“Once the student can successfully control his maai, the ability to then apply appropriate kuzushi, tsukuri and kake, are greatly enhanced.”
Ma, in Japanese, refers to a “space, or an interval” between objects. As a principle commonly used in martial arts, it refers to the “physical spacing” between individuals, and can also determine the outcome of any martial encounter. The term used to describe this phenomenon is called “Ma-ai”.
No one should have the right to invade the personal space of another without permission. This basic truth lies at the very heart of any valid claim to preserving one’s security, and the natural right to act resolutely in one’s own defense. No fully trained or accomplished martial artist, would willingly abdicate this right without justifiable cause or reason. Being vulnerable at any one time is understandable. To exist while being defenseless is not.
One aspect of proper maai may refer to an “inner space”, within one’s consciousness, that an individual requires for solitude, privacy, peace of mind, and the ultimate freedom to think and act independently for him/herself. This right is inviolate, and must be defended with every ounce of vigor and practiced preparation, whenever challenged or attacked.
The other aspect of proper maai refers to the “outer, or physical space” that is required by the individual to move in or out of, and to efficiently deal with any real or perceived threats to his welfare. This is the more troublesome of the two examples, as reasonable notions of proper boundaries are quite often blurred, and ill defined. Being social animals, we may be naively duped into relying on the agendas and decisions of others, in foolishly determining what really is in our own best interests.
In aikido training, this regard for personal (inner) , and for interpersonal (outer) “maai”, involves ongoing thought and interactive training. Throughout this lifelong process, each person must resolve to remain individually accountable for personal safety, and mutually responsible for respecting the rights, welfare, and boundaries of the others we train with.
Quite often, It is the head instructor who must set and monitor the correct parameters of such training, and coordinate harmoniously with assistant instructors, seniors, and the very students themselves, to successfully and safely practice the principles and applications of appropriate maai.
A key factor to remember for each student working with the confrontation scenario, is to recognize separately the maai for himself, as opposed to that of his opponent. The goal of the exercise is to maintain one’s own maai, while disrupting that of the opponent. Once the student can successfully control his maai, the ability to then apply appropriate kuzushi, tsukuri and kake, are greatly enhanced. This refers to balance taking, creating the opening for entering, and the successful follow through with proper technique, and of zanshin, or proper finishing of the movements.
I often recall stories from my past, which serve to remind and guide me in my understanding for, and the proper pursuit of my training goals. Some such stories involve the great “Kensei”, or “sword saint”, Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was reputed to have fought over 60 battles, or actual contests of skill and survival, on his path of Musha Shugyo.
Shishido Baiken was an expert with Kusarigama, a combination of a ball and chain, attached to a reaping sickle of lethal purpose. Its design was to trap the sword with the ball and chain, and then dispatch the opponent with the sickle. Musashi recognized the problem of proper maai, immediately drawing not one, but both swords as he approached his enemy. Baiken successfully trapped Musashi’s long sword, but was himself dispatched when Musashi entered Baiken’s maai, using his short sword.
Another anecdote of interest was Musashi’s supposed encounter with the great and legendary Yagyu Munenori, referred to in Japanese history as “Tajima no Kami”. Lord Yagyu was indeed a minor daimyo, but also the official sword instructor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
As Yagyu was tending to his garden, he was interrupted by a servant, announcing that a shugyosha was at the gate, requesting a match. The great master sighed, and gave a cut flower to the servant to present to this individual, with his regrets that he was now retired, and accepted no more matches as before. Of course, this shugyosha was Miyamoto Musashi, who humbly accepted both the gesture, and the gift of the flower. Yet, upon examining how amazingly fine the cut on the stem was, he remarked, ” I could not seriously hope to defeat the one who cut this flower anyway, so I will best be on my way.”.
Both of these serve as examples of how the concept of proper maai may be understood and applied. One involved action; the other forestalled it.
In our ongoing training in Aikido, or of any other art form of choice, the imperative need to recognize, apply and to learn from proper maai is clear. Such understanding can lead to both wise withdrawal and defense, as well as towards entering, and taking the initiative to accomplish our goals.