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Maai is Everything

In 2018, Sensei Tony posted this to our Facebook page. As relevant today as it was then.

There was a song on the radio this morning that stuck in my head, the refrain of which goes something like this “I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger…”.  That was rolling around in my head most of the day off and on. I thought about what key kernels of information, the golden nuggets of enlightenment that I now possess which would’ve been really helpful back in my 20s… Turns out it’s a long list.

In the dojo this week I was training on some sword basics that my training partner was struggling with. Not only was he struggling with executing the appropriate cut at the appropriate time, but we often had to back up towards the center of the Dojo As we gradually worked our way towards the door.

I am trying to speak as little as possible on the mat to allow space for my training partners to work things out on their own, unless of course there is the threat of injury. However the voice in my head was under no such restrictions and it repeated “Maai is everything.”

After a while I shared with my training partner that he might focus less on the cutting and more on the Maai. I explained that the reason we kept marching down the mat every time we restarted training was because only one of us was correcting the distance between us each time we crossed swords. Therefore he was physically retreating 10 inches or so with each training set. Very soon we would be standing out in the rain on Elden Street.

I have been given this advice by instructors in every dojo I have ever trained in, so I do take it seriously. It took a long time to really sink in, I daresay there is still some sinking to do. Maai can be translated as the “interval” or proper distance between two combatants or two training partners in the martial arts. It is in my humble opinion the one thing that makes the greatest difference, when managed properly, between a satisfactory experience In the Dojo and getting punched in the face accidentally on purpose.

When we think about it there is Maai in everything we do. For example my driving instructor taught me to keep four car lengths between my car and the car in front of me in traffic. In DC that distance is two car lengths, while in Philadelphia it is generally the length of a cheesesteak sub. On a subway landing people stand close enough to the edge to be able to board the train efficiently but not so close that there is any risk of falling onto the tracks. The seasoned Chef truly understands proper distance between his fingers and the blade of his knife when dicing vegetables: the new prep cook knows where the Band-Aids are kept.  The Squirrel that manages to cross the country road safely even during heavy traffic has mastered the interval, while the flattened squirrel pressed into the asphalt… Not so much.

Maai is everything.

My training partner smiled and nodded his head when I shared my insights with him. Very quickly his focus on the Maai significantly improved his ability to make the cuts he was struggling with. I am not a very good teacher but I am not a bad transmitter. Tell me something repeatedly for decades and apparently eventually it will get it, I may even have an opportunity to pass it along.

I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger, I would have had far fewer hard falls to the mat. Maai is everything.

• Tony Breda (1965-2021), Sandan

Emeritus Dojo-cho

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