Though each unsoku step has a different purpose, they all work on the same basic principles of movement. Mastering these principles will make your unsoku more effective. You can apply the concepts below to any unsoku practice and should keep them in mind when practicing jissen as well.
Expansion/Contraction on Sidesteps
When we begin learning unsoku, we tend to start off with the misconception that it is somehow related to walking. A casual analysis shows that this is not the case.
When we walk, we pick up one leg and begin to lean forward. As gravity takes over, the unweighted leg swings forward. The rear leg pushes at the ankle to increase the forward movement. The forward leg then catches the ground, and momentum carries the hips forward. Et cetera. This is not unsoku. Walking is mostly passive. It is a simple sequence of leveraging the upright body from one leg to the next, using gravity to do most of the work.
Unsoku is different. One thing that my instructors always stressed was the necessity of practicing unsoku with as wide a step as possible – especially on the sidesteps. This means stretching your legs out from the center and then pulling them back together. This expanding and contracting movement is a key component of unsoku.
We don’t want to interact with gravity very much in our unsoku. Ideally, we will keep our hips at approximately the same height. Moreover, we are not only moving forward in Taido; we often want to move to the side. Since the hips are not structured to waddle sideways, we must expend some physical effort to get where we want to be. We do this by stretching out laterally and then gathering our bodies back to the new center.
To accomplish this, begin by pushing with the trailing leg, in the direction of the lead leg (if you are moving left, you push left with the right leg). As this happens, extend the lead leg in the direction of travel. Stretch it out and feel for the ground. Try to grab a piece of the ground that is beyond your normal reach. At this point, the trailing leg will have to begin moving as the hips pull it away from its start point. Now this much would be easy if we were to visualize it as a sideways hop, but that would force us to move up and down and make it difficult to control our motion.
In unsoku, we push straight to the side. If we simply pushed off and let ourselves fall, we would end up in a near split. Instead, we now squeeze our legs together, using the muscles of the inner thighs. With the lead foot gripping the ground, this results in the legs snapping shut above that foot. This means that the hips will also be directly over the lead foot.
This method works especially well when you need to cover a lot of distance rather quickly. Push off and stretch the leading leg. Then, after you have found the point at which you wish to land, squeeze your legs together tightly in order to pull yourself to that position.
As my instructors always drilled into our heads, if you can move long distances quickly, you will have little difficulty in moving short ones. Of course, deciding the appropriate distance is an entirely different can of worms. Still, the logic holds that by practicing stepping as far as possible, you will be better able to move your body to wherever you need it to be.
As with any physical motion, the alignment of the body makes a great deal of difference between mechanically effective and ineffective unsoku. Obviously, your posture affects your balance, and I will deal with this aspect below (see cautions), but here I want to describe something different.
Think of your body as a lever with two weighted ends – your spine connecting your head and hips. To generate the most power from this system, you want the lever to be as long as possible. By straightening the spine and stretching your kamae upwards, you will notice that small changes in your head and hip positions will have noticeable consequences in your motion. I find this is particularly desirable when attempting to execute hengi and nengi, because the added leverage translates to speed and power in my attacks. I also find that by lifting my head, I can achieve more of a floating feel to my unsoku – that is, I move easily and smoothly.
Conversely, for more control over your motion, you may wish to shorten the lever. For ungi, sengi, and tengi, contracting the muscles of the back and abdomen brings the head and hips closer together in a tighter relationship. This lends itself to moving with the body’s axis perpendicular to the direction of motion. Especially when moving groundward, I find myself pushing my head down into my spine and my hips into the ground. This helps increase the precision with which I can execute certain techniques.
Although I am using a simplified physical model, you can experiment and find various uses for manipulation of your posture while moving.
Someday, I will have to devote an article to using unsoku in jissen, but this is not that day.
However, I will point out here that unsoku is part of your technique. You should never find yourself doing an unsoku movement and then executing a technique. The technique should flow naturally out from the unsoku motion.
I see this all the time in jissen. Both opponents will moving around in unsoku, looking for an opening, and testing each others’ reactions. Suddenly, one will change his angle, cut quickly in a different direction, and plant his kamae while he decides whether or not to continue his attack. This is not how it works. That brief pause destroys the momentum of the technique and gives the opponent a chance to defend.
We must seek to eliminate this pause by launching techniques directly from unsoku.
Taido’s kamae and unsoku were designed to work together with the techniques. We are aiming for a synergy of several components. Keep this in mind when practicing unsoku and always remember that you should be able to execute any technique at any time during your step – not just on the final kamae.
There are a few cautions you should keep in mind when moving by unsoku. Three of these are mentioned in Taido Gairon. First, do not pick up your feet while stepping. You should move close to the ground so your opponent cannot easily trip you. Second, do not drag your feet. This can also throw your balance. Third, do not step hard or stomp. Your footwork should be smooth and quiet – the opponent shouldn’t know whether your feet are touching the ground or not.
In addition to the above, I would add that unsoku as a motion happens from the hips down. That is, you should avoid moving your upper body very much at all. Leaning the body and tilting the head will affect your balance and telegraph your movements to the opponent. Besides that, your moves should work with your kamae to set up techniques. Maintaining straight posture facilitates this. No portion of you body above your hips has any contribution to make towards moving effectively in unsoku. Therefore, upper-body neutrality is ideal.
The most common unsoku mistake I see students making has to do with the direction of the hips. The hips need to be aligned correctly in order to deploy effective techniques. Very often, students performing ka-soku and gen-soku will turn their hips towards the outside as they make the final kamae in anticipation of a technique such as ebigeri or sentai with turns in that direction. In fact, many Taido techniques spin in the same direction, but this does not make it OK to be in the habit of setting your unsoku for them automatically. For one thing, it reduces the power potential of the technique by cutting the range of travel. More importantly, it makes it very difficult to move in the opposite direction. Taido needs to be adaptable. If your unsoku favors one side or type of technique, it is a hindrance. Be careful with regard to the direction and orientation of your feet and hips while moving in unsoku.
The best way to test the accuracy of your final step in unsoku is to pay attention to any tendency of the front foot to turn (especially to the inside) as you set it down. Focus on squaring the hips in the direction of the intended kamae before turning them off axis (to 45 degrees – hanmi) as the foot steps. Ideally, the rear foot should also point toward the target before pivoting 90 degrees into kamae.
And that’s all
Those are the most important conceptual points regarding the actual physical performance of the unsoku steps. Of course, there is much to to developing effective unsoku than what is covered above. Maai, timing, the use of pattern, etc. are critical in applying unsoku and technique in jissen. Practicing the concepts in this article will ensure that your unsoku technique doesn’t get in the way.