Ma Ai refers to the engagement distance between yourself and an opponent. How you might elect to move can be determined by the magnitude of this distance. There are three primary distances that we consider when deciding how to move.
Chikama (or Chika Ma) refers to a short distance. This usually means that the opponent is already within striking distance. This distance is often interpreted to be about three feet, but it could be a larger or smaller distance. It simply means you or your opponent is close enough to strike without having to move.
Because of this short distance any potential strike could be delivered very quickly, providing you will little time to react. If you find yourself in a potentially violent encounter you do not want to stand, with your current level of training, within Chikama distance. Position yourself back so you have more time and space in which to react should an agitated person suddenly launch an attack.
Ittoma (Itto Ma) refers to an intermediate distance. We use it to refer to a distance between two people that requires one step in order to be in striking range. There is no strictly defined distance. A person is not quite close enough to strike without stepping so they must move forward one step in order to be in striking range. This distance would be different for a person using their bare hands and for a person using a weapon like a sword. The distance is also different for a person with long limbs versus a person with shorter limbs. The key is the necessity to close some distance before a strike would be effective.
Something that further complicates Ittoma is that some strikes, such as a Kizami Tsuki, may be slightly out of range and therefore would be considered to be at Chikama range. But a kick such as Mae Geri may well be within Chikama range even though a hand strike is at Ittoma range. When thinking of Ittoma you should consider the maximum range of all weapons that a person can use to strike at you without the need to step. That would be considered your minimum Ittoma range or distance. You would need to be at least that distance from the person in order to be at Ittoma distance.
As you begin to spar (in the next belt) you will gain an innate sense for this distance. You will find that you naturally position yourself at this distance so that your sparring partner must make some commitment to body movement before they can be in striking range. This body movement hints at how the opponent might strike and where the strike will be targeted. This provides you some (quite limited) time to consider how you wish to respond.
Toma refers to a long distance. This is again a relative distance. It could be twenty feet, or it could be a mile. It implies that the opponent must traverse some significant distance in order to attack. We define this as being two steps or more. In other words, an opponent who must make at least two steps in order to attack is said to be at Toma.
Many of the same considerations about appendage lengths and striking distances for various potential weapons still apply.
How you might move can be influenced (but not dictated) by the attack distance. If someone attacks from Chikama then it may be prudent to step back to octagon angles 6 or 8 to move you off the opponent’s center line, increase the distance and buy some time. Stepping to angle 2 would buy some time and increase distance, but it does not take you off the center line. Now the opponent is at Ittoma and can simply step directly forward to attack you again. You will want to get off the center line so this follow-on attack is not such an imminent threat.
If the opponent is at Ittoma then stepping back to angle 6 or 8 are much less viable options. This is because of that required step. It allows the opponent to track your movement and then use that intervening step as a pivot point. They will simply track your movement, pivot during their step and attack you at your new location. At that moment the opponent will likely be at Chikama distance, making you an easy target.
So a more beneficial movement is to step off toward angles 3 or 4 as the attacker plants that single step. The attacker will be unable to visually track your movement and turn sufficiently to attack your new location. By stepping to angle 3 or 4 you also have the ability to rotate 90° relative to your opponent. You will now likely be immediately beside or somewhat behind them and can flee, strike, or control your opponent as warranted. Because of your position the opponent will find it very difficult to pivot the 90° that would be required in order to strike you. This does not mean you cannot be struck, it simply greatly reduces the chances. A capable and skilled opponent may still be able to raise a knee or use Yoko Geri to strike at your future location even if you are off of his or her center line. There will always be circumstances you must consider whenever you are dealing with a thinking opponent.
The above stepping pattern will not work if the opponent must take two or more steps (from Toma). They will again be able to track your motion and adjust their advancement so they can strike you at your new location. You must now consider moving to angles 5 or 7 during the attacker’s approach. This again proves difficult for the attacker to track you and he or she will find it nearly impossible to modify the direction of their attack sufficiently. You will now probably be behind your attacker.
You can move too early when the attacker begins their assault from Toma. You must wait until their attack is fully engaged before you move. If they take a single step and stop briefly, they are not at Ittoma, not Toma. If they are fully committed to a forward attack from Toma, then you would wait until they are between their first and second steps (assuming they were only two steps away) to move to angle 5 or 7. This is a great way to initiate an escape or to then turn and deal with your opponent from their back side. You might decide to strike into their rotation as they turn to see where you went. You might alternately decide to initiate Nage by attacking his or her legs or moving their head off of the mother line.
Work with a training partner to see the effects of all these distance considerations. When you or your training partner have some experience with these movement then begin to increase the intensity of the attack. Ultimately work toward a full fledged direct attack toward one another. This form of full speed attack will demonstrate to you how easy it is to utilize the principles and how readily you can avoid most aggressive attacks. Start slowly at first so everyone is comfortable with what is happening and how to move, then move up to powerful and intentional attacks that must be avoided.
When training like this be sure not to target any vital areas. Nobody wants any unfortunate accidents. But also ensure that if you are the person attacking (the Uke, in this case) that you could impact the person if he or she did not properly move. It should not be your goal to make it easy for Tori to get out of the way. If you are functioning as Tori, work to be as relaxed an almost nonchalant as possible while you move to your next position. You will move more quickly and with better control if you are relaxed.