After class on Wednesday night, and catching an article over at The Dojo Floor about feet (Foundations), I have been thinking about maai again. And I came to a bit of a realization, tying in the martial arts as a whole, I think.
We were working a simple drill of exchanging techniques. Basically the drill consisted of standing opposite one's partner, while both have their guards up and in a fighting posture/position. Then each partner takes a turn jabbing to the head (kizami zuki), then each partner takes a turn following up with a reverse punch (gyaku zuki). Neither partner is in range for the techniques, so movement back and forth is necessary. The resulting exchange can get very quick if your partner is fast on their feet, or you a bit of a sluggard (I hope I wasn't!).
The drill can be endlessly adjusted to different techniques. Among the most challenging is to include front kick (mae geri) or other kicking techniques after the punching. Moving into and out of range for kicks after punching is not a trivial exercise.
What my Sensei stressed was the importance of moving the feet and the body in a coordinate fashion. Being able to maintain ones balance and centre of gravity while moving, or to establish it quickly after a motion is of critical importance.
Another importance aspect is the timing. You can easily develop a rhythm which is unrealistic upon the inclusion of kicking techniques or other movements. This necessitates an understanding of how one moves and when, and how that is in response to one's opponent.
An interesting further drill to timing is adopting the opponent's timing, or creating your own, in order to break it. What I mean is that the give and take of the exercise develop into a certain pattern and pace. By being able to control that pace and own it, you control the outcome of the encounter much more readily. I believe that this applies mentally as much as it does physically.
What does this boil down to? Footwork, timing, distance - all combined. Sounds like maai to me. I am probably misusing the term to some degree, but I think this applies to all martial arts. In the striking arts (karate, kendo, etc) I think that this is very obvious. Hard to hit someone who isn't there. But I think this also applies to more grappling oriented arts. As I understand it, this idea of entering into the opponent's sphere of influence and controlling them from there is a subtle yet vital part of aikido, judo and jujutsu. This seems like the concept of irimi (entering) is tied to maai (distancind + timing) in ways I have yet to express, but can feel on a physical level.