The term “breakfall” does well to engender an image of harshness probably for two reasons. First, it is made up of the words “break” and “fall”, two things that generally cause pain, fear and at best some false bravado. Second, breakfall’s harsh connotations come because they often are harsh, especially in the learning stage when we are having our formative experiences. For some time there have been discussions through aikido about how to best practice this potentially inhibiting fall and solutions have come in way of small changes in the way we perform them. The outcome of all this is that aikido seems to have developed its own specific breakfall.
Compared to other martial arts, aikido has a relatively short history, maybe 70 years or so. In its creation it has built on and borrowed from existing arts and naturally it has evolved and diversified over this time. This is true of both the throwing and falling components of aikido.
The traditional breakfall we use in aikido is a style typical of judo. It seems difficult to trace its origins back further because of judo’s permeation through and influence on other Japanese arts. However it is safe to say it is not something devised by Morehei Ueshiba but something he incorporated in his new practice. This style can be seen in old footage from 1936 and continues through to modern practice with little variation. That is until somewhere around the 1990’s (as far as I can tell) when a branch of practice emerged where this form was modified.
The modification of the breakfalls came as extending the contact hand out to reach the mat first, lowering the body segmentally and then using the same momentum to turn and stand up. This is quite different to the more static traditional method where the whole body contacts the mat at once, often slapping out to dissipate the downward force.
This branch off or modification is a significant development insofar as it is very specific to the type of throws we do in aikido. In judo it makes sense for falls to stop all at once on the mat in a strong position that could handle a falling nage or the beginning of ground wrestling. In aikido however, throws generally create space for a softer, segmented breakfall that facilitates us standing to continue attacking. The advantage of falling this way is that it reduces the impact on body by creating a curve as the body is gradually lowered rather than hitting all at once. Essentially, this fall follows the type of throw it is responding to more closely. As such, not only is this a softer and therefore safer fall, it can be seen as more appropriate than the traditional method. Ukemi is dictated by the throw so if there is room for the breakfall to be soft, I can’t see a reason for it not to be.
Although this method seems to have been around for some time now, it is still taking its time filtering through to common use. Donovan Waite Sensei’s ukemi DVD’s strongly reflected this newer style of ukemi in 1999 while only five years earlier Bruce Bookman Sensei’s well respected ukemi series taught the existing traditional method. Discussion of the falls happened around 2002 in online aikido forums and it’s suggested although the softer methods have been around, it’s taken a while for formalised teaching to happen more broadly.
Of course, as falling is appropriate to the throw, schools with a tighter, stronger style will be more inclined to follow the traditional breakfall, as it is probably closer to what they were originally developed for. Likewise, schools that have little breakfalling in their style will probably take longer to incorporate a new way of falling when it is so seldom practiced. However, it seems obvious the “arm first” or “soft” breakfall is a natural evolution in aikido practice in that it has arisen because it is advantageous. If there were not advantage in it, it simply wouldn’t exist.
To look at it one way, breakfalling is like a wheel. A wheel that didn’t need re-inventing when aikido was first developed. But 70 or so years down the track we have customized that wheel to suit us better. Generally speaking, traditional breakfalling in aikido is like using a 4wd wheel on a sports car: It may be handy if you want to go off-road but it’s unnecessarily rigid and no longer the only wheel available to us. As the techniques that define aikido develop differently from other arts, following their own direction, so should its falls.
 Ellis Amdur, personal communication
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