aggression I hadn’t seen before, bending and spinning this way and that, taking the fall only at the last resort, instantly up, and back on the attack. Instruction in ukemi was much more detailed and exact than I’d previously encountered. Clearly, this wasn’t just about getting thrown without getting hurt.

The throws, locks and pins were similar to what I’d practiced before, but when students were demonstrating, chances are your eyes would be on the ukemi rather than the technique – it was so dynamic. A big surprise to me was that advanced training seemed mostly to consist of individuals being thrown for minutes at a time by the head instructor. The throws weren’t necessarily flashy, but he really drove home the point of staying connected so that nage couldn’t smack you – proving the point with bloody noses and black eyes on ukes who slipped up.

I had the thought one day, watching some of the best students in advanced class: These guys would be very hard to hit. Like trying to smack a mosquito buzzing around your head. Then it dawned on me: These are the guys who are learning to dodge bullets! Figurative bullets, maybe, but impressive just the same. Another thought followed: There’s no real distinction between uke and nage. When uke initiates by attacking, nage receives the attack, and so functions as uke. The job, for nage, is to protect oneself from being struck or thrown, and succeeding there, to transform the attack into a strike or throw of one’s own. Now the same job falls to uke, who in advanced training will always take an opening to counter (and so become thrower again). My thinking had come full circle:

Ukemi isn’t a necessary evil so you can practice techniques; techniques are the necessary evil, so you can practice ukemi. And it made sense, at least to this karateka’s mind, that the techniques of aikido could not be its essence, since after all they’re held in common with jujitsu and all its descendants. The essence must be in the ukemi; that’s what makes it the art of dodging bullets.

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16 Responses to “The Art of Dodging Bullets”

  1. Fascinating post.

    Striking a balance between working against and working with your partner is certainly something I find difficult at times. Overly cooperative partners can sometimes be more frustrating than resistant ones. But, when teaching and working with beginners, it’s also hard to maintain relaxation and sensitivity if tension is escalated too quickly.

    I suppose learning to be ‘flexible’ is all part of the training too. It’s easy to train with great partners but learning to make things work with the more difficult and less coordinated ones is good training too.

  2. […] American Traditional has an excellent post that once again makes me consider aikido! While attending a seminar, I’d seen a demonstration in which the aikido instructors performed […]

  3. […] may be more about this martial art than meets the eye. I also have to admit that Mokuren Dojo and American Traditional have both influenced this choice. The former blog I’ve followed for years and the later is […]

  4. […] will!–I’ll be better able to assess it. Until then I’ll refer all you critics to American Traditional. To me, the point was that I had joined this practice to learn something, not to prove […]

  5. Michael Ball Says:

    I love this piece. Isn’t life all about managing your expectations and doing reality checks? Without that, we’d all be disillusioned in life and nobody would strive to be better because we’d all fail when we couldn’t achieve the unrealistic goals we set.

    I think the best point in this article is how you came full circle and realized that the first expectation wasn’t where you thought it would be but, instead, it came back to surprise you when you least expected it.

  6. serpentstaff Says:

    Krista, Michael – Thanks for coming by and leaving comments.

    Striking Thoughts, aka Bob – Thanks for sending some traffic my way. But now I’m expecting to be clobbered by the “aikido sucks” crowd!

  7. […] Click here to read entire article. […]

  8. kseniya Says:

    Wonderful piece. I can’t say I understand ukemi yet, but thanks to your explanation I have some idea of what it might be. I tried many different styles before coming to aikido and it is the first one that feels natural to me, organic to the point where I can feel my way through movement with my eyes closed.

  9. Steve Douglas Says:

    I read your letter with interest as I am taking Tang Soo Do and considering taking Akido. Your comments about why you wanted to take Akido parallel my thoughts pretty close. Thanks for your thoughts ..

  10. steve kwan Says:

    Excellent article! The article surely helps my training in Aikido.
    Thanks!

  11. serpentstaff Says:

    kseniya, Steve D. and steve k: Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments. I wish you well in your training!

  12. Jim Cazel Says:

    Serpentstaff,

    Thank you for the post.

    Great movie, Remo Williams, The Adventure Begins! Especially the much beloved scene of the old man dodging the bullets.

    Can one learn to dodge bullets ? I believe it is possible.

    There are moments of ‘clarity’ most of us have experienced at one time or another in which time and everything around us slows down particularly when facing a life threatening situation.
    As time ‘slows’, our thought process is accelerated during that interval and we are able to analyze numerous possibilities in a split second.

    On rare occasions I have experienced something ‘somewhat’ similar in the Kendo dojo, without the ‘threatening’ stimulus, to where any opponent can be struck at will at anytime. It is as if they are moving in slow motion.
    In the dojo it is more a completely relaxed state of ‘no-thinking’ and deep ki breathing which takes over.
    If one can learn to replicate these states on a consistent basis and that is the catch, then the door is open to many possibilities including perhaps dodging bullets:)

  13. thank you for your well wishes. 6 months into aikido training, and still there.

  14. I have an observation based on my experience teaching safety to sport shooters. We teach them to imagine that there is a line extending out from the muzzle of the gun. That line should be treated like a laser, if it passes over something, it potentially can shoot it. The base rule is, “Don’t the muzzle cover anything you don’t want a hole in.” Teaching people to be always attentive of where the muzzle is, ie. pointed downrange at the backstop, not at the bench they are standing at, or worse, the person they are standing next to, is the goal.

    Applied to this post about Aikido, it occurred to me that avoiding a bullet would not a magic trick of jumping out of the path of a supersonic piece of lead. Instead, it would be the uke’s version of the rule I mentioned above. Don’t let the nage point the muzzle of the gun at you. If you imagine that laser waving around as the nage tries to aim, and you continually move to avoid it, just as you would move to avoid the blade of a sword, you would be “dodging the muzzle” and by extension, the bullets, if fired, would miss.

    It would require ukemi skills of great clarity, on the order of O’Sensei’s experience in the garden, but if you added an awareness of the nage’s posture and tension, that moment of intent where he pulls the trigger, and could continue to move so as to not being in front of the muzzle at that time, it seems possible.

    Me personally, with my skills? I want only want to try if we are using paintball.

  15. Obviously dodging a bullet in flight is quite impossible, detecting the movement of the hand and barrel before the trigger is pulled should (in theory at least) be possible and that is why gun disarms work if they are trained to the max and the right opportunity presents itself (a slight slip in the attention of the gunman).

    I like your explanations about ukemi (in our dojo pretty much everyone dreads it and even I usually just go through the motions without really focusing as I should) and it is indeed a vital skill, both for safe practice and for self protection in fights and stupid accidents. I too have often wondered about aikido and its effectiveness and this, typical of people raising these questions, without even having the slightest practical experience with it… How foolish. Humans must always be judgemental and have an opinion about anything (pretty useful for survival obviously), more often than not unhindered by real knowledge. This doesn’t mean I consider aikido to be exceptionally useful in self defense (at least not without decades of training) and I’m not going to switch arts just yet but from now on I’ll try to be less obstinate about this and other things I have little practical knowledge of and devote more time and energy to ukemi in order to relax more and learn about the principles of motion. In fact my sensei scolded me about this (even today when we went to a kenpo seminar together) and insisted I shouldn’t tense up and stay put during his striking (I have a tendency to move away and cover up), trusting he would pull his punches and strikes. In fact this is another benefit from ukemi: learning to trust your partner and have faith in your own technique (both in execution and receiving of the technique) in order to augment ones skill and understanding.

    Informative and insightful post.

  16. Jim Cazel Says:

    …..I sense my opponents Ki and by doing so know his intent…I meld with his Ki/intent. Intent precedes the trigger pull and since I am one…who knows what is possible 🙂 I have seen many impossible things in sixty-one years. Some even better than dodging a bullet! ha ha
    Ki development has saved my life or grave bodily harm on two occasions. It was the development of my Ki that saved me. Not any fancy moves or holds or kicks or good Nikes!
    Developing ones Ki is not just limited to Aikido but actually all the arts in their highest form. I believe Ki development and breathing classes would be complimentary and beneficial to all the arts.
    The highest form of course is: no mind, no self. That is the highest goal…the ultimate and most fantastic thing one can try to attain. The mountain top one might say. It takes time, patience and of course a lot of training to develop strong Ki. But Ki can be developed anywhere doing almost anything so you really don’t have to make extra time so to speak for it and the practice aids whatever you are doing as well. So it’s a win win.

    …. I remember I dodged two bullets as a 4year old in Okinawa when I found dad’s 45 ammo and a hammer. I loved the sound the first one made as it went off. Mom ran out screaming, grabbed the hammer and hid the ammo but not good enough as I dodged a second one!! Needless to say she found a better hiding place….

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