by Richard Conceicao
One of the many lessons that have been forgotten is that the older, more traditional martial arts were regarded as complete systems. In modern times they have been specialized as: striking, floor-based types of grappling, and in the case of Aikido of standing grappling.
Now to be fair, the older arts do not contain as many sophisticated elements as one of the specialized arts, as a Judo practitioner is going to be better at throwing then a Karate practitioner, unless of course he has studied Judo. It is important however to remember that these arts started as civilian self-defense arts. In other words, the specialized arts were not developed as primarily a battlefield art and hence were concerned mainly with self defense, which ultimately means hitting him and getting out of there, to stay in one piece as opposed to fighting toe to toe.
Since our older, more traditional systems are complete systems in that they utilize grappling, joint locks, striking, and throwing, we should then find all of these embedded in our forms, and indeed we do. Unfortunately if we do not practice these other arts, we do not recognize these movements in our forms for what they are. If you have no idea of what a particular throw is, or looks like, it is much easier to call it a block or strike and say that’s what you’re doing in your forms.
With this in mind, we will begin this series, and continue through to the end, with the practice of break falls.
In theory falling safely is really quite simple. What we are trying to do is to dissipate the force of landing on a hard surface over as large an area as possible on our bodies to avoid injury. We will maneuver in such a way that these forces can be taken up on areas that can accept it with a minimal amount of damage.
That of course means don’t hit your head, don’t hit your elbows, or any other bony or sensitive surface. In practice, the phrase “simple, but not easy” must be always kept in mind. It is one thing to say; “do this, do that”, and all will be well. It is quite another, to do all that while flying through the air, all the time worrying about that hard surface you are about to hit.
In this series, we will review the most common falling techniques. These are the fundamentals, and as such, are actually the most useful, since they will be encountered most frequently.
I. The Back Fall
To begin to practice the back fall we will assume a squatting position. We are going to tuck our tailbone under, keep our eyes on the knot of our belts (thereby keeping our heads from hitting the ground), and roll on our backs as if we were shaped like a bowl.
In the beginning all we will do is roll back and forth. As you become accustomed to this, our next step will be to utilize our arms to stop the momentum of our rolls.
We will place our arms across our chests, and as we roll back we will slap them out at a 45° angle to our bodies. As we do this, it is important to remember, we do not want to hit our elbows on the ground. Our arms will extend out and the palms of our hands will strike the ground first, quickly followed by our forearms. Our hands will be slightly cupped as opposed to being held totally flat, and we will pay close attention to not smacking our thumbs when we slap.
Once we have achieved a smooth rhythm doing this, we will begin to exhale sharply as we slap. This does two things, one, it prevents us from having the wind knocked out of us as we hit the ground, and two, maintains a firm even contour to the shape of our backs. If we exhale prior to falling our backs tend to straighten out and we lose the curve that we are attempting to keep and can get the wind knocked out of us.
By the way, if you get the wind knocked out of you, then the proper thing to do is to exhale as hard as possible. That will reset your diaphragm which is fluttering when this happens, and will now know what to do and inhale as the nerve plexus has been reset.
As we get better at this, and our confidence improves, we begin to practice from a higher level. When this back roll can be done smoothly from a standing position, it’s time to introduce our partner. His job will be to push you gently backwards and allow you to fall properly. This forces you to do the fall properly without being able to mentally set yourself up. You have to respond to an outside force. As time goes on, the push will be more forceful and, later on, the push will come without any warning.
A quick video showing the basics of this fall is located here: Back Fall
II. Front Fall
While the front fall has one distinct advantage, you can see where you’re going, it is actually a little more difficult to pull off. Once again we will start on our knees and we will fall forward with our hands in front of us forming a sort of triangle in front of our noses. As we fall forward, we will extend our hands to catch the ground in front of us, and slowly decelerate until our forearms fully contact the ground. We are behaving sort of like the cat that when we drop it, the cat extends its legs all the way out to act as a shock absorber when it touches the ground.
It is important to note, that this is probably the one case where our heads are not looking at our belt so that we don’t not smack our head onto the floor. Instead, we are looking between our hands as we fall forward. Some styles advocate turning our heads to decide to avoid getting dirt or dust in our eyes as we fall forward. This is excellent advice however, in the beginning, I believe it is important to see what you are doing to get the timing right.
A quick video showing the basics of this fall is located here: Front Fall
III. The Side Fall
To begin the side fall to our left, (standing or kneeling) we will take our left leg and cross it in front of our right leg as we bend the right knee. We will form a curve from our hip all the way up our sides to our shoulder in the same manner that we did with our back for the back fall. The same rules apply, we will always keep our eyes on our belt, we will always maintain a smooth curve, and we will exhale sharply as we slapped the floor. Our slap will have the same rules as well, that is, no hitting elbows, no hitting thumbs, and arms at a 45° angle from our bodies.
We will allow our legs to rise up as we fall so as to maintain a smooth curve and rhythm to the fall. Later on, this will not be necessary.
The fall to the right side is initiated in exactly the same way only the legs are reversed. In this case, the right leg will cross in front of the left leg as you squat down and roll to your right side and slap with her right arm.
As time goes on, the progression is identical. You will do this from a higher, and higher, position until you achieve full standing. At this point once again we introduce our partner to induce some side falls on you.
As an adjunct to practicing with a partner, there is an alternative method for side falling but is more advanced technique. Do a side plank (see picture) on your left arm; wind your right arm under your left shoulder and spin rapidly clockwise, ending in a left side fall with your left arm slapping the ground. Repeat similarly on the other side. This is not very easy to do, but in practice you will usually not be thrown faster than this
A quick video showing the basics of this fall is located here: Side Fall
IV. Front rolls
Our front roll begins as before, in a kneeling position. The position of our hands will change according to the side that we are rolling forward on. To begin our roll over our right shoulder we will kneel down and place our right hand sideways in front of us, and our left hand behind it and perpendicular to it (that is, facing forward). Maintaining a smooth arc of our right arm, and avoiding our elbow, we will roll on the arm over our right shoulder diagonally across our back and ending up with her left leg lying sideways on the ground and our right foot on the ground with the knee pointing up. It is especially important in the forward roll to maintain your head tucked in to avoid contact with the ground.
A quick video showing the basics of this fall is located here: Front Fall Roll
V. Unbalancing (Kuzushi) or Throwing
Since we’ve now covered the fundamentals of falling, let us begin with the fundamental concept of throwing, that is, unbalancing. In conceptual terms unbalancing is actually quite easy to understand, we are simply moving someone’s center of gravity outside his or her base of support.
This motion makes the throw a relatively easy thing to accomplish. Most people try to initiate a throw without unbalancing their opponent and hence it becomes muscle against muscle force against force. When properly done a throw feels absolutely effortless. Indeed, most people are surprised because they felt as if they did nothing and the other person fell down.
The position of maximum instability of any stance is a line perpendicular to the line of support. In a front stance, that would be a line forming a diagonal to the individual facing front. In a horseback stance, it would be a line facing directly forward and back of the individual. To say this in reverse, the front stance has maximum stability front to back, not side to side. The horseback stance conversely, has maximum stability side to side not front to back.
The next position of relative instability would be an angle of 45° from the line of maximum stability. In other words, this is not the ideal, but it is workable.
Our exercise, will be to assume the standard judo grip (that is, your right hand on your opponent’s lapel, your left hand on his right arm’s sleeve just above the elbow), and move back and forth trying to sense where your opponents balance is
At first we will just practice stepping together. That means whatever direction you step in, the foot that is closest to that direction steps first, the second foot then follows it. This step should never be too large, and your feet should never cross.
As we progress, we will start to pull and/or push our opponent in any direction we choose. Our job is to get him to place all his weight in the direction, or over the foot, that we choose. His job is to nullify your action by stepping, and using your force to pull or push you in the direction that he wishes you to place your weight. (need quick video here)
Later on, we’ll move to practicing turning in and turning away as you step from your opponent to begin the process of learning to throw him.