unshin

i recently spent five days talking and training with two of members of the hanshikai, and let me tell you this much – they are crazy excited about unshin. everything we practiced came back to a very select number of themes, and the possibilities of moving in full 3-space was one of them. i’ve had this article on the back burner for a few weeks now, but after talking to shima sensei, i feel i am ready to complete it. i plan to present some unique interpretations which may be completely wrong, but they will be interesting, and that’s more important than being right all the time.

note: you may notice that this article follows a similar format to my article on unsoku. this is because they were both originally part of one very long document. however, unshin and unsoku are very different animals so don’t think you can skip over parts just because the wording is similar.

a bedtime story

it was 1969. most of the civilized world was watching neil armstrong become the first human to walk on the moon. with the lower gravity, neil and buzz (was it buzz that went to the moon with neil? i can never remember…) were able to do all kinds of cool stuff. they were practically floating – moving, not in straight lines, but in giant, curving arcs, easily turning somersaults and having what appeared to be one hell of a good time. years later, this event would inspire sting to write one of the greatest hits the police ever recorded. in seiken shukumine, it inspired something altogether different.

shukumine had some serious jumping ability, setting a military high jump record in japan that is reputedly unmatched to this day (though i have no idea how one would go about corroborating such a claim). tosa kunihiro (now the leader of one of several groups claiming to be the sole legitimate lineage of genseiryu karate) became one of shukumine’s first students after the two met in military training. tosa claims that, when he first approached shukumine to ask for instruction in karate, shukumine jumped clear over his head and landed, prepared to strike before tosa could even turn around. this could prove two things: shukumine indeed jumped incredibly high, and tosa turned incredibly slowly (unless shukumine also managed to descend from head-height at a speed faster than gravity would have accelerated him). with regards to the first point, shukumine was famous for performing such feats as tobi 8dangeri, and i personally saw him perform some pretty incredible moves in his late 60s.

and so anyway, as legend has it, shukumine saw in the moonwalk (in the pre-micheal jackson meaning of the word) a new way of maneuvering one’s body during a fight. he combined his incredible aerial skills with taido’s unsoku and devised a method of combative movement which would free the practitioner from the confines of a seemingly-flat earth. i can’t say to what degree this story is accurate, but it would explain the glaring differences between the taido and genseiryu implementation of ten-movements.

“body locomotion”

ok, so unshin is just flips and stuff, right? well, yeah, that’s pretty much correct, but let’s not just write it off so easily. unshin is a big part of what makes taido “three-dimensional”.

technically, unshin is locomotion in three dimensions (though, even more technically, it would have to be at least four, but i’ll worry about writing my treatise on post-relativistic thinking in taido some other day). this does include flips and tumbles, but it also includes a lot of stuff that’s harder to define. in fact, any kind of body-transport that occurs outside of the flat earth-plane is going to be classified as unshin. since unsoku is “leg locomotion”, our bodies have to be above our feet. thus, for practical purposes, unshin is any kind of locomotive movement that defies categorization as unsoku.

… which is actually pretty interesting to me. you see, tengi is obviously related to unshin (except that tengi has integral weapon deployment and unshin does not), but it’s also pretty cool to think that unshin could include movements that are more hen or nen (and possibly un) as well. sen is pretty much always going to be on a flat plane (otherwise it becomes nen), and we often see spinning unsoku steps in jissen. slides and hops (un) would also be more unsoku than unshin. any un movement with a lot of distance or height may be classifiable as unshin, but we wouldn’t usually just make a big jump for transport in jissen because it would be indefensible.

the only real application i can come up with off the top of my head for unshin by sen and un would be jumping twists and turns. used as unshin, this would be sen-un, but it would usually be follwed by a technique in application, becoming waza instead of unshin. so, while there are always exceptions, for the purposes of this article, i’m going to pretty much ignore sen- and un-type movements as having a lot of utility as unshin. i will discuss the obvious ten-related unshin and then get a little more creative and write my thoughts on unshin that draws from hen- and nen-type movements.

ten-type ushin

first, well discuss the codified individual movements.

zenten [hai zenten]

this is simple front somersault, or roll. technically, any forward tumbling maneuver is going to be zenten (zen=front, ten=turn); variations wherein the back contacts the ground are hai zenten. in general, when we speak of zenten, we are referring to forward rolls on the spine.

my advice for practicing zenten: be the ball. this sounds rudimentary, but i am constantly surprised to find black belts who don’t tuck properly into rolls. this makes it incredibly difficult to use the roll for any utility. if your roll is going to have the speed necessary to reach the target, you need to tuck tightly. if you want to finish your roll in a defensible position or with a technique, you need to tuck tightly. if your roll is going to be smooth enough to use for any other purpose than breakfalling, you need to tuck tightly. this is majorly important, not just for the sake of your actual forward roll, but as a developmental progression for more advanced unshin movements. seriously take some time and check your zenten technique and make sure you couldn’t tuck just a little tighter.

koten [hai koten]

the same lexical stipulations apply as with zenten, except that “ko” denotes motion in the direction of one’s back.

most people starting out don’t like back rolls. that’s understandable because moving backwards and upside down is naturally outside our comfort zone. as upright, forwards-moving animals, we get a little nervous about moving in the opposite direction. so what happens when we try to back roll? we chicken out. we choose a side and flop over the shoulder. the worst part is that we develop this fear-reactive habit and allow it go go unchecked. this reinforces every “can’t” and “don’t know how to” that crops up in our training and makes it damn hard to learn new things.

i have never met anyone who did not have the physical ability to do a back roll and was not also quadriplegic. really. the physical technique is astoundingly easy, once you get the idea. the most common mistake i see people make on back rolls is allowing one or both elbows to turn outwards while transitioning over the head. this is caused, not by lack of strength as people tend to claim, but because of fear. if you keep your elbows in, and you have any momentum at all (which comes straight from shifting your weight over and behind your heels), you will roll easily over your hands and onto your feet or knees. mechanically, this move executes itself – you just have to get out of its way.

how to get over your asinine fear-habit: convince yourself that you are perfectly capable of protecting the back of your head (one of our reflexive anxiety areas). i suggest three exercises before even attempting backward rolls. here they are:

firstly, do bridges and back bends. this will build up the strength to push up and behind. it will also build confidence in that strength. start with bridges form the floor, holding them for a few seconds as high as you can. then do some “walk-down” bridges on a wall or other support. build up to the point that you can do a standing back bend into a bridge position. most people who can do back rolls cannot do this. learn the skills in the proper order, and you save yourself a lot of difficulty.

the second exercise you need to get good at is the spinal rock, or the yoga plough position. this is sometimes referred to as a half back roll, so you may be able to see its developmental benefit before attempting a full back roll, eh? just go slowly and smoothly backward, making sure to control your speed. this can also be a great stretch or an exercise for abdominal strength and breathing skills.

step three for learning back rolls = shakoten, see below. do this over both shoulders after you have mastered the forward shoulder roll. here again, learning things in the proper order will make things much easier on you. too bad most people don’t understand the concept of incremental progression from simple to sophisticated skills.

shazenten

sha=angular. this movement is commonly known as a shoulder roll, and also appears in aikido and judo as ukemi – falling techniques. an important point to remember is that you are still moving forward. many students have a difficult time performing shazenten on a straight line. another common mistake is to open out of the “ball” position way too early, or even to neglect making a tight ball in the first place. though it is possible to execute something that looks like a shoulder roll without even bending the waist or knees, this is not going to offer much use to taido students.

personally, i feel that shoulder rolls should be learned before students attempt forward or backward straight rolls. they are easier to learn to do properly and safer to perform on a variety of surfaces. you can ease a new student into a shoulder roll, but front and back rolls are a little trickier to start out with unless the student already has some tumbling experience. a well-designed unshin curriculum starts with the simplest-to-learn skill, which i may get into some other time. for now, let’s just say it’s sufficient to begin with the simplest-to-learn tumble.

when i teach shazenten, i usually start the student out from ejidachi, in this example, we’ll assume left-lead. from this position, you should reach the right arm, palm up, underneath the front leg. as you reach further, slowly lift the right knee off the ground, pushing slightly forward. at a certain point, your balance will pull you ass-over-teakettle at some angle forward. resist the urge to open your body and flop onto the floor. if you can retain the crouch throughout the natural rotation, you will find yourself with almost enough momentum to carry you fully back to eji. i find that asking students to “roll under themselves” gets them doing this a lot faster than when i ask them to “roll over their shoulders”. after they get the feel for entering the roll, it’s not so difficult to work on proper shazenten technique.

interestingly, we only have one word for shazenten – apparently nobody has done any tumbles that move forward with an angular body orientation while making only hand contact with the ground (though one of my friends is trying to get us all to try it) – let alone without touching the ground. there is also no “shakoten”, though you could probably come up with applications for one if you think about it (and i use one version in jissen all the time). in fact, a twisting backflip could just as easily be called “shabakuchu” as nenchu, but i’m getting ahead of myself…

sokuten

the kanji for “soku” means speedy. as a result, let’s just go on and forget all about the big “wheel-spoke” cartwheels we did on the playground in primary school. go ahead and ditch the part where you raise both arms above your head and bend slightly backward. also drop the idea that your legs or arms should be straight. they should not. no, no, no.

sokuten is one of my least favorite things to teach. this is partly because almost everyone who sees it thinks it is “just a cartwheel”, and nothing i can say will make them realize that such thinking is going to make sokuten unusable for them. most students do come to this realization on their own much later, but i would prefer to save them the trouble and let them get good at taido sooner. this can be accomplished by making a mental separation between cartwheels and sokuten.

the way almost everyone tries to execute sokuten is almost entirely an upper-body exercise. this is incorrect. i mean, it looks ok, and it gets you from point a to point b, but it isn’t going to offer you anything in terms of combat efficacy.

sokuten is driven by the legs. the legs power the movement, and the legs steer as well. in proper sokuten, the hands are really just a pivot. you must most-importantly push with the front leg – from hip to ankle. this supplies about 90% of the motive force. the rear leg actively lifts up and over, supplying direction and the downward snap to help lift your head. the hands may push against the ground a bit to assist with the “lifting” aspect, but this is not vital to sokuten technique. actually, the direction of the feet and head is much more important than anything you could possibly do with your hands – provided you are using your legs correctly. if you are still cartwheeling, your arms and shoulders will be doing most of the work.

thinking of sokuten this way has the added side benefit of making the transitions to one-hand, rear-hand, and no-hand versions much easier. eventually, you can rely less and less on the arms and use them to twist and lift rather than supporting your weight. if your arms get tired doing sokuten, you need to spend some time refining your technique.

ude zenten
ude means arms, so this is a front tumble using the arms. in ameri-speak, this is a front handspring. don’t ask me how to do a front handspring. bryan and i both nailed these on our first attempts when we were preteens, and i seriously have no idea how to teach these. i don’t know how, but i can just do them. i can do them one-handed from ejidachi and land again in ejidachi. i think this is probably one of the easiest gymnastic skills to learn – even easier than front rolls.

if you can’t do a simple handspring, i guarantee your problem is mental. from a mechanical perspective, it is almost impossible to screw this move up. all it takes is a little bit of push with one or both legs and enough arm strength to keep your head from pounding the pavement. however, anything that involves being upside-down tends to make people uneasy. get over it – you will live. if you can’t make it back around to your feet, chances are you will land on your body’s built-in cushion.

tired of landing on your ass? well, that’s an easy fix once you’ve gotten over your fear. there are three points. most importantly, after pushing with your legs, pull them back down using as much of your posterior chain as possible – hamstrings, hip extensors, lower back – everything that could possibly help pull your feet under your hips. number two is to use you head. pull forward. imagine doing a sit-up as soon as your feet make contact with the ground. use your abdominal muscles, arms, neck, and willpower (look!) to pull your head forward. the third point for those who are still doing this on a crash pad is: push more with your arms. don’t lock them out. instead allow them to bend slightly so that you can use them to add forward momentum to your upper body.

still can’t do it? can’t help you.

hai/ude?

actually, i have no clue as to whether there is a technical distinction on this one, but there are two very different ways to execute a front handspring. in one method, the hands make the only contact with the ground. this method looks very much like the opposite of the back handspring. method two is sometimes referred to as a “headspring”, though actually touching the head to the ground isn’t such a good idea. in this version, the initiation is actually closer to that of a front roll, though it ends in the same manner as the other method. i have seen some folks even roll forward to the point of making contact with the back, and then springing up by pushing with the arms – almost like finishing a front roll with a kip up. i guess that would be the forward answer to springing out of a back roll.

doing this requires a lot more arm power than the standard front handspring does. plus, it takes a little more time to perform. however, it offers a few benefits. for one, it’s difficult for an opponent to determine whether you are going to roll or spring. it also avoids the giant arm wind-up that most people use to initiate their handsprings. that wind-up is a big invitation to get hit with a fast suiheigeri or dogarami in jissen. by the same token, there is less chance for the upper body to snap forward into an oncoming attack as can easily happen with the hands-only version. finally, by virtue of being lower to the ground, the headspring also allows greater transfer of momentum into a potential strike (since less energy is wasted in retranslation during the transition from vertical to horizontal motion).

to develop this skill, practice doing lots of kip ups. then, work on doing handsprings from ejidachi. by the time you are able to do this on your weak leg, you will probably have developed the arm strength and general timing necessary to to a headspring easily. back bends and bridges will also be helpful in developing this skill, but you should have them down by this point anyway.

bakuten [ude koten]

now we get to the fun stuff. back handspring is the first “flash move” most of us learn. i still cannot do a back handspring. actually, i can, but it requires much more concentration than the skill deserves. since i can backflip all day and night, i don’t worry about my lack of handspring technique so much. back handsprings are much more difficult than back flips, but using the hands helps to abate some of the fear most people associate with backwards and upside-down movements. if you have difficulty with bakuten, just skip it and go straight to bakuchu. do not pass “go”. do not collect $200.

not convinced that bakuten is useless? good for you – it can be very useful, but just don’t fixate on it. it’s not that big a deal. you can basically get by without being able to do bakuten very well, so long as you can do the flips.

still want to do things the hard way? alright, but don’t say i didn’t warn you. the mechanics of this move require a lot more technique than just about any other tumble. you must jump at a good angle, match the timing of your arm swing with the jump, look backward for the ground, bend backward, place your hands solidly and absorb with your elbows, snap your legs over your head by pulling at your midsection, push off with your arms, and lift your head. good luck.

unfortunately, there isn’t very much i can write that will help you get this movement. if you need help with back handsprings, ask your instructors. chances are, they can do them and teach them, as these are a universal skill for taido students.

sokuchu [kyuchu sokuten]

and now it gets tricky. sokuchu is the infamous no-hand cartwheel, aka kyuchu (aerial) sokuten, aka aerial. this is so impressive-looking that most people seem to discount the possibility of learning it as impossible. without even trying it first, they forget that this is a skill and assume that is is actually magic instead. i had assumed for years that i would never get to the level that i could do these, but then one day, i just did.

there are several ways to go about doing sokuchu because there are several versions of the skill. i’m not going to get too detailed with this because i feel that most people will get the feeling for one or other version before they are remotely capable of doing all of them. this being the case, too much advice can be detrimental until you have a certain amount of experience screwing up. screw-ups will help you – don’t be afraid to make them.

with that caveat, there are two factors that will greatly speed your progress toward nailing any of the variations: incremental progression and balls (or the female equivalent).

as for incremental progression, build up from your regular sokuten. emphasize the front leg drive. emphasize the lifting of the rear leg. emphasize the lifting of the head. try diving in. try reaching further forward. try going faster. use just the front hand, then build your speed back up. use just the rear hand and swing the front hand down and back up. don’t forget to turn your head. try all of these tweaks to your regular sokuten and you will find that sokuchu doesn’t seem so unrealistic a goal. you will still have to do a lot of practice, but this is the groundwork.

-or- practice nengi, jumping spins, and butterflies (a gymnastic movements that i cannot think an adequate way to describe). use your arms and head to twist. this will help you build up to a “tilted” sokuchu. this will help you develop the kind of off-axis sokuchu that works well in jissen and before hengi and nengi.

the point of incremental progression is to look at what movements the technique includes and develop them beyond what the technique requires. gradually add them together until you are doing what you originally set out to do.

as for balls, just don’t wear nikes. try first. you will not be able to carefully and slowly do these unless you are in a low-gravity environment. even on a trampoline, you will have to deal with the increased speed, which makes them just as hard as they are on hard floor. get in the air (so many people seem to think they can learn to do these without jumping) and get your legs over your head. land on your side; use a pad. it’ll be ok. get up and try it again. and again. get someone to watch you and critique.

if you keep practicing, you will get better. remember back when you first started and you couldn’t do sentai? well, these are no different.

zenchu [chu zenten]

front flips are one of the more difficult skills to learn because nobody understands how they work. everyone i know who can do a front flip learned the same way i did in junior high school: find a flat grassy area and run really fast. jump as high as you can while grabbing your knees and looking down. if you didn’t break your back, get up and try again. after a few hundred repetitions, you may find some patterns that will allow you to land on your feet more often, but there are still no guarantees. even if you can do it yourself, you will have a hell of a time trying to explain what you are doing to other people.

i have a few suggestions for this move, but it’s still magic to me on some levels. in other words, take this with some salt because i can only do two front flip variations with any consistency (the almost laid-out one that moves forward and the stays-in-one-place one that looks like a reverse deadlift), and i usually need a couple of running steps to keep from landing on my ass.

when learning this move, i think a good idea would be to start with a spring board or a springy floor. stack up as many crash mats as you can to reach waist height if possible. work on getting up. head tuck is priority number two. these two should be enough to eventually get you lading flat on your back at waist height. if you can do this, congrats – you can flip. the problem is gradually removing the crutches.

remove the mats one at a time, and begin tucking your knees into your chest harder and faster. as mats go away, you will get closer and closer to landing with your feet fully under your body. the hard part comes when you think you’ve got it and you then attempt to front flip without the aid of mechanical jump enhancement. jumping power is where most people get stuck on front flips, and it is why many people can do them with running steps, and almost nobody can do them from standing. it’s also why i’m working on an article about improving jumping skills.

at the yokohama dojo, we also practice this with two spotters, and the results have been not bad. basically, the two spotters stand facing the flipper with their elbows bent to catch the flipper’s elbows. the flipper runs toward them and jumps into the flip while the spotters support him in the upside-down portion of the motion. this has gotten a lot of students comfortable with the basic motion, but only a couple have yet had the confidence to try this solo on a mat. when they do, they still have to get the feeling of jumping up into the move.

ok, so you’re having trouble getting a full rotation and landing on your feet. first step: go back and read what i wrote about zenten. i guarantee that if you aren’t landing, you could use more tuck. other factors will count too, but none of them will make much difference if you do not first tuck tightly.

bakuchu [chu koten]

if you’ve gotten bakuten (even if you haven’t), you can do these. back flips are really so easy, it’s almost like an inside joke on everyone who thinks they can’t do them. just jump as high as you can. then, when you are at your apex, tuck you knees into your chest as quickly as possible and look back over your head. you will flip. it’s really that simple.

there are two main problems people have with back flips. one is that they think they can do them without jumping much. this is incorrect. while speed alone is in fact enough to carry your legs over your head, it is not enough to get them all the way back underneath you. to rotate fully, you will have to jump – high.

the second thing people screw up is timing. newbies are so concerned about not landing on their heads that they try to start their rotation as soon as possible. here’s a tip: rotating sooner does not buy you more time to reach the ground – it takes time away from you by diverting power from your jump and bringing you closer to the ground. the first step is just to jump up. the rotation should occur at the apex of the jump, or only very slightly before. i have even been able to rotate fully after i was already falling. the important key is that you have more time to turn when you are the furthest from the ground. if you try to rotate while you are still close to the ground, you will never get high enough to get your legs under you again.

when you have gotten good at turning over backwards and landing on your hands and knees, you will be so happy. will will think you are flipping, and you will be wrong. a flip lands you on your feet. however, the transition from hands-and-knees to landing-on-feet is a difficult one made more difficult by the fact that, once we get a taste of being “able to flip” we are reluctant to back down and fix our form since it means more screw-ups. i will discuss this in more depth later, but for now, keep in mind that learning any movement with good form is the key to learning more difficult related movements. learn to do bakuchu correctly and nenchu will only require one simple adjustment.

variations

there are several ways that these ten-style unshin can be altered for various purposes. notice is said that they can be altered for various purposes – far too often, these variations are performed for simple flash value. they look cooler than the simpler versions, and their difficulty earns them extra points in hokei (though that is technically tengi and not unshin…). however, outside of skill-development, the the decision of how to move should be based on the desired outcome, not the number of cool-points one may accrue. thus, i will try to keep my discussion of these variations purpose-driven and explain why one may want to use one or more of them.

tobikomi, diving

at some point, when i was maybe nine, yamauchi sensei laid down a punching back in front of the mat where we were practicing front rolls. he told us not to change a thing, but simply roll over it as we had been previously. being kids, we had no fear. within five minutes, many of us were doing diving rolls over garbage cans and other obstacles with no problems.

a few years later, someone told me to dive into a cartwheel. what? that seemed a little more challenging. but it wasn’t. i then realized that i could dive into any tumble (and by extension, anything else) i could already do. i just had to stretch out the entry. it was the beginning of my dive-crazy period when i taught myself how to do dive rolls over chudan kamae as well as diving versions of shajo and ebi and lots of other things.

how to: really, if you can’t figure out how to dive into any of the skills you can already do, you have a problem. for practice purposes, it may be a good idea to use a soft, low object a an obstacle when you are learning. a punching bag lain on its side is idea in most cases. eventually, you will come to the realization that you are actually diving into all of these movements anyway, so doing the “diving” version is really not that difficult a transition.

my best advice for doing diving tumbles is to dive then tumble – don’t try to tumble through your dive. this ties in with the expansion/contraction i will hit on later, but the important point is that the dive is to get you someplace, then you just do the tumble as usual. it doesn’t matter if you are diving high or long, into a roll, cartwheel, or flip (yes, diving flips are very possible). if you can learn to separate the dive and the tumble and then transition smoothly between them, you will never have a problem with diving unshin.

why you would want to: there are exactly two applications for diving into unshin. one is to surmount an obstacle of some sort – perhaps an attack or the opponent’s body. the other reason is to gain distance, either to reach or escape from the opponent. beyond this, you have no business diving in jissen. it leaves your body wide-open to attack in the air and requires more time to complete than non-diving tumbles. however, they can be life-savers for wither of the above two applications.

these diving unshin are requisite developmental steps for all of the handsprings and flips. learn them.

katate, one-handed

anything you can do with two hands, you can also learn to do with one, and unshin is no exception. one-handed variations are most common for sokuten, but it’s not unheard of for someone to do a front or back handspring this way too.

how to: well, for katate sokuten with the front hand, it’s not that hard. the rear arm doesn’t really add that much to the movement – it only adds a slight support. however, even beginners will find that they can not use the rear hand and still manage to almost land. that may help to build some confidence, but it won’t actually get you very far without a little bit of technique.

the key to doing any unshin minus one arm is the front (driving) leg – the one that does most of the pushing. anytime you are moving forward from kamae into unshin, this is going to be your leading leg. since this leg is the last thing to leave the ground, it’s also your last chance to add speed and power to your rotation. since you will support your weight on only one arm, you want to rotate as quickly as possible. if you push hard and fast, there is no reason you can’t free up an arm.

why you would want to: so often we look at people practicing flips and handsprings with about fifteen running steps, their hands wound up over their heads, and a giant skip to build rotational speed. i guess that’s fine for practice, but it’s just begging to get hit. even in hokei and jissen, most people’s unshin leaves big gaps for a fast sentaizuki or even dogarami.

learning to do one-handed variations of the unshin may help you cover up for protection. if you use only one hand to execute your unshin, then the other hand is free to make a face cover or swat away an incoming strike. on the other side of the coin, you can use that free hand to attack as well. other reasons to use a single hand may include instances where, for one reason or another, you only have one hand available, or if you are having to change directions quickly while escaping attack.

you can even use the free hand to hold a beer. the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

in addition to all of that, you are probably never going to learn sokuchu unless you can do katate sokuten with either the front or back hand. this is another one of those developmental necessities.

nen, twisting

this is currently where we separate the men from the boys, unshin-wise (not to be sexist, but i have yet to see a woman do nenchu in taido). nenchu and shazenten are the most common (read: “only”) tentai unshin you will see in taido right now, but i’m hoping this changes soon. currently, the perceived difficulty of nenchu gives anyone who performs it in hokei gets almost a full point bonus. so anyone who hopes to take any medals better be able to do it, ’cause the big boys certainly can.

how to: the first personal acquaintance i ever saw able to perform nenchu was amir alighambari, who was always able to skate, dance, paint, and flip better than almost anyone else i knew. i had been pretty good at back flips for a while when i got around to asking amir how he did the twist-flips. i couldn’t believe the simplicity of his answer – “oh, that’s easy, man. you just turn your head”.

i didn’t want to believe it could be that easy, so i continued trying to spin by swinging my arms, which is what most people do. it works, but it works by tricking you into turning your head. you can actually just do the whole thing with the head if your basic flip form is good enough. i also used to try and do the turn by twisting at the hips. since i could flip into kamae and do bakuchugeri, it made perfect sense in my mind, but it just didn’t work in application. finally, i took amir’s advice and performed a simple experiment.

try this: on a pad of some sort, make ejidachi like you would in tentai no hokei. turn your head ninety degrees to either side. do a back flip as usual. almost made it, didn’t you? now the trick is to get that head turn to work with your usual head toss backward so that it is speedy enough to turn you all the way around in both directions. if you still can’t get it to work, a little bit of arm swing may help you out, but don’t count on your arms bringing the magic if you don’t turn your head.

do this a thousand times to each side. see how easy that is? now you can laugh at everyone who thinks these are “too hard” for most people to get. when they ask you, just smile at them and say “oh, that’s easy, man. you just turn your head”.

why you would want to: twisting is incredibly functional in taido. they allow us to change directions in multiple planes at one time. they allow us to cope with the movements of an opponent. they allow us to set up attacks and defenses, even while moving through the air. not so be flip (ha), but trying to explain the possible applications for twisting unshin is like trying to explain the applications of sen-style unsoku – it’s just too obvious and broad.

moving in a different direction

the easiest example to describe here is the gainer, or forward back flip. agian, amir was the first person i saw who could do these, and he told me that he wasn’t quite sure how he had come to master them. i tried everything i could think of to get gainers down, but to no avail. for me, this move is all about psychological resistance. i know i can do it, but i know i’m going to break my damn neck in the process.

how to: chris healy figure out one clever way to build up to these. he suggested building up from a tilted version on a mat. start out by running forward and swinging the legs to one side or the other with a knee tuck. you will fall down. but. you will also be transitioning your momentum correctly and you probably won’t have as much anxiety about the movement. as you get better, you can gradually increase the verticality of the movement. chris says the most important point to remember when you practice this way is to tuck the knees in because otherwise, you will end up flopped on your belly. ouch.

two other practice methods that feel promising right now: back flips off a wall and front roll back flip combos. the off-the-wall version (again, not a michael jackson reference) is what gene kelly does in “singing in the rain” – take a couple of running steps off a wall and back flip off. this is easier than doing it without the wall, but it still take serious balls. lately, i’ve been having good result doing a backflip after a front roll, which you can easily do it you can flip from a squat. transitioning the momentum is all about hip drive. though this is a very different motion from a standing gainer, it has really helped me get over my fear. now i can work on the chris method.

why you would want to: well… taido is all about changing directions. i’m pretty sure you don’t need me to spell this out for you. though gainers may not seem to offer a lot of utility for taido, they are actually really defensible in jissen. there’s no place to try and enter with an attack. when i discuss non-ten-unshin later, the possibilities of counter-rotational unshin may feel a little more open.

in the meantime, you should also look into other tentai unshin movements that rotate in the opposite direction as the travel. for example, imagine the applications for a retreating front flip kick. the first person to send me a video of them doing this gets a beer.

common combinations

combinations are important in taido because of the seigyo principle of rendo rentai – using continuous motion to reach an outcome by indirect (and hence, unpredictable) means. in unshin and tengi, combinations are especially viable, since the rotation speed and momentum form one movement can add to that of a second movement. here are some very common combinations of unshin movements.

  • sokuten/zenten
  • zenten/sokuten
  • zenten/koten
  • koten/zenten
  • sokuten/bakuten
  • sokuten/bakuchu
  • bakuten/bakuchu
  • ude zenten/zenten
  • nenchu/zenten

when doing these combinations, try not to stop the motion. keep the rotation from the first movement going into the second. the transition is the most important thing you will get out of practicing these combos. i cannot stress that enough. taido is partly about adapting on the spot. learning to make as smooth a transition from one motion to another is a critical element in developing your ability to improvise physical skills in combat.

an important point to remember when you practice combinations of unshin movements: you will never have a chance to do more than one or possibly two of them in straight-line succession. there is not enough room on the court, and you have to think about maneuvering around an opponent who is trying to hit you. to get the most out of unshin combos, you will need to eventually learn to add in some changes of direction. i recommend practicing every combination you can think of where the second movements goes in the opposite direction from the first. then practice at odd angles. if you do this, you will find that you can actually use these things in jissen rather than just flashing up your hokei.

maybe i will write a few drills for practicing angular unshin combos later on, but for right now, just go to it with your own creativity. try to think of every combination possible, and then look for ways to practice doing them around obstacles and in reaction to stimulus. remember: keep you eye on the ball…

learning ten-based unshin

in 1993, a few of us started taking a few hours gymnastics lesson once a week to improve our tengi prior to the world championships. since uchida sensei wasn’t very good at the aerial maneuvers, american taido had a pretty sad level of tengi skill at that time (and we were absolutely stunned by the 200-pound finnish guys who could do nenchu at the tournaments). we learned a lot about gymnastic form, and some of us learned how we could teach flips and such better, but we didn’t really benefit from the rigid structure of formal tumbling (which is not to say that form in tumbling isn’t extremely important). basically, the environment didn’t lend itself to our purposes, and in case you were thinking about it, i would not recommend gymnastics lessons to a taido student hoping to work on this stuff.

your best bet, if you wish to practice unshin and ten-type movements is to get a few people together who are at various levels of skill. this allows each person to see various mistakes being made in addition to examples of really good form. find a safe location to work, warm-up well, and just do it. build up from the rudiments to the more difficult movements – if you don’t build your confidence along with your skill, you will quickly find that you cannot progress. when you come to a sticking point, take things back down a couple of notches. also pay attention to mechanics, and critique each others’ form mercilessly. “getting over” or landing on something other than your head is not the same as doing a flip.

hen-type unshin

now before you get all excited, i want to warn you that there aren’t a lot of hen-movements that could be useful for unshin. the reason is in the classification of what “hen” is: it is a change of body axis about some line that rests in the axial plane. however, if the body axis changes (rotates) far enough in this direction, the movement becomes ten. if there is any rotation about the sagittal/coronal axis (what taido calls the “body-axis” – though the body has an infinite number of possible axes), then the movement is nen (unless the the axis remains upright, which would be sen, but we aren’t talking about sen right now).

so what kinds of unshin movements could be considered hen? tricky question. i have a few applications, but they are pretty difficult to describe in words. so what i’m going to do is this: i will discuss one class of of hentai unshin that should be fairly obvious, then i will leave you to your own imaginings. sound fair? i think after a very little explanation, this concept will make a lot more sense.

my basic prototype for locomotion via hen-movmement is fukuteki, primarily the full fukuteki and stepping back/under move done to each side in fukuteki 6rendo (american routine). of course, in its basic form, this doesn’t seem that special (and would still be considered unsoku, since it moves along the flat plane), but there are great applications. look at all three forms of basic fukuteki and you will see that they involve a change of body axis while the feet stay basically in the same place, but what is unshin designed for? moving.

do the same basic fukuteki, but this time lift your feet up slightly. dive into the fukuteki position and then come upright. you have just moved form one point to another by a method that cannot be called unsoku, and you did so by changing the body axis – this equals hentai unshin.

try to apply this basic method to all three fukuteki. you will find interesting applications as well as several ways to move using all three. not to mention the other possible “fukuteki” ducking movements that could be used in this manner. basically this class of unshin is useful for moving under an attack without rolling. the advantage is that you can stay inside striking distance and keep your eyes on the opponent while moving someplace safe.

i’m not going to attempt to list off all the variations i have found to this kind of movement, but i will say that there are at least a dozen different ways to create unshin for the escaping-under-an-attack application alone. for other applications as well, i’m sure you will find plenty of new motions to explore. have fun – these are great in jissen, and just starting to come into wide usage. if you need some ideas, watch the matrix movies.

nen-type unshin

nen movement is much more open in its definition than hen (which is limited by ten), partly because it transcends hen and ten (which are classified by different amounts of rotation through one axis of the axial plane). nentai includes some amount of rotation through two of the three planes of the body. the only common movements in taido’s unshin that do this are shazenten and nenchu. movements of this complexity are naturally a little confusing (we can process information in one less dimension than we can perceive at any moment. if you can conceptualize five or more dimensions, you can get an idea of why i like to think of taido as a four(not three)-dimensional martial art).

since i am the first person i am aware of to classify this as a specific subset of unshin, i am invoking my discovery rights to name them “andinos”. just kidding, that would be stupid – i actually call this nentai-unshin kind of movement “nenshin”. you can call it anything you like so long as you remember me fondly when you do.

angular handspring

this is my friend, ohashi’s signature move. it looks kind of like a cross between a one-hand front handspring and a shoulder roll. there are applications for aerially rolling over attacks at well as for delivering attacks out of the movement. experiment with this move, and if you are brave, try the backward version as well.

twisting sokuten

how many times is it honestly a good idea to do a straight sokuten in jissen? pretty few. as a result, advanced players will often enter sokuten with the intention of changing angle or direction in the middle of the movement. this gives them the option to kick, turn, or something else. i’ve seen some guys set this up as if they were doing a big cartwheel to lure the opponent into range. when he gets close enough, they can topple over into an attack.

twisting zenchu

obviously, if we are going to have a twisting back flip, we can do a twisting front flip. there tons of applications for this in jissen and even a few in hokei (the second half of tentai comes to mind). the only reason you don’t see people doing these is that they can’t do straight front flips. give it another couple of years, and we’ll have broken the zenchu barrier. when that happens, it’ll only be a matter of time before these are commonplace.

twisting hentai unshin

all of the fukuteki variations i mentioned above could be used with an added twist to become nenshin. why would one do such a thing? to land in a better position for attack perhaps. since the variations are vast and the movements are difficult to describe, i’ll let you figure this out for yourselves.

etc.

you probably get the idea by now. there are all kinds of ways to twist, spin, and rotate the body, and it’s unnecessary to limit that motion to one axis at a time. keep in mind too that these movements do not have to be high-flying aerial flash techniques. they may look very simple, yet move in a sophisticated manner.

more general stuff

the following points apply to all unshin practice.

expansion/contraction

as i wrote about unsoku (and breathing, and will also write when i get to finishing my kamae article) expansion/contraction is super-important in almost everything we do in taido. unshin is not an exception.

look at the most obvious example – a diving front roll. you have to stretch way out to dive, then ball up quickly to roll. the more control you have over the speed of your stretch-out and ball-up movements, the longer and higher you can dive with safety.

a less obvious example is the back flip. as i mentioned earlier, many people try to flip without jumping. by focussing on extending the body upward first, you add lots of height to your flip. if you can ball up quickly, you never have to worry about not landing.

on the extensions, really try to feel you body become as long as possible. stretch your spine form crown to coccyx, reach with your fingers, point your toes, and don’t forget to look – sight is your mental tape measure, so where you point your eyes makes a big difference. when you contract, bring your knees into your chest, exhale, tuck your chin, lift your toes toward your knees, and it’s even permissible to grab your knees with your hands when your are learning, provided you remember to wane yourself from this before it becomes habit (you will be needing your ams for other things later, don’t ya think?).

the faster you can expand or contract your body in unshin, the more flexibility you will have in your execution. this means more applications and easier usage all around. it also increases the safety with which you are able to attempt new, or more difficult movements. if you know you can ball up at the last second to bail, you have more freedom to try things you aren’t sure you can accomplish.

posture

the vast majority of possible unshin movements will require a bend in the spine. posture is the word we use to describe spinal alignment. your posture is important, and paying attention to when it needs to bend and when it needs to lengthen will do wonderful things for your control of your aerial movements. posture is something i hope to do an in-depth treatment of someday, but for now, consider it the link between the expansion/contraction aspect and the breathing aspect of unshin. think about how your body structure defines your movement palette and you will understand how important posture really is.

breathing

since unshin requires spinal flexion/extension and more general expansion/contraction, it only stands to reason that we can incorporate breathing techniques into the movement. by practicing the basic exercises i described in this article, you will learn how to incorporate efficient breathing into your unshin movement. it only requires practice.

the applications of this practice are far-reaching. if you are using unshin to move in jissen, and your unshin does your breathing for you, then you are going to be able to breathe with little effort throughout your matches. keeping your breathing relaxed and natural lowers stress arousal that can cause poor performance. at high levels, unshin could save more energy than it uses (possibly). any taidoka who develops such a level of freedom of motion, energy efficiency, and low arousal is going to be nearly unbeatable.

timing

as i mentioned above in the section on bakuchu, timing is a critical element to performing all of these movements successfully. chances are, you will figure out the proper timing through practice. my basic advice on timing these moves is this: later is better. so long as you jump high, you will typically do well to delay your rotation as long as possible. even if you do not fully rotate, you will probably not land on your head. in most instances (assuming you jump!) it is safer to wait longer than it is to try and rotate while you are still close to the ground. it also builds your confidence and aerial awareness to practice this way.

timing is also critical to applying them in jissen, though this is mostly beyond the scope of this article. however, i will say that at higher levels, we want to think about how to do these movements while protecting ourselves from attack. thus, it becomes important to be able to control the precise point at which we decide to rotate or turn. control requires comfort, and getting comfortable enough to control our movements at this level requires lots and lots of practice.

distance

i am still working on the distance article and have been for over a year. part of the problem lay in the malconception of distance within 3-space that most people have been conditioned with. i think that i am going to have to spend some time reading pop-physics before i can figure out a way to explain how taido is necessarily 4-dimensional. why does this matter? because i can’t go into a discussion of “distance” when the word itself is not accurately being defined. that’s as far as i’m going to go with this thread for now.

suffice it for now that distancing for unshin shares some of the same aspecs as distancing for unsoku. only you have to account for one added dimension.

practice doing all of these movements around, over, onto, and off of obstacles and people, stationary and moving. this will give you a feel for distancing properly when you attempt to move by unshin in jissen.

uses

this article is about the actual skills and movements of unshin. i will someday devote a separate page to using unsoku and unshin, but i want to point out here that unshin is part of your technique. you must link unshin with unsoku, kamae, sotai, and waza. unshin is not simply flipping around in a vacuum. while it’s good enough for gymnasts to take five running steps and stick a landing, taidoka need to execute unshin while conscious of not leaving any suki for the opponent to attack.

unshin also makes a killer appetizer at parties.

the importance of proper form

the temptation to call our unshin form “good enough” once we can consistently land on our feet is sometimes overwhelming. do not fool yourself – lack of injury does not equal perfection. if i learned anything from formal gymnastics lessons, it’s this: good form (but not necessarily “proper” classical form) is the gateway to higher-level skills. i’ll write that once more in bold italics to make sure you don’t underestimate its importance:

good form is the gateway to higher-level skills.

at lower levels, we can fake it. we can use strength and guts to overcome the force of gravity. we can have an ok zenten, an ok sokuten, a weak koten, and a not-too-bad bakuten, and we’ll be able to cut it as c-grade taidoka. what is the c-grade taidoka missing in his hokei? attention to detail. what is the c-grade taidoka missing in his unshin? same thing. if this hypothetical student were to spend about two hours seriously practicing his zenten form, his koten, sokuten, and bakuten would instantly improve as well (unless he has a major upper-body strength deficit).

higher-level unshin is more sophisticated than basic tumbles. we cannot force sokuchu and nenchu and the like. we can force zenchu from a running start, but unless we get down into the mechanics of the motion, we will never be able to do it in hokei. the people who do nenchu have beautiful bakuchu, without exception. is this a coincidence? no.

when learning new skills, it’s fine to cheat until you can build some confidence. however, you are only cheating yourself if you don’t then back up and fix your form. i know tons of good black belts who can’t seem to take their skills to the next level, and they always blow me off when i tell them that they need to go back and fix some small mistake in their sokuten or koten. but these same guys are quick to put me in the “good at tengi” group, as if it’s some kind of magic that i stumbled upon. they never even notice that it’s not just my flips that are better than theirs, it’s my front rolls, back rolls, etc.

cautions

there are a few things you should keep in mind when moving by unshin. firstly, in aerial unshin, nearly everything that happens in transit is determined before we leave the ground. maybe only 10% (though this is by no means a scientifically derived figure) of how we move in the air has any thing to do with what we actually do while airborne. things we can control after takeoff: body position, specific landing-point, specific landing-timing, and not much else. things we cannot control while in the air: direction of travel, body orientation (in other words, if you want to flip or twist, you will have to initiate that movement before you lose contact with terra), general landing-point, general landing-timing, and lots of other things.

the other big caution has to do with where you look. since many unshin movements require you to look in a specific direction in order to execute them, you may have blind spots when you try to do them in jissen. this is another place where timing can make or break your ability to use these skills in application. in all of your unshin skills, pay attention to where you are looking try to keep a handle on your location in relation to your target and the ground.

in conclusion

my final word on unshin is that it is very important to taido (sound familiar?). just as unsoku acts as a strategic link between kamae and technique, unshin can do the same as well as linking any combination of unsoku and sotai. this, along with the added spatial dimension in which unshin allow us to move, gives it greater applicability than unsoku in application.

however, unlike neil armstrong, we cannot escape the earth’s gravitational pull. this means that when we rise, we will also fall. less obviously, when we move in opposition to gravity, we will have to expend a great deal more energy than we do in moving tangentially to gravity as we do when walking. this means that we must chose our moments lest we tire quickly. it also means that we need to pay much more attention to breathing well in motion.

finally, remember that unshin does not have to be restricted to rolling and flipping around. there are any number of non-acrobatic movements that could be just as useful in taido. especially experimenting with nentai movements will open up some interesting options for students practicing unshin application. and while you chew on all the possibilities that nenshin has to offer, i’ll be polishing up my shazenchu.

4 thoughts on “unshin”

  1. another good read, cheers Andy,

    were starting to mix in more Nen into our Ten with some pretty interesting results, some of which are improving the flow of the following techniques which always a plus when doing something that looks cool too.

    although its a bit strange to stand back from something and say ‘hmmm… needs more nengi’.

    keep up the good writing
    Sean, Australian Taido

  2. Cheers!

    Yeah, it’s often really funny when you try to analyze some of the movements that come out of playing with unshin. The flow you mention is the most important thing – even if you look like a spastic monkey, good flow is always the goal.

    Keep working at it. Next time we meet, I expect you to show me something I haven’t seen before.

  3. Hey, interesting reading..

    I have an additional thing to add to the zenchu. Instead of focusing on your upper body bending down, try to get the feel that your lower body, especially the hips, go up past the upper body. Naturally you have to create this room by bending your upper body forward a bit, just not all the way to your knees. I try to visualize myself flipping this way, it really does increase height and helps a lot if you attempt to do zenten-zenchu or similar combinations where you can’t have the 5 step setup. :) I hope you get the concept from what i wrote, otherwise email me.

    1. Thanks, Robert. That’s a really good point.

      I think the change in emphasis is important – many people seem to attack zenchu by throwing their heads at the ground, but you get better results when you focus on creating upward momentum first and rotation second.

      The same is true of bakuchu, I think. Beginners often attempt to flip over too soon, so they have to rely on speed and end up landing poorly. Really nice back flips usually don’t rotate until closer to the jump’s apex. This allows a higher jump and gives more time for full rotation.

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