By Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte
Ukemi a Japanese word used in Judo for the method of falling without getting injured. Uke is the person who “receives” the technique that is performed by the nage, tori or shite - the person who performs the technique.
One of my Judo teachers was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony, an impossibly intricate art. This suited him well, he being fastidious to a fault. He made me practice nothing but falling for six months, correcting every infinitesimal detail. He would sense my frustration when he caught me wistfully looking at the other judoka. They would be performing their techniques and sparring while I rolled for hours on the mat, with my teacher sometimes deftly throwing me to demonstrate a nuance I had missed. He would then remind me that the art of falling was the foundation of good Judo. I didn’t understand why he referred to falling as an art until much later. I was under the impression that competent judoka avoided getting thrown and falling was a functional skill, quickly learnt on the way to more interesting techniques.
As my Judo progressed, I began to grasp why falling was so important. My teachers would constantly tell me that I needed to relax more during randori (sparring) and my techniques were stiff and seemed forced lacking sensitivity. This came as a surprise to me since I was feeling rather smug about getting thrown a lot less than I used to be.
One day the head teacher, a seventy-year-old eighth Dan judoka, legendary for his insightful teaching called me aside after a randori. “How can you do beautiful Judo if you don’t risk falling?” he asked. I was taken aback. I thought the whole idea of a randori was to avoid getting thrown. He continued, “A lot of judokas don’t like to fall, so they try to avoid it at all cost. By doing this, they get tense, their techniques become wooden and their Judo lacks zest.” Seeing he had piqued my interest, he went on, “Real Judo is like life. The little losses and gains don’t count for much. What matters is whether you lived beautifully, with courage and joy. For this, you must learn not to fear falling or failure and welcome it like a friend. Because only when you learn to love it, then can you really live to your full potential.”
I felt like a switch had flipped in my head. Our lives are contoured by fears rather than opened by joy. We live in quiet desperation, avoiding losses, hoarding gains, and all the while short-changing beauty from our days. We teach kids that life is a scoreboard rather than a grand experiment. We school them on how to run and succeed, but never on how to fall safely and bounce right back. We make them brittle by denying them the gift of resilience that comes from knowing how to fail well. We love telling stories of success but are ashamed of stories of failure. In short, we create a pervasive fear of failure, which paradoxically denies us what we sought to achieve in the first place- a beautiful life.
Judo’s founder Jigorō Kanō also had a successful career as an educator. He first worked as the Director of Primary Education in the Ministry of Education and later as the President of Tokyo High Schools. Kano always spoke of Judo not just as a martial art but also as a path to truth and beauty. In developing Judo, he foresaw the psychological value for students to learn to fall safely and overcome the fear of failure. Ukemi to him meant more than just falling, in its essence, it constituted receiving an attack gracefully, like a gift to be honoured. He once wrote:
As I have often said if one hates to be thrown, one cannot expect to become a master of the art. By taking throws time after time, one must learn how to take falls and overcome the fear of being thrown. Then one will become unafraid of being attacked and be able to take the initiative in attack. Only by following this manner of training can one learn true Judo.
As Kano would say, as in Judo, so in life- one cannot expect to master the art of living unless one learns to fall and overcome the fear of being thrown. As the old proverb goes: The one who sleeps on the floor, doesn’t have to worry about falling off the bed.