Traditions In Bowing

In the martial arts there is a lot of bowing going on. People bow when they enter the school, they bow to each other a lot, they bow to the instructor, they bow before sparring. They seem to bow to everything but the water fountain. We often have a hard time understanding this because the bow is not used in this country and the last time it was really used heavily was during the dark days of slavery when slaves had to bow to their masters.

In the orient the bow does not mean the same thing as it once did here. It doesn’t mean that one person is acknowledging the other as a superior or a master, even if that person is the Master of the school. Bowing, to the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, is much the same as shaking hands here. It’s a sign of friendship, respect and mutual admiration, not subservience.

In the martial arts bowing is very important because it reminds us of the importance of what we are doing, and the need to always be aware and in control. When a student bows into the training hall he is saying that he has respect for the training that goes on there. He is also saying that he will do his best to uphold the honor of the school and to strive to be as good a student as he can be.

When students bow to the instructor at the beginning of the class, they are showing their respect for the Sensei’s years of training, his knowledge and his skill. When the teacher bows back he is doing more than acknowledging the student’s bow; he is also showing his respect for the students. Remember that a teacher was once a student himself and he knows full well how tough it is to be a beginner and to struggle up through the ranks.

When students bow to each other before training or sparring they are saying, “I will try me best to show you honor and respect, and not to injure you in an way.” This is especially important before sparring match because it reminds us that this is not a fight, but another aspect of training and that this person is not the enemy but a friend and fellow student. It helps one to be reminded of the need for restraint and control over techniques.

It may seem like there shouldn’t be any need to continue the bows after the first time, but since the martial arts are potentially deadly, and always dangerous you can never be too concerned with safety, good manners and good sportsmanship.

Next time you bow, remember that this is the key to understanding the respect and etiquette of the martial arts.

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