Photo courtesy of OoohOooh
I've talked in a couple of posts this past week about defining and measuring ma-ai very precisely so that you can build up a good intuitive sense of that distance and so that you can ingrain the habit of stepping aside whenever someone is at that distance. We talk about measuring precisely and doing it consistently, but as Kyle pointed out in a comment to that post, we actually use that ma-ai sense much more loosely in a more complex way when both players are already in motion.
Suppose uke and tori start 15-20 feet apart and walk together with uke's job to stride directly through tori's center and tori's job to evade at ma-ai. Because of the arbitrary distance apart and the random step sizes, a couple of interesting things happen.
- Just before he reaches ma-ai, uke is very likely to change his tempo or his weight balance. He is planning a foot to stride through with and he has to get that foot positioned correctly when he is just outside ma-ai. Otherwise his stride-through will be wimpy. Look for that glitch in his footwork - it is a pretty reliable indicator something is wrong with the guy who is about to be at ma-ai (i.e. he is an attacker).
- Tori is unable to wait until exactly ma-ai to begin his evasion. Tori calculates which step will take him past ma-ai and begins the evasion with that last step.
Which brings me to one of the best ways I've found to ingrain that ma-ai reflex and get additional practice at measuring ma-ai outside the dojo - The aiki handshake. Go back for a second to the definition I offered earlier for ma-ai as the distance at which uke can first start affecting you - the distance at which he can casually lean in and grab your extended wrist. This is also about the range for a handshake. So here's the exercise:
- Make it a habit to shake hands whenever you have the opportunity. Do it firmly, with eye contact and genuine feeling. You will develop a good spatial sense and goodwill just by doing that.
- As you step in to grasp their hand, shift your feet slightly to the outside of the hand they are reaching for you with. As you clasp their hand, turn their palm slightly upward and use your free hand to touch or clasp their elbow or upper forearm. This is a natural, genuine handshake but it provides you some protection from their free hand and also reduces their leverage if they are the type to want to crush your hand.
- As the handshake dies out and you both release, use your contact on the elbow to gently and unobtrusively push yourself back outside ma-ai. Hold your conversation from here - outside ma-ai.
I think you will find that this will build a fine, dynamic ma-ai sense as well as creating an intuitive awareness in you of what a genuine person behaves like at ma-ai as opposed to someone with ulterior motives.