The importance of Maai in Aikido and a little lesson from Pernell Whitaker

The following is my own understanding of ma-ai or distancing. It is a complex concept and one I’m still coming to grips with, but here are my thoughts.

Ma-ai is one of the most important concepts in any martial art but is often not emphasized in our daily training. Ma-ai although directly meaning ‘interval’ translated very roughly means ‘engagement distance’ or ‘proper distance’. Mastery of distance is essential to make any effective use of Aikido or any martial art for that matter. If you understand distance, you instinctively know how far exactly you need to be to avoid strikes/attacks and how much to move in to deliver a technique effectively. In fact with proper distancing, you can effectively control a ‘fight’ without much fighting at all since you are controlling the pace and the terms of the encounter and engage and disengage on your own terms.

In Aikido, the distance that we learn to maintain is actually “Ittsiko-itto no Maai” or “one step striking distance”. Traditionally this means you are one step away from executing a strike to your partner. However as Aikido is a more defensive and reactive art (at least traditionally), I would prefer it to mean the minimum distance in which you can be safe from an attack from your opponent. There is a difference between the two. If following the concept of Ittsiko-itto no Maai (Itto-Ma), a smaller person might already be in the striking range of his partner despite him maintaining Itto-Ma. This is not an ideal position to defend from whereby you can be hit without being able to reach your opponent.

Proper distancing therefore changes all the time. This can be influenced from a whole bunch of factors including:

  1. Physical attributes: Speed, height, size, reaction time. For e.g. If your opponent is very fast and has quick burst speed, you may need to stay further off to give you sufficient time to react. Or if your reaction time is very fast, you can be closer to your opponent since you can react quickly to an incoming strike. Also if the person is very proficient with kicks, the distance also opens up.
  2. Angle: For example, if you are behind a person, you can practically be very close to the person and yet be safe from attack. If you are off on the side, you can also be closer.
  3. The introduction of weapons: The introduction of weapons changes ma-ai drastically. Even a short weapon like the knife extends ma-ai by several inches especially when the consequences of getting cut are much higher. A longer weapon of course increases the range even further.
Note that I say the MINIMUM distance you need to be safe. Of course if we were 10 feet apart, no one can strike you but by being too far away, you are drawing him to come closer. When space is limited, this is a problem if your opponent is constantly trying to close the distance, and you don’t want to give ground without having to. If you’re too far away you cannot also hope to be in an ideal range to perform any entries or techniques. You want to be as close as you can while remaining safe so that when an opening arises, you are in the best position possible to take advantage of it. You want also to be as close as possible so that he doesn’t feel compelled to keep on closing the distance with you.
I tried searching for a video that illustrates good ma-ai in Aikido but instead found the classic Pernell Whittaker who had absolute mastery of distance. Note how he stays right out of range of his opponent while darting in and out and moving in when he wanted to. The principles are the same for all martial arts.

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