How to Do a Martial Arts Bow
When I was four years old, I remember going to my older brother's dojo in Hawaii. Before the class started, the instructor turned to those of us in the audience and proceeded to inform us on how to enter the dojo by bowing towards the front of the dojo, and then again when leaving the dojo. He appeared to be very irritated with us, and since he was loud and scary looking, it was enough to glue me into my seat - especially since I had already forgotten how to bow when I left.
There are many dojos and as many different types of martial arts across the continent. It is therefore safe to say that there are many different ways that students are instructed to bow, or not to bow.
Lets explore how the martial arts bow has changed from it's original concept and philosophy in the East, to where it's meaning and original intent has become clouded in the West today. We will explore how the martial arts bow has been altered, stretched and or dropped in the following areas:
- Martial Arts Instruction
- Martial Art Class
- Martial Arts Styles
Martial Arts Instruction
In every discipline of martial arts, the instruction of the bow begins at your first day of martial arts training. However, few instructors or 'sensei' teach more than when to bow, and what to say when you bow.
The martial arts bow should not be interpreted as a religious exercise depicting worship in the 'dojo' or training area. Bowing doesn't mean that you are in some way, shape or form worshiping the sensei, the dojo, a shrine or it's founders.
The martial arts bow is a form of etiquette stemming from the days of samurai. As a samurai, you had to fallow a set of rules in order to keep peace in the presence of others. The bow, and the rules of etiquette were used as a form of self defense. The way you held your sword, moved, or bowed could dictate to others whether your intentions were peaceful, or otherwise.
For example, a samurai in the presence of a higher ranking party would wear his sword on his right side and not the normal left side. This represents his intentions of peace since reaching for his sword on his right side would place him at a dreadful disadvantage.
The many rules of etiquette and protocol for how you carried yourself in a room full of killers, dictated that if everyone behaved appropriately, there would be peace instead of bloodshed. In the days of the samurai, a careless attitude towards etiquette could mean instant execution.
Similar to the etiquette of self defense in the East, the West also had had it's version of self defense in medieval day. While two knights would come together to converse, they would reach out and hold each other's right hand which was the weapon hand. This of course evolved to the shaking of hands which has it's own form of etiquette.
Martial Art Class
The philosophy behind the martial arts bow, is in the respect for your instructors or sensei, and to other students. The bow to the sensei indicates a show of respect for the training that he has gone through to reach the heights that he has in his training. The return bow from the sensei to his student is a show of mutual respect for the student that is willing to undergo the challenge and sacrifice that the art will impose upon him. The bow to the shrine or founders of the art or dojo gives respect to their efforts, and gratitude that the student is able to learn from the hard work and sacrifice of others.
Although there are many types of bows that convey and mean different things, we will simplify the lesson into an appropriate bow for the confines of the dojo.
With your heals together and standing in attention, use the three breath method that ensures proper technique and posture. Breathe in and begin the bow. Exhale at the lowest point, and inhale again as you return to your starting point. Your hands should be on the sides of your 'gi' with thumbs on an imaginary seam. Keep your back straight throughout the bow, and by all means, do not turn your head into a 'bobble' toy. Keep your head still, pivot your bow at the hips, and keep your back straight.
Eyes up or down during a bow?
Most martial artists have fallen under either of these rules during a bow.
Martial Arts Styles
In boxing, there is the touching of gloves - agreement that replaces the shaking of hands together because of the awkwardness of the heavy gloves. It conveys to each fighter the respect that each has taken to prepare for the match, and that the best man will win. Just as the Westerner has his protocols, the many Eastern martial arts styles that exist have their own special bows that bend to their specific protocol of self defense.
In Wing Chun Kung Fu, the closed left hand fist and the open right hand palm that covers it, signals their bow before a match. The Sumo of Japan will touch a closed fist to the ground before their attack while most forms of Jujutsu will start a seated bow with their left hand on the ground first, followed by their right hand. The left hand is used to grab their sheath while the right hand arms the sword. With their left hand on the ground first, their right hand is unable to arm itself. In this gesture, they show their intentions for peace.
These different styles of the martial arts bow bring us to the most important segment of the orchestrated gesture; where to look when you bow.
There is a popular martial arts movie where the sensei reprimanded his student because he took his eye off of his opponent - therefore one school of thought is that you never take your eyes off of your opponent.
Some feel that the gesture within the confines of your own dojo, justifies trusting the person that you are training with, and like the samurai's self defense bow makes sure that he does not offend those around him. It is agreed also that a student that keeps his eye on his sensei exemplifies his distrust of his sensei which washes most of the discipline right out of the art. Therefore, most feel that within the confines of the dojo, the eyes should be 'locked' and should allow the bow to lead his eyes. In any event, should an attack occur during your bow, you should already be looking at your opponents body, well aware of any ill intention.
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