Learning the Breakfall – Part I

This post is contributed by Anastasia “Nastia” Shuba. Nastia began her Aikido training in 2005 and received her nidan from Haruo Matsuoka in 2016. With almost 15 years of experience, Nastia is Ikazuchi Dojo’s youngest instructor. She enjoys researching new training methodologies and how other martial arts (namely BJJ and Kali) can be used to enhance Aikido. Nastia is a PhD candidate in Computer Engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Nastia Shuba and Abby Liu

Many of us remember the scare and pain of doing our first breakfall. A quick and painful kotegaeshi (wrist lock) was the way I was taught to perform high falls at my first dojo. However, as I began teaching Aikido and saw how many students struggled with ukemi, I began experimenting with other methods for teaching breakfalls. I had the luck of leading privates for two young girls at the time, who could take bad falls without many repercussions. I tested multiple strategies with these girls, and many falls later, I came up with a system that seems to work well.

In this blog post, I’d like to share this system with the greater Aikido community. The post is meant for anyone wanting to learn a breakfall, or for instructors who want to improve their teaching strategy for breakfalls. All videos were made in slow motion and without a hakama so that it is easier to see body position details. For safety purposes, do not attempt to follow these breakfall progressions without a qualified instructor’s supervision.

Basic Solo Exercises

The following exercises can be practiced without a partner. They are meant to progressively make the initial contact point with the mat higher on your body. We will start with a basic forward roll that starts with the hand, then move on to the elbow, and finally to the shoulder. A breakfall occurs when the initial contact point is past your shoulder: it can be your back hand or your lower back. Each exercise is shown twice: once as a regular roll, and the second time with the back hand slapping the mat. It is important to practice slapping the mat with the back hand so that it can help you dissipate some of the impact when you do a full breakfall. Make sure to practice using the entire surface area from your palm to the elbow when slapping the mat.

Stage 1: Regular Forward Roll

First, make sure your basic forward rolls are smooth and controlled. Notice that in the second roll, that the slapping hand hits the mat before the legs do.

Make sure your rolls are smooth before proceeding to the next stage.

Stage 2: Elbow Roll

Now try a forward roll, starting at the elbow:

Make sure your rolls are smooth before proceeding to the next stage.

Stage 3: Shoulder Roll

Now try a forward roll, starting at the shoulder:

Basic Exercises with a Partner

After you’re comfortable doing these roll variations on your own, it’s time to grab a partner. You will then go through each stage again, but this time, your partner will throw you. I found that juji-nage is the best choice for teaching someone to do the breakfall, as the nage has some control and can manipulate the uke’s body to land in a specific way. Hence, we will use this technique to help you land safely. The videos start right at the beginning of the throw as it is assumed that the readers are already familiar with how to get into this technique. Be sure to also do each exercise while using the back hand to slap the mat.

Stage 1: Regular Forward Roll

Have your partner release the technique very early to let you practice a full front roll:

Stage 2: Elbow Roll

Now have your partner hold your hands a little longer. It should be slightly difficult for you to release your front hand in time for the roll, but the elbow should have time to reach the mat early-on:

Stage 3: Shoulder Roll

Now have your partner hold your arms even longer. They should maintain contact with you until your back foot leaves the mat.

Stage 4: The Breakfall (with Assistance)

Note: Before attempting this stage, we recommend getting your instructor’s approval after an assessment of your performance of the previous stage. Also make sure that you know how to slap the mat to dissipate impact.

At this point you may be ready for an assisted breakfall. Juji-nage allows your partner to exert some control over your body without placing torque on a small fragile joint (like the wrist in kotegaeshi), helping your first few breakfalls be smooth and safe.

In this exercise, have your partner hold your front hand (the one you would normally roll on) until right before you hit the mat. Ask your partner to also pull up on your front hand a little bit to give you extra time to form your body into the correct position. Your partner should also let your back hand (the slapping hand) go a little bit earlier so that you can slap the mat and dissipate some impact:

 

That’s it for Part I! In part II, we will cover how to transition into an unassisted breakfall as it occurs in the case of kotegaeshi, and also how to land properly after taking a hip throw, such as koshinage.


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