By Richard Strozzi-Heckler
The other day a visitor at the dojo asked me, “Does it mean that the person falling down loses?” I had to explain that Aikido is not a competitive art and that the person defending themselves from attack and the attacker are working together and not competing against each other.
Perplexed, she asked, “Then how do you know who wins?”
I went on to explain that in Aikido there are no winners and losers. You gain rank by time spent training and demonstrating your competency in front of your teacher. You improve by training recurrently over time with partners who help you advance in your skill level. In other words, it’s a partnership in which you are equally committed to each other’s development. While you are learning more and more complex techniques you also embody fundamental principles such as dynamic relaxation, centering, grounding, extending and focusing your energy, blending, being a skillful partner, neutralizing aggression without violence, and being in harmony with natural laws (spirals, gravity, yin and yang).
The person who defends in Aikido is called nage and the person who attacks, and then is thrown, or taken down, is called uke. The word uke, from ukeme, is roughly translated as the one who receives the force, and nage is the one who gives the force. Training with an accomplished uke vastly accelerates your ability to learn the techniques and principles because a trained uke can fully take your force without hurting themself, or you, and moreover they can help you shape your moves more effectively. In this way both partners work together to help each other improve. To see Aikido in this way is pure Beauty...capital B; and Beauty is good for your health.
This embodied ethic of cooperation goes far beyond the dojo and it has deep and wide ramifications in our personal and professional lives. The embodied practice of partnership in Aikido produces more effective communication, deeper listening, and an increased willingness to help others in our daily lives. Training with this ethic of cooperation in mind it then becomes natural to become a “good uke” for someone outside the dojo as well; that is, to be open to and receive “the energy” of family, colleagues, clients, and loved ones so we can listen more deeply to what they’re communicating: their purpose, concerns, hopes, fears, and dreams. In this way the word “uke” becomes a practical operational distinction in our relationships and we can ask ourselves: am I listening clearly and deeply enough to them, am I giving them useful feedback, am I treating them with dignity, am I shaping myself so they become more skilled at what they are doing? We learn to partner this way in Aikido through practices that consolidate body, speech, and spirit.
Remember that this cooperation and partnership doesn’t mean that uke is simply being acquiescent or compromising. The uke has standards of center, ground, and connectivity as well; and if the nage is unnecessarily rough or disconnected the feedback from uke will be clear and direct. That is, he or she will not take the ukeme, which means they won’t fall or go down or they will stop the nage from completing the technique. This type of direct feedback is the responsibility of the uke to insure that nage meets the standard of the relationship and is not bullying, or overly timid. For uke to maintain standards is their commitment to the advancement and learning of nage. We can easily see how this transfers to our relationships outside the dojo. Both partners learn to feel, not just think, their way through the nuances of a relationship.
Practiced diligently Aikido is an effective martial art; but at its heart there lies the seeds of how people can harmoniously conduct their relationships in dignity, love, and strength.