Day 8: Don’t get hit in the face

Don’t get hit in the face.

One would think that this is a pretty basic, intuitive idea. One would think you don’t have to train in a martial art to realize that getting hit in the face is a bad idea. One would think this, but one would be wrong.

On the mat we were studying defenses against shomenuchi. Shomenuchi is your classic sword strike. The direction is completely vertical, with the target being the top of your opponent’s head. Most of the time, the attack is practiced empty-handed; however it’s also one of the few techniques in which we’ll use the bokken, jo, or tanto.

A very classic defense against this type of attack is irimi-nage. As your opponent attacks, you raise your arms in a shomenuchi defense (think throwing a beach ball up in the air with two hands and you might have a rough idea of how it looks). Then, you close the distance, moving along a slight diagonal line. This causes your uke to miss, but just barely. You can now turn and place one hand on top of the uke’s striking arm and the other on the back of uke’s opposite shoulder. From this position, you ride uke’s reaction to stand back up, tilting them backwards.

It’s at this point that I think people get confused. Most attackers, on the mat, simply let the nage determine what happens next. They stop engaging in the attack and let the nage just tip them backwards until they fall down. The nage is who drives the momentum in this situation. This is incorrect, and for a very good reason.

The technique in this case has the nage’s arm on top of uke’s striking arm. Once the uke is tipped backwards, there is nothing–NOTHING–the uke can do from getting hit in the face. The other arm? Too far away. The striking arm? Too low. The uke’s face is absolutely defenseless. Fortunately, we study aikido, so most people assume that their partner isn’t going to make use of such an obvious and devastating vulnerability. This is a critical error on the uke’s part. When a nage effectively defends against your attack, you have two simple goals:

  1. Attempt to regain balance.
  2. If you can’t regain your balance, escape without injury.

It doesn’t matter that you are on the mat and your partner is your best friend. These two goals always apply. In the case of shomenuchi kokyunage/iriminage, this means that as soon as you realize you’ve missed your target and you’re off-balance, you should try to stand back up. If the nage has done their job correctly, you can’t stand up because of your loss of balance. You’re still vulnerable, so you have one direction left: down.

So, when you attack with shomenuchi, and your nage effectively does iriminage, it is not their job to drop you to the ground. It is your job to drop in order to protect yourself. Try this. It dramatically changes the technique’s dynamics, and makes a lot more sense.

And don’t get hit in the face.

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