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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > April, 2005 - Initiative, Timing, and Spacing (Part I of II)

Initiative, Timing, and Spacing (Part I of II) by George S. Ledyard

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It's surprising how many folks in Aikido will tell you that spacing is a crucial concept but who can't really define what constitutes the "ma-ai" or "critical distance". I was taught that ma-ai was the distance at which one could strike the enemy without having to move one's body mass. Depending on the weapon utilized, the arms, legs, sword or staff, the ma-ai changes. Weapons like the chain and segmented weapons of the Chinese martial arts have variable ma-ai (the kusarigama would be a good example in Japanese martial arts). People are aware of this concept yet seem unaware of why this distance is considered the "critical distance".

Years ago I attended a seminar which had been put together to give Bernie Lau Sensei a send-off to Hawaii. One of the instructors was a gentleman named James Demile. Demile Sifu teaches Wing Chun Kung Fu as taught to him by Bruce Lee during the years in which he resided in Seattle. Demile Sifu made an impression on all of as he showed the importance of proper ma-ai in the martial interaction. He picked a man out of the seminar group, a San Dan in Karate and a Vancouver Cop. He then informed this new assistant that he was going to hit him with his right hand, precisely where he had indicated on the officer's chest. The officer was allowed to hold both hands up, ready to block. In fact the gap the officer left between his hands was only about 6 inches apart and Demile Sifu placed his hands in his own pockets. Despite this, Sifu hit this gentleman five out of five times. The point of the exercise was to drive home that spacing was of paramount importance in the martial arts. If you allow your enemy to get to the ma-ai point without initiating either a defensive movement or an offensive movement he will reach the point at which no amount of training will compensate for the reaction time required to respond to an attack.

In fact, this movement from either side of the ma-ai point contains three basic outcomes. The first is at the initial stage of closing with an enemy. It has been oft commented that it is impossible to attack another person without creating an "opening" or suki. In the first stage of closing the gap with an enemy one is open to attack by the enemy. The very fact that one is initiating an attack creates the physical opening or suki. Unless there is a mental opening, an instant of inattention, on the part of the enemy, one can be struck when one initiates. The consequences of receiving this blow might vary from empty hands to weapons but it is the fact of the suki that is important. If an enemy initiates an attack at this distance, this attack can be defeated, even precluded, by a counter from the defender taking advantage of the suki created in the instant of the commitment.

However, if the attacker is more patient as he moves to initiate his attack, moving towards the defender, he will arrive at the precise ma-ai point in which a competent counter attack by the defender will result, at best, in ai-uchi or mutual destruction. In other words, the attacker has reached the spot at which he is close enough and therefore fast enough, to strike the defender but he cannot do so without taking a hit himself. The time required for his strike to hit the defender is the same as that of the defender's strike to reach him. An understanding of this point in time and space is crucial to an understanding of sen or initiative in Aikido. Every time a defender chooses to step back and block an attack rather than step in and strike his opponent it was dictated by the attacker crossing this point in time and space. This point, which I will call the ai-uchi point, is the exact spot at which the defender can hit the attacker but cannot avoid being hit himself if he does so.

The third basic outcome resulting from slight variations in timing and spacing on either side of the ma-ai point is the one illustrated by Demile Sifu's exercise. The attacker has been allowed to get so close to his target that he can initiate a strike and due to the "reactive gap" between the instant at which the attack is perceived and the moment a response can take place, he can strike at will without effective response from the defender.

In a combative situation one inclined to defense will try to force his attacker to initiate his attack from the first distance at which he can be cut down as he tries to get close enough to deliver his strike. The attacker on the other hand wishes to get close enough to deliver the decisive attack without the possibility of effective response from the defender. However, if the attacker and defender are relatively equal in ability and physical capability, each combatant is simultaneously an attacker and a defender and the battle between them is a very subtle movement on either side of the ma-ai point.

A very revealing variation on the reaction time exercise that Demile Sifu did is to do the same exercise but have the defender lightly touch the wrist of the one attempting to strike. He should exert only light pressure. One finds that now, the striker will succeed only a small percentage of the time in his attempts to strike the defender. This is due to the fact that the information received from touch processes in a different part of the brain from what is received from visual input. The reactive gap is shorter when one can use touch rather than vision as the primary sensory input. In my Police Defensive Tactics training this gets translated into the dictum that one is never in someone's space unless one is touching them somehow.

Issues concerning timing are often discussed in Aikido but too frequently the basic assumptions behind the discussion are incorrect. One camp in Aikido would say that we "never attack", meaning that the attacker always makes the first move and therefore we "receive" the energy of the attack. The other camp would maintain that we don't wait but rather initiate so as to take control of the interaction. Each of these approaches has some validity when correctly formulated. But often the people espousing one side or the other incorrectly understand the very elements that would make their approach work.

For instance, take the idea that one receives the attack... Most people attempt to do this by simply relaxing and waiting to see what "opening" or suki is presented by the attacker when he initiates. The problem with this approach is that the defender has ceded all control over the interaction to the attacker who now gets to choose the time and space of the decisive encounter. This is to be avoided when one considers military strategy and it applies equally on the microcosm in single combat. If one passively awaits the attack, by the time it actually comes the reactionary gap forces the defender to act defensively, perhaps countering the attack itself but lacking in the ability to be decisive and take the attacker's center.

An analogy of this type of thinking would be a drag racer who had his car idling with the gears in neutral as the starting lights move towards green. There would be no possibility of his reacting fast enough to get his car moving as fast as the guy in the next lane who, not only had his car in gear but was burning the clutch as he prepared to take off. These people are like the fellow in the Demile exercise who depended on the input from his vision to tell him when to move. When faced with a fast and concerted attack (often missing in the dojos in which they practice) they almost always end up by attempting to create time for themselves by creating more distance between them; in this case by "backing up".

This is almost always ineffective against a committed attack. Once the attacker has shifted the defender to purely defensive action he will press the attack and never let the defender shift back to offense. In other words, the Aikido practitioner would be prevented from recovering and moving forward to take the center. Something else is required for a person to successfully allow an attacker to make the first move.

In martial arts there is the concept of "movement within stillness and stillness within movement". Movement within stillness means that although the body appears to be passive, waiting, re-active, the Mind is active, moving, pro-active. In the example of the striking exercise done by Demile Sifu the physical pressure of the hand was required to allow the defender to react fast enough to the attack that he could effectively counter it. At the greater distance existing between the competent defender and an attacker it is the Mind which functions to create this "touch". No matter how still the body appears to be, the Mind is flowing outwards to create an unbreakable connection between the nage and the uke. It is that outward pressure of the attention which reduces the "reactive gap" to the point at which one could conceivably allow an attacker to physically initiate an attack because the "real attack" was already happening as the two intentions of the defender and the attacker joined.

Most post-War Aikido in particular is very bad about training this aspect of technique. In classical martial arts a tremendous amount of attention is paid to the time before and the time after physical technique has taken place. Usually, a fairly complex ritual action precedes the beginning of kata during which the two participants establish the requisite mental link. In most styles quite a bit of attention is paid to the mental issues that are contained in the interval of "closing the distance". To this end the forms are apt to begin much farther apart than the interactions between uke and nage in post-War Aikido. Even at the very beginning of my koryu practice under Ellis Amdur Sensei it was stated that what took place before and after the physical technique itself was in many ways more important than the technique itself. In too many Aikido dojos students are allowed to practice as if the technique starts when the attack is perceived, that one can allow oneself to be grabbed and then respond.

Most of the senior practitioners of Aikido learned about these principles by training at the edge. Their understanding of these issues came largely through training with total commitment and taking ukemi from the Founder or his advanced deshi, people who understood how to use these principles to shape the actions of the attacker to expose his openings. The second generation of students learned these principles intuitively. This seems to be missing from much of Aikido today (the older Aikido styles founded by 1930's Uchideshi like Shioda Sensei, Tomiki Sensei, and Mochizuki Sensei are an exception I think). Often, when I teach a seminar devoted to these issues, I will start with something as simple as katate-tori. I'll cover how to present, how to close, what kind of intention goes into both roles, etc. This is necessary because many students today have only the vaguest notion of what they are doing when they enter their partner's space and grab his wrist. They don't grab with the thought that they are setting up an atemi, that they need a solid platform from which to launch the attack. No, too often the uke enters and grabs fully expecting the nage to move, fully prepared to run around him in a circle and the fall down. Often, as a test, I will not move at all and the uke will overshoot, taking another step which places them in an opening which they couldn't close if I counter attacked. They had attacked, expecting me to move and they were anticipating. Obviously, the short term solution for this problem is to ask uke (except with the newest of beginners) to execute the atemi with the non-grabbing hand every time he does katate-tori. Uke is expected to be in a strong and stable posture from which to launch that atemi. But this is just the most basic of fixes needed to develop their focus and intention. I would like to outline a few exercises which I use to develop mental intensity on the part of both people in the training interaction.

If you look at most Aikido students you will see a progression from beginner onwards regarding how they extend their attention outwards. Unfortunately, there is a point at which the development seems to stall and this aspect of the training doesn't keep pace with the development of physical technique. I will use the sword as an example but everything I say applies equally well to empty hand or other weapons. One of the things I do for my own training is to look at my partner / opponent and try to discern where they have placed their attention (where their ki extension stops, if you will).

Beginners have virtually no ki extension. If you look closely you can see that when they are standing before you there is an internal dialogue going on constantly along the lines of "Am I doing this right? Are my feet in the right place? Am I supposed to go now?" etc. All of this is inward directed questioning and it is essentially a yin energy. It is virtually impossible to be doing this and to extend ones attention outwards (yang energy) at the same time. So when a beginner holds a sword in seigan no kamae his energy is dissipated as he scans himself for all sorts of potential mistakes, his attention doesn't ever go beyond his hands as they grip the blade and frequently not even that far out. Because their perception (mainly vision) does see the partner / opponent, almost any strong move by that attacker causes a contraction and collapse of the mental defense of the beginner. This almost always followed by an attempt to forcefully resist the perceived attack pushing outwards against it with the arms (as if the arms could make ones space safe). This flinching movement, of course, makes them completely vulnerable and not safer.

The intermediate student is somewhat better but not enough to help substantially in the martial interaction. When you look at the intermediate student you can see that physically they are now strongly extended. It is obvious that they have discovered how to get their attention to project out along their limbs, in this case the arms and their extension, the sword. If one looks at them in a still picture taken from the side, they can look quite centered and strong. But it is from the front that one can see what the essential problem is. Standing before this person one will feel no effect from their attention on oneself. You can see them looking at you but you feel no reaching out, no "touch" of their mind on you. The reason for this is that their attention doesn't extend beyond their own physical extension. If in an empty hand situation, their attention stops at their finger tips. If holding a weapon, their attention stops at the tip of the weapon. In extreme cases one can even experience a partner whose perception is on you but whose attention is at their sword tip which happens to be in gedan hasso; in other words their mind is now behind them with the sword.

I would like to say that this is all taken care of by the time we talk about the advanced student but this is often not the case. Because of the kinder and gentler way many people train in post-war Aikido, it is possible to get very advanced in movement and timing etc. while still being afraid of being struck. Unless one has overcome this essential fear through hard training, it is impossible to extend ones attention in a yang manner. These people can reach out with both their perception (the senses) and their attention (the Mind) but their attention is lacking in intention (the yang component of attention). So when one stands across from such an opponent one can feel their fear. One can sense the inability of the person to initiate or move forward into the attack. So one knows from the outset that one has but to attack suddenly with intent and the defender will helpless to do anything but retreat. Because this person is advanced however, this condition might not be obvious to anyone who can't project a strong intention of his own outwards towards the partner. So you can encounter a situation in which a number of students could be completely unaware of the "fear" in their teacher or senior because none of them can project their own intention strongly enough to feel the lack of intention in the attention they feel from their partner / opponent.

Those who come from a competitive background, like kendo or Tomiki Style Aikido know about these issues from the start. One either gets a strong spirit or one loses. There's no way to fake it. Without that competitive check, these issues can be a bit murkier unless the intention is there to train with full commitment so that these issues can be clarified. However, in making Aikido more accessible to a wider group of people, one finds that not everyone who wishes to train is willing or able to train "at the edge". How does one give these people the training experience they require to understand about the complex energetics of perception, attention and intention, etc?

Exercise 1 - Learning to Project Ones Attention with Intention:

One of the exercises I have found to be quite useful in this regard is done with sword. One person will assume a kamae such as seigan. He is then told to shift from one kamae to another: seigan to geidan, geidan to geidan hasso, geidan hasso to jodan, jodan back to seigan, seigan to jodan hasso, etc. If you watch most Aikido people, they are totally open when they shift from one kamae to another. They can't maintain an unbroken flow of attention outwards while shifting position. So the job of the partner is to stand in geidan and at any point during the shift between kamae. He should execute a tsuki attack. The goal is to get the student to be able to flow from one kamae to another without the attacker being able to successfully execute a tsuki. When the attacker attempts to tsuki, the defender should be able to execute a deflection or cut leaving him in control of the center line (this way no excessive contact is made and the exercise stays safe; the defender isn't trying to counter strike the attacker, simply take the line of attack away from him). When this exercise is done properly the defender begins to realize that the only way to keep the attacker from blasting in when he moves his sword tip off the line is to fill the space with his attention and strong intention. The attacker begins to recognize the difference between when the defender is open and when he is not (a skill crucial to fighting which Aikido people who don't compete are often very bad at). When this exercise is done for a half hour to forty five minutes it should leave the participants mentally exhausted. If not, they weren't doing it right.

Exercise 2 - Learning to Lead the Partner's Energy:

Another great exercise to develop an understanding of "attention" is as follows: (A) is instructed to stand in hanmi. As (B) approaches, (A) will extend his hand and (B) will grab it as in katate-tori. (B) is instructed to grab and attempt to be centered and grounded while (A) is asked to push and pull, thereby making sure that (B) is truly grounded and as immoveable as possible. Everyone involved notes precisely how far away (B) is at that point from (A) - this being the distance (A) would have to cover if he tried to execute an irimi entry. The defender is then instructed to really reach out both physically with his arm and way out with his Mind as (B) approaches, in the instant before (B) is able to grab the wrist, (A) relaxes his extension and allows his arm to fall towards his own center. If done correctly (B) will find himself about a half step closer to (A) than he was in the first instance. Even though his goal is to grab the wrist and be immoveable, he will be sucked in towards (A) as he commits to grab the wrist. The wrist must be moving when he goes for the grab. If (A) has a weak extension towards (B) or mis-times the movement, it will not work and (B) will either get his grab but be immoveable and no closer than before or he will fail to get the grab but will break off and not be pulled in. This is a simple exercise that can give even a beginner a sense of how important extending ones attention is to using aiki rather than just physical force in advanced technique.

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