Ukemi And Its Application In Ryusei karate

Ukemi (breakfall)—how should it be used and what is its real importance to karate practice? Ever since I started training over 22 years ago, I have done ukemi. I was always fascinated by breakfalls, but I did not until recently understand the role that ukemi can and should play in our training.

Pierre-Yvon Begin doing koho kaiten

In my practice, I focus on applications of technique and how to escape from them. Initially we learn ukemi and use it sparingly in the practice of bunkai, or as a warm-up at the beginning of class, or perhaps by accident while sparring. These instances never allow us to fully understand how to use the ukemi to our advantage.

 Let’s say, for example, that you are initiating an attack against an opponent. He blocks and throws you. You use ukemi to break your fall. But you have waited until the takedown is inescapable and the ukemi may be your last act before the opponent applies the coup de grace. Is this the correct use of ukemi? I don’t think so.
Think of ukemi as another set of self-defence movements, like uke, uchi, geri, tsuki and so on. It’s not just a breakfall; it’s an effective means to escape throwing or locking techniques. Now imagine that you are attacking an opponent, only to have your attack reversed and you are being joint-locked or thrown. Rather than letting your opponent complete his counterattack, initiate ukemi to escape from the move at the beginning of its application.

Matt Mannerow doing an ukemi at Jean Lauzon’s nidan exam

The next time you practise bunkai, use your ukemi as a means to escape a throw or joint-lock, reverse the move, or trap the opponent. Timing here is critical. If you move too soon, your opponent will cut his throw short. It you’re too late, you won’t be able to escape his technique without damage to yourself. If you ever see an aikido demonstration, you will notice that attackers being thrown are flying all over. While this is due to some extent to the defensive technique being applied, in large part is because the person being thrown is actually throwing themselves to escape damage.

So the concept is that we must throw ourselves to escape at the crucial moment in a takedown or lock. You can escape a simple wristlock, for example, by using zenpo-kaiten, or mae-ukemi, or even yoko or ushiro-ukemi. Wait until you feel the beginning of pressure of the application to your joint, and then respond accordingly. It will take a lot of practice to do this by second nature. We should fight the impulse to use our strength to resist a throw or lock. And we have to modify our reactions learned through previous bunkai practice, applying ukemi only after we have been fully thrown.

Instructor Jean Lauzon and Pierre-Yvon Begin

This concept of how to use ukemi is a departure from what I was taught and I believe that senior karateka should strive to understand the importance of ukemi in their defensive arsenal. I think it is an important step in understanding the bunkai or applications of kata. We also have to understand the role of an initiator of a technique to appreciate how bunkai really works. However I will leave that for another article.

—Peter Zehr
Grey-Bruce Ryusei Karate-Do