Keeping the Unsoku Dosa Fresh and Informative

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It is said that Professor Tomiki developed the unique 8-pointed star sequence while he was interned at a Prisoner of War (POW) camp on the shores of Lake Balkhash, in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic from 1944 to 1947. In hindsight, what a really great use of one’s free time!! 

I feel confident that Tomiki Sensei did not develop this training practice in one single effort. Knowing how he encouraged personal study and play as a means to explore and experiment with aikido and budo generally, Tomiki Sensei likely had created and discovered a myriad of ways to practice and introduce Unsoku as it is often referred to in its current form. Unsoku Dosa (footwork movement) and Tegatana Dosa (hand blade movement) together comprise Tandoku Undo (solo practice).  Today, sensei and students of Tomiki Aikido around the world repeat the same movements in familiar, routine ways at the start of every practice. As you know, this “8-pointed star” is represented in our organizational logos and it is foundational in our martial art practice.

There is a joyful, repetitive nature to stepping in 8 directions during Unsoku Dosa. Its routine movements starting always with the left foot moving forward and back, back and forward; then again with the left foot moving left and right, right then left for 8 counts. Finally, we are trained to step to the left front corner and twist to become perpendicular to the direction we first started; then we move back to center, and take another step forward and to the right to achieve the same position on the right. We repeat this to each back corner, first to the left side, then to the right. Always to a count of 8 that accommodate the 8 directions assumed most effective in martial arts training.  

I would not argue otherwise…I have been enjoying the practice of repeating Unsoku each aikido class for nearly 40 years since I was first introduced to Tomiki Aikido as a recent university graduate, training with Shihan Bob Dziubla and the Northwestern University Aikido Club. This consistent practice has been a key to my training as it has been for all those I see training around me. It’s like an old friend – I can do the 8-pointed star movements almost in my sleep. When I am still a little stiff muscled or not all there mentally at the start of an aikido class, doing Unsoku can help center me and bring my body into awareness of where I am now and what I am doing there.

Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of practicing Unsoku Dosa can also be mesmerizing and allow one to fall into a bland monotonous routine. Sometimes it can become a series of mindless dance-type moves, rhythmic and peaceful. One can find themselves having completed all of the Unsoku Dosa moves and hardly remember doing them! When I find that has just happened to me, I recommit to better using the practice time and this familiar routine to up my martial arts game and better concentrate my focus.

We at the Columbia Aikido Club in Maryland, under the leadership of Geoff Haynes (5th Dan), senior student for decades of Professor Yoji Kondo (who passed away in October 2017), are experimenting with a new approach to practicing Tandoku Undo. The new way of practicing that I will describe momentarily has reinvigorated my training, and I find it personally challenging in a manner that positively impacts my kata and randori practice.  In short, it greatly improves my focus and concentration for the entire class. 

The training difference is primarily in the counting, but that change significantly affects one’s movement. To better appreciate the impact that practicing Tandoku Undo can have in aikido skills development, we in Columbia have broken down each of the 8-count foot directions, as well as the 5 sets of hand and arm movements into counts of 2 only. The practice sounds like “Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni”.  Having effectively counted to 8 using this sharp, repetitive sequence, one would have completed the first forward and back movements on both the right and left sides. A practice can repeat this first direction two or three more times before moving to the second set of directions (right and left sides), or you can move onto the side directions after just one full set of forward and back (4 Ichi, Ni counts). Trying this new counting method and sharper movements to front/back, each side, then each corner can reconstitute Unsoku so you experience the clear relation between each foot movement and one or more Ju Nana Hon techniques. When moving in this way to the sharp, repetitive count it uniquely reemphasizes the relevance of each directional movement to performing an effective basic Tomiki Aikido technique. 

As for addressing the hand and arm movements, the Tegatana Dosa, I have always related to these sequence of movements as having originated from the Japanese sword discipline and cutting techniques that are deliberate and powerful. Sometimes I practice these moves with my bokken in hand. These are smooth, graceful movements – or they have the potential to be when the bokken is in the right hands!  

However, viewed differently, when this same sharp “Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni; Ichi, Ni” counting sequence is applied to the Tegatana Dosa, the clear connection to shomen-ate, aigamae-ate, gyakugamae-ate, and other basic aikido techniques – as well as to several advanced kata – is obvious. The key is to sharply and crisply move through each sequence, recognizing that counting just one “Ichi, Ni” sequence is in itself a complete, whole martial movement. In most instances, the arm starts close to your body, darts out effectively, self-assured, and in control; then efficiently returns to where it started in a single count of “Ichi, Ni”. Every one of these hand and arm movements relate directly to aikido techniques that we all know and practice separately. With just a little reflection, it is very possible to align these Tandoku Undo movements with each of the kata techniques we all practice. Not surprisingly, the consistent movements that get generated from this rigorous repetition also support effective randori practice and brings a sharpness to one’s training. 

I urge you to try this practice. For example, in performing the first shomen arm and hand movements, it is useful to move to the correct starting point as you begin your count. Start your count of “Ichi” with your left hand in Jodan position (just above your forehead). As you count “Ni” sugiashi forward with your left foot while your left hand cuts sharply downward to Chudan (chest level). As you next count “Ichi” sugiashi back to your original starting point, returning your left hand to Jodan. Repeat this sequence four times in quick succession; then repeat on the right side. 

To begin the next sequence, bring your left hand to Gedan (your belt knot) as you count “Ichi”. As you count “Ni” sugiashi forward with your left foot leading while striking forward with your left hand to Chudan. As you count “Ichi” sugiashi to the original starting point returning left hand to Gedan. Again, repeat this sequence four times in quick succession.  Then repeat this set of movements on the right side. Each of the remaining hand and arm movements may be performed in similar fashion. With a little experimentation, this shift in practice may provide a needed boost to your appreciation of Professor Tomiki’s Tandoku Undo practice and might reinvigorate your aikido training as well.