Ma Ai refers to distance, but more importantly, it suggests an awareness of distance. You will need to study distance and distancing a great deal. You need to know instantaneously if your opponent is in range, and if so, what strikes or maneuvers you might employ against them at their current (or future) range. Furthermore, you need to know if you are in the range of your attacker’s weapons as well. As you practice movements, strikes, and kicks pay attention to the distance at which they are most (and least) effective so you have a better appreciation for when to use them or how to make them ineffective when used by an opponent.
Distancing is also used to decide how best to escape from an attack when the attacker is quite near, at medium distance, or some significant distance away. Your movements in each of these situations can be quite different based largely upon how far away your attacker was before they initiated their movement.
We classify distance using the following terms:
- Chikoma (Short Distance) – You and the opponent are currently within range and need not step to attack.
- Ittoma (Medium Distance) – You or the opponent will require one step to successfully attack.
- Toma (Long Distance) – You or the opponent must take two or more steps to attack.
At the most fundamental level, we use these distances to help decide how best to escape an attack. If the attack is coming from Chikoma then stepping back and to the side (for example to octagon angle six or eight) will buy you both a little distance and a little time. When you are a new practitioner this can be quite beneficial.
But stepping back to Chikoma does not work well if the opponent attacks from Ittoma. Since the opponent is stepping they will naturally pivot during the step and attack you at your new position if you move to octagon angle six or eight. So while you are buying time by stepping to one of these angles, the person who can best take advantage of the larger time window is your opponent.
A better strategy when someone is at Ittoma is to move directly toward angle three or four. Since the opponent is stepping forward they will nearly always end up right next to you if you step as suggested. It is quite awkward for an attacking opponent to turn 90° in the middle of a step. In most cases, you will find yourself in a strategically advantageous position after moving to angle three or four.
Moving to angle three or four does not work well if the opponent began moving from Toma distance. You can make it work if you wait until the opponent has begun the final step in your direction, but this requires excellent timing. If you move early the opponent can simply pivot again to track your movement to angle three or four.
A better option in the case of an attack from Toma is to move to angle five or seven instead. This will likely put you behind the opponent as they strike forward along what had been your angle one. Now you are in a position to effect an escape or strike at the opponent as he or she turns to see where you have gone.
As you become more advanced you will discover many other ways in which you might move under the above conditions, but these movement strategies work quite well until you have an improved sense of timing and distance. You should practice these skills with a training partner who will attack you with great vigor and speed (after you get beyond any initial jitters and are certain you can move at the appropriate time).
When you first begin training you should carefully study the appropriate distance for delivering most kicks and hand strikes. You will want to fully appreciate when you are in range or out of range for any potential striking method. Beginning students seldom have a good sense of this distance. You can tell when someone sets out to kick a bag with Yoko Geri or Mawashi Geri. Usually, they are not at a proper distance from the bag to deliver an effective kick. Often the kick will miss the bag completely. At other times the kick will be effectively jammed or otherwise rendered ineffective because the bag is too close. Spend a good deal of time developing a sense for when each strike and kick is within your effective range.
As you advance you will be introduced to a great many additional kicking methods that can be employed to quickly put you at an optimal kicking range when you are not at Chikoma. Many of these methods are used to mask or otherwise hide an approach from Ittoma. In some cases, these kicks will move you from Chikoma to Ittoma. While this may seem strange initially, there are very sound reasons for doing exactly that. I will leave you to ponder the nature of these circumstances.
Distance is a very dynamic thing. It constantly changes when two people are in a contest of some type. This means you must continually evaluate both current and future distancing to decide your best course of action and the best method of protection from a potential attack. This is not always easy and takes quite some time to evolve. Start by noting when your distancing is not correct or when you make incorrect distancing assumptions. These are learning opportunities you should not overlook.
You may also wish to review the concept of Hyoshi (Timing). Timing and distance are both interrelated and must both be considered when contemplating or responding to any movement.