Aikido of Santa Cruz

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Aikido of Santa Cruz
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Resources -- Ukemi



Uke: Literally means "receiver"; generally refers to the person who provides the attack and takes the fall.


How to teach high / break falls

Hello. This tutorial was inspired by martial arts instructors who've asked me how to teach challenging ukemi, including high / break falls. I will call break falls "high falls" as I dislike the word break in this context given its implied damage potential. This tutorial is aimed at experienced aikidoka who want a structure to teach high falls. I will assume that the reader is a black belt and has been asked to teach, or is teaching classes at his or her respective dojo, however, I hope everyone finds some value in it.

What I share here is a method for teaching standard high falls, as opposed to feather or soft falls. The structure of the methodology that I will describe works for me and has developed by trial and error as I have taught this topic over time.

I would like to make it clear that this is 'a' way and not 'the' way to teach high falls. No one style of ukemi practice is sufficient to cover all the techniques and levels of intensity. By training deeply in many kinds of ukemi we develop the comfort needed to express the best ukemi for a given situation, to have it feel natural and be in service to the nage.

Gambatte kudesai!

--Aimen Al-Refai
Aikido of Santa Cruz


It is highly recommended to have a qualified instructor present as serious injury and/or death can occur from improper execution.
Please practice at the speed of safety!


OK, let's get started!


All images and movie clips can be expanded to full size for better viewing. Mouse over images and click to see a slide show. Movie clips have expand box at right end of tool bar.



Setting the tone:

I often start by saying: "High falls can be done by everyone, but are not for every body. If you have neck, back, or other body issues, or your doctor prescribes against deep stretches, you should not attempt high falls. However, you can practice many of the skills leading up to a high fall." The topic I focus on is FEAR. As how fear creates tension in the body and makes taking ukemi more difficult. I will say to my uke to trust me and my ability to guide them through space to place them safely upon the ground. I use phrases to affirm safety to reduce fear for the uke. As an instructor, I leave it to you to further address the subject of fear. Always use gentle correction and sincere praise for the student's practice of Aikido, particularly the courage to study high falls.

Basic Groundwork Set:

Aikido-Judo side falls
This series of pictures shows different angles of the ending position I recommend after taking a high fall. Things to note: Knee is pointing to the ceiling. Extending through the foot on the up leg. The landing leg is bent. The foot is flexed to keep the ankle off the ground using the outside edge of the foot to contact the ground. The foot of the up leg will fall to the ground and the bent leg on the ground should be open enough so the upper foot will not strike the lower leg or foot. The upper side arm will be on the inside of the upper knee, pinky side toward ceiling, thumb to the ground. Lower arm will be alongside the body about one to two hand spans away from leg. Tuck the head, look between the legs, and exhale as the body lands. The mental image is to remain relaxed while dissipating the impact energy outward along the line of the throw in a shape of a cone.


This is a top view from feet to head of uke. Notice the cone shape from head to feet, the placement of limbs, and body orientation.
This is looking down from the head to the feet.


This short clip will show the drill to practice. Note: Just rolling side to side is not the same line as taking the fall from a roll or throw. So get those legs up in the air, work that core strength!

Rollouts from standing
This series of pictures shows a forward roll ending in the recommended rollout position as illustrated above in the side falls. I'll call it a 'rollout' to make it distinct from a 'roll'. Here I begin with a relaxed exhale that will continue through the fall, and match the speed at which I fall. Note, toes point in the direction you are going. If your toes point inward toward centerline of body, your hips will turn that direction creating a log roll with a flat trajectory. This will later cause a poor high fall take off and thus worse landing. I recommend pointing toes slightly outward as shown. This creates a full, expansive high fall rollout which makes for a better, softer landing.


In the mid point of the roll keep eyes open, stay soft but extended, exhale, and smile.
Finish with a rollout, like you practiced in the earlier section. Note: See if you can rollout down a line on the mat.
This short clip shows the drill to practice. Here I work on following the line of the rollout and at the end try not to bounce up but dissipate in a outward cone. The ground is my friend because it's my support. It is hard to fall off the floor.

Rollouts over someone laying down



This series of images illustrates the importance of springing forward into a roll. This is a critical skill to develop as comfort in the air will directly improve high fall ukemi.



In the mid point of the rollout's flight keep eyes open, stay soft, exhale, and smile.



The result can be to roll back to standing or complete a rollout. With more energy in the fall as you jump over something or someone, you will begin to feel a baseball slide (feet first slide) feeling at the end of your rollout.


This short clip shows the drill in practice. Once again, I work on following the line of the roll and at the end try not to bounce up but dissipate the high fall in a outward cone. The ground is my friend, my support.

Koshi Rollouts on all fours

Start with your partner (nage) on all fours. The nage must make sure to protect their back by keeping it straight. No sway back, please. The uke will place their center of mass (hara) on the sacrum of the nage. Uke extends from head to toes like a board over a fulcrum. The uke wants to have more of his or her body on the falling side of the nage. See belt alignment in picture.


As the fall begins, uke will reach their arm furthest away from nage's head across and hold the arm of the nage anywhere that is comfortable between the shoulder and the elbow. Extend the other arm up and back reaching for the ground.


As the fall continues, tuck the head, exhale, relax, and inwardly smile. Finish the fall with a rollout position continuing to hold on to the nage's arm.

This short clip shows the drill to practice. Here I work on following the line of the rollout. At the end try not to bounce up but dissipate the energy in a outward cone. The ground is my friend, my support.

Basic High fall Set:

Low -- Seiza
This series illustrates the lowest height of high fall practice. Nage extends a hand, uke will shake hands and hold hand with nage. Uke aligns him or her-self with free hand on shaking hand shoulder of nage. Uke's shaking hand foot should be forward and pointing in the same direction as Nage's hand, which is the line of the throw.

These two pictures show the critical set up. Nage lowers hand to floor and holds the hand throughout the fall. Nage will not pull up on the hand hard to forcefully or strongly assist the uke into the fall. Nage will gently compensate for the uke's falling energy by decompressing the system. The uke will align the foot, square the hips to the floor (bellybutton toward floor), bow over the arm being held, extend back leg out, and place hand on nage's knee for balance while setting up position. Raise the slapping arm up and back reaching for the floor and simply take a forward roll. I tell my ukes to say "I'm taking a forward roll not a high fall."


In the mid point of the roll's flight, tuck head, keep eyes open, staying soft, exhaling, smile, and finish in a rollout. I might spend a long time (relative to the student, of course) in this position getting ukes to remove the "eeek!, I'm taking a HIGH FALL, gulp!" fear block. Say to the student "I'm taking a simple forward roll." or "I'm taking a simple forward roll in space."
This short clip will show the drill to practice. Once again, I work on following the line of the roll and at the end try not to bounce up but dissipate in a outward cone. The ground is my friend, my support.

Medium -- kneeling
This series of images illustrate the middle hight of high fall practice. Same beginning as before, change is that the nage is kneeling.

These two pictures show the critical set up. Nage lowers hand to floor and holds the hand throughout the fall. Nage will not pull up on the hand hard to forcefully or strongly assist the uke into the fall. Nage will gently compensate for the uke's falling energy by decompressing the system. The uke will align the foot, square the hips to the floor (bellybutton toward floor), bow over the arm being held, extend back leg out, and place hand on nage's knee for balance while setting up position. Raise the slapping arm up and back reaching for the floor and simply take a forward roll. I tell my ukes to say "I'm taking a forward roll not a high fall."

In the mid point of the roll's flight, tuck head, keep eyes open, staying soft, exhaling, smile, and finish in a rollout. The roll in space is higher here. Thus the student might fell stronger impact. Ask if there is a particularly painful point and go back to lower throw and correct alignment issue. I might spend a long time (relative to the student, of course) in this position getting ukes to remove the "eeek!, I'm taking a HIGH FALL, gulp!" fear block.
This short clip will show the drill to practice. Once again, I work on following the line of the roll and at the end try not to bounce up but dissipate in a outward cone. The ground is my friend, my support.

High -- standing
This series of images illustrate the top hight of high fall practice. Same beginning as before, change is that the nage is standing.

These two pictures show the critical set up. Nage lowers hand to floor and holds the hand throughout the fall. Nage will not pull up on the hand hard to forcefully or strongly assist the uke into the fall. Nage will gently compensate for the uke's falling energy by decompressing the system. The uke will align the foot, square the hips to the floor (bellybutton toward floor), bow over the arm being held, extend back leg out, and keep hand on shoulder for balance while setting up position. Raise the slapping arm up and back reaching for the floor and simply take a forward roll. I tell my ukes to say "I'm taking a forward roll not a high fall."

In the mid point of the roll's flight, tuck head, keep eyes open, staying soft, exhaling, smile, and finish in a rollout. The roll in space is higher here. Thus the student might fell stronger impact. Ask if there is a particularly painful point and go back to lower throw and correct alignment issue. I might spend a long time (relative to the student, of course) in this position getting ukes to remove the "eeek!, I'm taking a HIGH FALL, gulp!" fear block. Congrats!! We have made it to standing high falls!!
This short clip will show the drill to practice. Here I work on following the line of the roll and at the end try not to bounce up but dissipate in a outward cone. The ground is my friend, my support but it's those tiny rocks that get you.

Advanced Application Set:

Tsuki Kotegashi

These two clips show the skills we have developed above. The new skill here is following the lead in a dynamic situation and turning the hips along the throw line. See if you can see all the basic parts as Dorothy and I take ukemi from Jody.

Please note: The correctness of the following techniques were altered to be in service of photography and ukemi demonstration.

See the out takes below!!

Yokomenuchi Shihonage

These two clips show the skills we have developed above. The new skills here is following the lead in a dynamic situation and turning the hips along the throw line and relaxing deeper as one's arm is in a dangerous position that requires a high fall. See if you can see all the basic parts as Dorothy and I take ukemi from Jody.

Shomenuchi Iriminage
This clip shows the skills we have developed above. The new skills here is following the lead in a dynamic situation and turning the hips along the throw line that turns back on itself causing the uke to turn the hips in the air for the proper finishing alignment on the ground. See if you can see all the basic parts as I take ukemi from Jody.

Ushiro Ryo-Katatedori Sankkyo Koshinage
This clip shows the skills we have developed above. The new skills here is following the lead in a dynamic situation and loading the body for the koshinage. See if you can see all the basic parts as I take ukemi from Jody.

Out Takes!!
My sincerest thank you to Beau Sanders, Jody Ho, Dorothy Davis-Thompson, Gresham Andrews for their Aikido assistance as ukes and nage and an additional thank you to Beau Sanders for his photography.

Jody and I loose our centers as I make a "serious" uke face as we set for the clip recording.
Dorothy attempts to be nage for the iriminage throw and finds it harder than it looks. Nice reversal ukemi Dorothy!
Jody and I's attempt our first iriminage throw with humerous results.
Jody and I's second attempt at iriminage, a little better but just as funny. Practice, practice, and more practice!
Dorothy and Jody's attempt at koshinage. A little over rotation at the end. OK a lot of rotation.

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Keep training and I'll see you on the mat sometime somewhere.
-- Aimen Al-Refai


© 2013 Aimen Al-Refai — any mistakes in this resource are solely due to the author and do not reflect the opinion of Aikido of Santa Cruz or it's members.

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