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Interactions: Ma-ai and the aiki brushoff


"What block would you use to stop a 400lb linebacker who was charging at you?"

This question was posed to me very soon after I started doing TKD as a teenager.  Even at that early point, I knew it was a trick question.  I knew that, "None.  I'd get out of his way," was the right answer.  Our instructor emphasized the wisdom of getting out of the way, but that strategy was pretty much left undeveloped in TKD.  Even though I could recite the right answer, I still got run over a lot.
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Later I got into karate and learned some more sophisticated angles and footwork and they expanded on this idea, saying,  "Wait till the last moment to get out of the way so they don't have time to adjust." It was better, but I still got hit a lot.
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Then I got into aikido and judo and we began a decades-long study of space and time in attacking.  We call it ma-ai, and every single aikido class emphasizes this principle.  I've heard folks say that the biggest difference between aikido and other martial arts, the thing that aikido emphasizes that other arts don't, is ma-ai - encounter  time and space.
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After I started this more rigorous study of ma-ai, I started noticing the difference between really masterful karateka and merely competent karateka, is that the masters have an amazing, precise understanding of ma-ai.  They absolutely know when they are within your reach and when they are not.  Same with judo - y'all ought to watch Rhadi Ferguson's Morotegari DVD to see how a great understanding of ma-ai (among other things) made him a master of morotegari.
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Ma-ai is the difference between aikido and not-aikido.  Ma-ai is the difference between masterful karate and basic karate.  Ma-ai is the difference between regional-level and Olympic-level judo.  Ma-ai is that important.
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But I think ma-ai is still left  mostly undeveloped even in otherwise very good aikido (and karate and judo) players.
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Back to the original question - the 400lb linebacker.  Is it sufficient to step out of his way at just the right moment but to stay inside his reach?  Is it sufficient to say, "Ma-ai is really important, really the most important aspect of aikido" but only apply your understanding of ma-ai to the time when the attacker is "over there," and not, "right here?"  Is it okay to pay attention to ma-ai only until you engage with uke?
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I don't think so.
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When we started emphasizing that tori wants to maintain ma-ai to the best of his ability, evade when uke breaks ma-ai, and push back away from uke to regain ma-ai, a whole new world of aiki opened up to us.  Maintain - evade - regain.
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I know that I sound like a broken record to my long-time readers, but the aiki brushoff is crucially important as the completion of the concept of ma-ai.  I would recommend (again) that you spend a month or so of dedicated practice on this idea of evade, push-back, and run away - and see what it does for your aikido (or karate).
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Patrick Parker is a Christian, husband, father, martial arts teacher, Program Director for a Cardiac Rehab, and a Ph.D. Contact: mokurendojo@gmail.com or phone 601.248.7282 木蓮
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