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Ma-ai 間合 Gap

The concept for this month is gap, specifically the gap between you and your attacker, but the idea is more complicated than that small word makes it seem. Ma-ai is both timing and distancing combined together. In English it seems as if these are two separate concepts, but if you think about it, especially in a martial arts context, it is hard to actually separate them. There may be a gap in distance between you and your attacker, but that also equals a gap in time, or the time it will take to cover that space and counter-attack. Where the attacker is, what they are doing, and what they are thinking (as well as what you are doing and thinking) all work together to create this idea of ma-ai.

The ninth of our twelve keys is:


Use appropriate intervals of timing, distancing, and positioning to keep your attacker off-balance and off-line mentally and physically and in perfect position for you to strike
-An-shu Stephen K. Hayes, To-Shin Do Official Curriculum

The first steps in practicing this skill are the positioning concepts in each technique taught in To-Shin Do. Are you in the right place for this technique? Can you fit into the attacker’s rhythm and counter properly? Each one of our To-Shin Do techniques has a lesson to teach about timing and distancing, and each one needs to be explored. Some deal with long range situations where there is more distance and time to react (and to overcome). Some deal with such close in distance that things may seem to happen much faster.

Part of the ma-ai concept is the ability to get in and create a disrupt before your attacker can do something back to you. There is a knife drill I teach where we practice being cut with big slashes. The drill is to move back out of reach of one cut and find that space and time needed to get in and lock up the attacker before getting caught with another cut. Several things have to work together. You have to be in the right place, your body has to be in good kamae, you have to be ready to move forward, but you also have to find that proper gap. You can move back in while the attacker is still cutting, while the attacker starts another cut, or while the attacker is pulling their arm back from their cut. In other words, they are committed. If they aren’t committed to doing something, that means they can react to you. The drill also teaches you to recognize the speed and rhythm of the attacker and how that changes this interval of when you can and cannot counter-attack.

There is also kokoro-no-ma-ai, or a mental or spirit timing. With practice, we can recognize those internal gaps in our attacker, that moment when they lose focus or where their intention falters, for even a split second, and we can move in. Later, we practice creating those gaps, not just at the physical level, but disrupting and off-balancing the attacker from the inside out. For us, we want to be sure there isn’t a gap in our spirit or intention that can be taken advantage of.

Put all of this together, and ma-ai becomes a fluid, and very complicated concept. But learning when you can move in and counter-attack, and when you cannot, is a key martial arts skill.

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