Nippon Kan Aikido’s Guidance on “Suwari Waza” & “Break-fall Ukemi”

K L

Let me state the conclusion first: Practicing suwari waza座り技is hard on the knees, and it can be abusive to the structure and normal functions of knees.  Therefore, Nippon Kan stopped the practice of suwari wazaabout 25 years ago.  Aikido Nippon Kan does not promote or encourage practicing break-fall ukemi離れ飛び受け身, either.

Wearing joint support sleeves in the locker room

Among a good number of high-ranking Japanese Shihan who had dedicated their lives to teaching younger generations the budo of Aikido, most, if not all, of those Shihan had eventually gone through iterations of changes in how they executed Aikido techniques mainly due to declined ranges of motions of their knees from various knee problems.  (Their names are still well-recognized today, if you heard them…  Since this is rather of a personal matter, no name will be mentioned in this article.)  Their knee problems collectively were like an occupational disease for Aikido Shihan and instructors.

When those high-ranking Shihan were younger and more active, most rooms in typical Japanese homes had tatami mats, and it simply was a part of daily life to sit down in seizaor cross-legged on tatami matsand stand up and sit down again (you get the idea).  In other words, they were exercising their knees quite well regularly on a daily basis just out of daily living and just like ordinary people of the era.  Also, as public transportation choices were quite limited back then, they walked a lot like everybody else, probably more than how much we walk nowadays.  To put it differently, they were probably getting a good dose of exercise on a daily basis to keep their knees healthy.  However, most if not all of those high-raking Shihan started to suffer from knee problems around the age of 50

In my view, our bodily functions & capabilities are like a bottle of wine in a given bottle size.  If we drink it up, the wine is gone…   Even if we could fill up the bottle with more wine, some may drink it like a fish in one night; others may enjoy the wine one sip at a time for a long time, while some others may enjoy the wine in a party with others.  Even if we could add more wine in the bottle, we can only drink so much.  Our journey in a world of Budo is quite similar to this analogy, in my opinion.

When I was much younger, I used to practice and endured keikosessions with my knees bleeding.  My keikogi pants and hakama had layers of patches around knee areas.  When I sat in seizafor a prolonged time during keiko, thin blisters formed on the wounds on my knees, and the blisters adhered to the inside of pantlegs!!! (Ugh)  At the moment of standing up, as the pantlegs separated from the blisters, the pinkish wounds reappeared to start bleeding again. This cycle was repeated over and over…  It was not unusual for an instructor(s) in charge to devote the entire keikosession of 60 minutes to suwari waza.  While it didnt seem so tough for instructors as they were usually standing and walking around, it was quite a teeth-gritting, tough undertaking for students.  Such a suwari wazaclass was sometimes preceded by practicing Shikko (膝行knee walking)in which various movements of Shikko (knee walking)were repetitiously practiced.

Growing up, I liked going hiking the mountains.  When I was in grade school, I used to walk to school for about 30 minutes one-way.  So I was good at exercises that required lower body strength.  Nevertheless, practice routines that required rubbing knees against dojo mats and twisting lower body joints were hard & challenging even for me.  At the same time, as I was better at suwari wazathan others around me, there were times when I demoed with much enthusiasm suwari wazatechniques like an elegant dancer in front students to teach those techniques.

Over the years of having visited many different Aikido dojos around the world, I have noticed that there are many Aikido practitioners with knee problems, especially among Aikido practitioners in developed countries in general.  I often notice a good number of Aikidoists wearing a support sleeve and/or a protector on their knees, and its not unusual to see students who cannot sit in seiza.  When bowing to the front of the dojo as a class, its not too difficult to spot students presumably with knee problems as they seem they can only kneel at best, while doing their best, with difficulties to fold their legs at the knees.  By the way, I have not seen as many Aikido practitioners with apparent knees problems among Aikidoists in Muslim-majority countries.  I am thinking it may be partly because of how they worship per their religious rituals and the frequency of the act of worshipping (e.g. as many as 5 times a day).  Yet, I should also point out that this may not be so because my observation is that many of them seem to retire from practicing Aikido at younger ages than Aikidoists in other countries; in other words, it might be that Aikido practitioners I have seen in Muslim-majority countries stop practicing Aikido before their knees problems become a hindrance in the practice of Aikido

We spend much time in office environment; we probably drive a lot more than walk; we probably use elevators instead of taking the stairs, and we may not exercise regularly as recommended…  Besides, even if you are a regular gym-goer and an exercise fanatic, Im certain that none of us does an exercise routine in which we put all our body weight on both knees to grind them against the floor!  In other words, it can be quite dangerous to the long-term health of knees if Shikko ( knee walking)movements were repetitiously practiced by every student simply because its one of the rules of engagement in the practice of Aikido.  Have we given any thought how much load is placed on the knees given our body weight?  Have we thought about how special and unique, in other words, unusual and unnatural Shikko ( knee walking)movements are?  I think pivoting on the knees to move alternatively between right and left exerts a certain amount of unduly pressure on knees, and it can be very dangerous to the long-term health of ones knees.

Although I am neither an orthopedic surgeon nor a sports medicine physician, I have come to form my views through 50+ years of practicing Aikido and from having interacted with many Aikidoists around the world over the past decades as well as having seen over 30,000 beginners participated in BeginnersClasses at Aikido Nippon Kan.

I should also point out that Shikkomovements are a quite effective way to strengthen the muscles around ones hip/waist to help achieve a lower center of gravity and to aid in stabilizing ones upper body when executing Aikido techniques.  However, I should also mention that damages that may result from careless and/or excessive Shikko (knee walking)practice may be far greater than the benefits one could gain.  Needless to say, there are many different effective exercise methods to strengthen the muscles around ones hip/waist proven by modern sports sciences.  In terms of Bujutsu, there is no need to stay kneeling when you are under attack by an enemy.  What if someone attacked you when you are sitting in a sofa at home, would you remain sitting in the sofa?  Its the same logic.

Its also worth noting a view that some instructors have taken advantage of suwari wazatechniques in the past as a way to add more dignityto their status as an instructor.  When they show off various suwari wazatechniques, it may have been effective to create a separation from those who experience difficulties to carry out even the simplest form of Shikko (膝行)movements so that the instructors could sustain a sense of upper hand in their relationships with students.  It even gets worse when video instructions are produced…  During filming sessions, there are usually many cuts and retakes, especially for the most unrealistic, flamboyant techniques.  But once such techniques are filmed, edited & rendered and produced as a series of video instructions with amazingly seamless executions of difficult techniques, learners tend to devote themselves to keep practicing what they see in the videos while being totally unaware and oblivious to the fact that the instructors featured in the video had (or may likely have) suffered from severe knee problems.

During keikoat the Iwama Dojo, when the Founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba found even a tiny spot of blood, so tiny that it looked like a bloodstain from a flu shot, he would stop the keikoto check & find out who was bleeding…  Then he used to say what would have become one of my credos that I have kept in me as an instructor, If any one of you were to sustain an injury, how could an old man like me tell it to your parents/guardians?  They have entrusted me to take good care of you.  And how could I apologize to your parents/guardians and make amends with them if I allowed you to suffer an injury?

In my experience, I think those who are good at not only suwari wazabut in taking break-fall ukemiare prone to sustain knee injuries.  Its not few among young Aikidoists who are quite committed to learning and becoming good at break-fall ukemi.  However, its worth pointing out that in Aikido a person taking ukedoes not resist, and therefore, its only the voluntary act of the ukewho voluntarily executes break-fall ukemi.  If we put on an analytical hat on and think about it logically, it becomes obvious quickly that people dont get thrown up in the air by kote gaeshior irimi nage.  Its also worth pointing out that even if you take break-fall ukemivoluntarily, the impact to your body when you land on the dojo mats is not insignificant.  Although of course the amount of impact would differ given how high you throw yourself in the air and your own weight, when you throw your body in a break-fall ukemiin response to a kote gaeshiby your practice partner who may be as big as you, the amount of impact to your body from your own body weight must be quite extraordinary.  The twisting force applied to your body and the landing impact to your joints, like neck, back, hip, knees, just to name a few, must not be insignificant, either.  Therefore, I think knee injuries and back injuries are somewhat correlated.  

Its not only break-fall ukemithat I think is most dangerous, but the sudden stoppage in taking a flamboyant ukecan be quite hurtful.  For example, some students stop the momentum of having done a break-fall ukemiduring enbudemonstrations and pause for a few seconds on the mat to make it look better.  The rotational force of a break-fall ukemimust not be so light, and hence, ones body must be enduring a quite amount of force & load and taking a good beating from the attempt to stop the momentum of the force at the very moment of landing on the mat.  Also, demonstrating flamboyant wazaas a nageprobably has its own consequences as well.  Ive seen instructors with back problems and knee problems presumably from carrying the weight of many students to throw around so many times over a course of many years.

By the way, if you have ever seen a Judo practitioner being thrown up in the air by an opponent or even by the practice partner during practice, you must have seen it only in movies.  In Judo, students learn to use one of their arms to mitigate the impact.  In Aikido, too much emphasis seems to have been put on elegancein how ukeought to appear, and the use of arm as a cushion, as seen & practiced in Judo, is lacking.

Its beautiful see Aikido demonstrations in which students take elegant ukemiwhile seamlessly following the movements of techniques that the demonstrating instructor apply to them.  At the same time, its usually the students who must pay the price as a result.  I get goose bumps in disgust when I see an instructor who applies techniques to his/her students in unnecessarily flamboyant manners while taking advantage of the students who have learnt to throw away from him/her as a ukewithout any resisting.  Ive witnessed a high-ranking Aikido instructor who threw down a student, who was of course very well-trained, from above the head (Ganseki Otoshi, 岩石落とし) many times repetitiously and had a sated look of his face in the cheer and applause from the audience.  I cannot help thinking that if you habitually throw people left and right who dont resist, you are likely to lose yourself and may develop a wicked sense of who you are

For the reasons and the way of thinking explained so far, Aikido Nippon Kan does not recommend even break-fall ukemiduring regular practices.  Even during my Enbudemonstrations, I usually tell my ukestudent(s) not to throw themselves in the air.  Its only when I do Enbudemonstrations overseas, I allow my students, who are well-trained and in good shape from having completed Aikido Nippon Kans Uchideshi Training program(s) at Aikido Nippon Kan in Denver, to take break-fall ukemi.  Aikido Nippon Kans Uchideshi students and instructor-candidates undergo various training / exercise menus, that are specifically designed to improve their muscular endurance & power, reflexes and overall stamina, for 4 hours or more per day during Aikido Nippon Kans 30-day training camp held in summer.

Aikido Nippon Kan Summer Marathon 2017

https://youtu.be/Eve1_uNmb9w

Aikido Nippon Kan 30 day Challenge Seminar 2016 – Nippon Kan Headquarters

https://youtu.be/Eve1_uNmb9w

Most dojo nowadays use jigsaw gym mats or tatami exercise mats that are similar to wrestling mats, and these mats are usually laid down above the concrete floor.  Naturally, this kind of dojo environment puts a certain amount of load & pressure onto the ankles, knees and hips and waists of students who practice on the mats.  Traditional dojos floor is constructed with wood beams and planks with hardwood flooring on top beneath dojo mats, and this structure alone tends to absorb a good amount of impact from ukeof all types during keiko.  These days, some dojo have installed a spring-loaded floor or a floor with impact mitigation structures.

Aikido Nippon Kan made a conscious choice not to use jigsaw mats or tatami exercise mats in the planning phase for the current location.  Aikido Nippon Kan Dojo has its own unique floor & mat structure into which a certain impact absorbing characteristic was designed.  While Ive heard people lament about Aikido Nippon Kan Dojo having matted dojo floor instead of traditional tatamifor a superbly designed dojo.  The bottom line is that ensuring the safety of students is of the utmost importance for & at Aikido Nippon Kan.  

By the way, its not seldom to hear rather non-supportive comments like, There is no need for Aikido the kind of basic physical training menus that Uchideshi students undergo for 4 hours per day at Aikido Nippon Kan since Aikido is not a budo that relies on muscle power..  However, Aikido Nippon Kan continues to place an emphasis on the importance of developing fundamental physical strengths to endure and enjoy tough & challenging practices in Aikido.  And this is especially so for our Uchideshi students and instructor-candidates because we firmly believe the lack of basic physical strengths could lead to not only unwanted injuries during regular practice but also unexpected various joint discomfort and/or problems in later years.

the knee(s) of Kobayashi So-Shihan

We can easily be assured of the importance of fundamental physical strengths in practicing Aikido with a story about Yasuo Kobayashi So-shihan(Born1936) of Aikido Kobayashi Dojo.  Kobayashi So-shihan has been well-known as the Shihan for suwari waza’” for the past 50+ years, and his suwari wazaclasses had been and still are highly sought after.  Although he is often convinced by others around him not to do suwari wazain the recent years, due to a concern for his knee conditions for to his age.  Although his suwari wazaclass is less frequent lately, his suwari wazamoves were as elegant and strong as ever before when I last saw him teach suwari wazatechniques.  One day, I asked him, Sensei, how come your knees are so strong???and he showed me his knees.  I had thought I had thick, masculine legs, but his legs were even bigger than mine, as shown in the photo!  The size of his knees looked as big as a small head of a child!  I then asked in astonishment, Why are your knees so HUGE!?”  His answer was even more surprising!  He said, When I was a student at Meiji University, I often challenged myself to knee-jump the entire distance of one train station to the next along the Yamanote railway loop line in Tokyo in order to strengthen my legs, knees, ankles and back muscles.

Another insightful story is about surprisingly thick fingers of late Morihiro Saito Shihan.  He once said, I once worked as a crew on a steam locomotive, and my job was to feed coals into a burner with a big shovel.  I really had to lower my hip/waist to exert power to keep feeding coals.  It was literally back-breaking and really hard, but it made me stronger.  This is the reason that my Jo (i.e. the 31 Jo Kata) starts with Sakate grip (逆手持ち). “  

These stories are proofs that those who are strong and enduring without major physical constraints in their later years had undergone basic physical training regimens diligently when they were younger.  Naturally and conversely, those who do not train diligently to obtain basic physical strengths are probably more prone to experience joint issues, e.g. knee pain and back pain.

Instructors should consider the safety of students today while giving their thoughts to the possibility of physical constraints that students may experience in future from excessive practicing of certain techniques that may be unique to Aikido.  Students also ought to think about their future state of physical conditions in their practicing of Aikido.  Instructors and students alike had better become aware that the practicing of flamboyant styles of ukecould be dangerous for students in a long term.

Last but least, I too went through a period of Gung-ho.  When I was much younger, I took breakfall ukemion concrete or on gravel if I was told to do.  As I was bigger than most others, senior instructors liked how they looked when I was their uke.  I too liked their attention and liked being the chosen one as their uke” …  Then after many years had passed since I came to the U.S., I started to experience agonizing pain in the back in my 40s.  I was seeing a chiropractor on a regular basis, but one day, the pain got so worse that I had to call an ambulance…  That year, I underwent two surgeries on my back in the same year…  Before each surgery, I had to read many pages of liability waiver paperwork in which I had to acknowledge a statement like You may be on a wheelchair for the rest of your life.before signing it.  When I signed the paperwork, I had to be ready for the end of all” …  Fortunately, I didnt have to be on a wheelchair for the rest of my life.  But about 15 years ago when I crossed the line into my 50s, I was told that I would need surgeries on my knees even per a second opinion by another orthopedic surgeon.  I ended up avoiding any surgery on my knees by having come up with my own ways of rehabilitation exercises.  I was able to heal my knees in the end, but it took me over 3 years of patience and hard work.  The problems that I had had with my knees were so bad that I could not climb up or down the stairs, and that led to gaining weight from the lack of exercising on a regular basis.  And as I gained more weight, the load on the knees increased even from normal daily activities to slow down the healing process; at times, it exacerbated the pain.  It was a vicious cycle and quite painful experience.  My back and knees had gotten better eventually, and I have been able to go jogging for the past 10 years or so, and I think the hard work that I had had endured to develop basic physical strengths when I was younger was well worth the effort because I firmly believe that my back and knees may have given out had they not been trained & developed stronger during my younger years.

To all fellow Aikidoists, its up to our personal preferences as to how we want to enjoy a limited amount of wine we have.  We can of course drink it up in one gulp.  Or, as our journey in life is a long one, we can choose to cherish and enjoy the limited amount of wine we have while we enjoy our lives.

I decided to write this column with a sense of self-discipline to keep alive in me the learning that I have gained from my past endeavors.  Let us continue enjoying our journey in Aikido in a healthy manner without injuries.

AHAN NIPPON-KAN

  Kancho   Gaku  Homma