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.