Last night saw the teaching debut of Mike Jones, senior uchi-deshi and dojo manager at the New York Aikikai. Mike was recently promoted to shodan (first degree black belt) and filled in for the regularly scheduled instructor.
I've known Mike since my very first day at the dojo. He's completely dedicated to the study of aikido. He an erudite and natural teacher and is in high demand every few months as the kyū tests come around (especially be me). His techniques are very clean and strong, but if there is anything he excels at, it is ukemi. There is a faction of very soft, impact-free uke at the dojo and Mike is decidedly in that camp.
So he took the opportunity of his first class to drill us in the basics of ukemi. Front rolls and back rolls, back breakfalls, etc. Then the fun started...
There are certain times when uke is thrown and nage retains his arm. Kotegaishi is a popular example of this. Usually, uke takes a breakfall and slaps out. But in the "soft school" of ukemi, uke can place his shoulder on the mat and roll out of it, instead of taking the fall. The trick is, uke has to be able to get his shoulder on the mat. I really can't quite make it. If my shoulder doesn't make it all the way down, I tend to hit the mat with my neck and upper back -- and that hurts. I actually came close a few times, but for now, my shoulders are killing me!
After a while, mercifully, we switched to taking this fall by extending the other arm to the ground, more closely resembling a common breakfall, but by having a part of the body make contact with the mat earlier, the impact is reduced quite a bit. I did better with this method and pretty much had it at slower speeds. It doesn't require quite the same amount of flexibility as the shoulder roll.
One other piece of advice I picked up was not to roll out of a breakfall. Rather, uke should keep his legs extended and controlled and then rise on the side he rolled on. Mike explained how the habit of rolling out of a breakfall can be dangerous to the knees. That was the best thing I picked up last night, for sure.
Here's a video of some guy in Myanmar demonstrating ukemi in a similar style (but he doesn't do the shoulder roll):