Receiving vs. Avoiding: “Blocking” in Martial Arts

As we all know (or at least, as anyone who has seen the worst kung-fu ninja movie ever knows), martial arts involve not only attacks, but also defenses. Not only kicks, strikes, punches, and throws, but also defensive maneuvers like blocks, evasions, sweeps, and the like. Probably the most common martial arts defense word that we hear is the word “block”. We hear things like “Block the punch” and “Her kick was blocked”, etc. This word “block” is the most common translation for the Japanese word “ukeru (受ける)”. Another common martial arts defense term that we hear is “avoid”. This is a common translation of the Japanese word “sakeru (避ける)”. When we think of blocking, we often think of hitting or clashing with an incoming weapon. Contact is made, and pain is usually a result, whereas when we think of avoiding we normally think of a graceful passing that is by far the preferred approach. One can imagine that if the interaction between attacker and defender is a course of energy, why would you want to “block” it? Would you want to block a pipe or a drain? Why would you want to block an opponent when you could let him just go right on by? The concept of avoiding has come to be viewed by some as superior to blocking.

Seminar in Norway

This is a misunderstanding due to the common mis-translation of the Japanese word “ukeru (受ける)” as “block”. More literally, “ukeru” means “to receive”. Rather than a complete avoidance (“sakeru (避ける)”), ukeru refers to the processing of an attack. It involves the conversion or diversion of an attack into something or somewhere other than the target. This process involves engagement and contact – it is not a hands-off avoidance. The incoming attack is dealt with physically, “hands-on”. This direct contact not only allows you to apply pain or a technique to the opponent the instant that you receive his attack, but it also acts as a bio-feedback loop – you are in physical contact and thus have a kinesthetic awareness of where the opponent is in space, in which direction he/she is moving, how fast, etc. You do not have this kind of instant physical feedback if you don’t have physical contact.

This same principle can be applied to the way that we deal with many things in our daily lives. Do we choose to interact and process, or avoid? It’s interesting to train with people in the dojo – in time you can see the connection between their style of body movement (“taijutsu“) and their personal style of interacting with others outside the dojo. Those who engage with you as a training partner, giving you a realistic attack, going neither limp nor overly tense and rigid the instant that you start applying the technique, are often the ones that you will see actively engaging outside of the dojo as well, taking on responsibilities, not shying from making decisions and commitments. On the other hand, dojo training partners who try to thwart you by not letting you apply the technique correctly, jumping away unrealistically early, falling over when you didn’t do anything, flinching away when you haven’t done anything, quitting their own technique before it’s complete – these people are often the ones outside of the dojo who are afraid of commitment, flaky, indecisive, escapist, melodramatic or passive-aggressive.

Blocking got a bad rap somewhere along the line – it should really be receiving: Engaging, Sensing. Feeling. Responding. Converting. Transforming. Transmuting.

And so on.

Posted on June 24, 2011, in Bujinkan. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Excellent post, spot on.

  2. So true, training is a wonderful gateway to seeing our true selves and the true selves of others. How do we learn? How do we receive or avoid anything – as a punch could be a metaphor for any positive or negative situation. In what ways do we limit ourselves and others from experiencing? How well do we walk through the fire basically. Awesome article Shawn, you have a brilliant way of seeing things in matrix code and breaking it down. S.

  3. Christopher Feltner

    Shawn, how do you pronounce Ukeru in English? Thanks!

    • Hi Christopher,

      Ukeru in English is pronounced like u as in rude, ke as in ketchup, and ru as in ru (but ‘r’ in Japanese sounds like a mix of the English ‘r’ and ‘l’ together). Hope that helps.

  4. Wonderful insight Shawn! Thank you for sharing.

  1. Pingback: What do the martial arts terms "uke" and "ukemi" really mean? - Budō Inochi

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