The Tao Of The Bow

The culture of an aikido dojo is nothing without etiquette. It is the backbone of all we do. You have no doubt already noticed all the ceremonial bowing that takes place in the dojo. Most of that is discussed in the student handbook, and is not our topic today. Today we’re going to focus entirely on the bowing in process, covering just what it is, and what all the parts are – and why they are important.

How you start something is almost as important as why you start it. It sets the tone for all that comes after it. Bowing onto the mats and into class set the tone of your training. It is how we center ourselves and prepare as we demonstrate this attitude of respect and thankfulness toward our dojo, the Founder’s memory, our instructors and our training partners.

Bow to the mats
The mats are the central training area of the dojo, and as such it deserves your undivided attention and respect, and thus a bow. The first time you step onto the mat, and the last time, perform a zarei (sitting bow) toward the shomen (front). How to perform this form of bow is described at length in the student handbook. You should be on the mat several minutes prior to the start of class. If you are late to class under NO circumstances should you go onto the mat when sensei and students are bowing at the start of class.

In most dojo, the mats are always in place, and ready for class. In the case when mats must be set out before and after class, many sensei are not involved in the process. It is assumed that, before attaining teaching privileges, sensei has already spent years doing the task. Upon arriving at the dojo, if the dojo is functioning properly, sensei should be able to go straight to changing for class.

Bow to O-Sensei
The spirit of the Founder is always present in the dojo, and we begin practice by thanking him for the gift of his art. When it is time for class to start a senpai (senior student) will call class into session with two loud claps. Everyone lines up in seiza facing the picture of O-Sensei on the kamidana. This is done according to rank with senior members on the right-hand side, or toward the joseki. Individuals who will test for rank soon sit at the top of their rank group near the next rank. Do not talk or fidget, sit quietly and attentively. It is the senpai who see to it that everyone is lined up orderly and quietly. Sensei may or may not be on the mats when this is done.

If sensei has already been on the mats, he will take his place in the shinza (high seat). If not, upon arriving at the mat, sensei will perform a zarei and then approaches the shinza. Bowing onto the mat in this fashion is, in essence, requesting permission to approach the shinza. If a senpai is starting or leading class (anyone not a full instructor), before approaching the shinza, they will start by bowing in from the head of the line with the other students, then approach the shinza. Ideally they will approach the shinza in shikko. Unless a full instructor or sensei’s otomo, anyone else bowing a class in will do so off-center from O-Sensei’s picture (a homage to Tohei sensei). Bowing in this way signifies that the person teaching is also a student.

When seated in the shinza sensei will take a moment and prepare themselves. Usually this is a few seconds, but can be longer. Do not fidget or talk during this time, sensei will take it as a sign you are not ready to bow and will wait even longer. When ready, sensei gives a kiai, brings hands to gassho (see right), and bows. The kiai is derived from the Shinto-Buddhist practice of waking the kami (gods or spirits), alerting them to your presence in the temple. We kiai for two reasons as a homage to Kanai Sensei as a key sensei in our lineage. Also it alerts the students behind sensei to pay attention and possibly wake up or shut up. When you bow, bow deeply and fully, putting yourself completely in the act. You do not rise up from the bow until after sensei has.

Sensei in other dojo often do not do this, and some have things that are shouted out by a senior student, even elaborate clapping and bowing procedures (usually from a Shinto-Buddist tradition they got from their sensei). You may notice that some sensei, particularly Shihan, have adopted what may seem like strange ways of bowing to get on and off the mat, even to O-Sensei. For example, Donovan Waite Shihan bows forward, then, while down, opens his hands palm up, pauses, then closes them palm down before rising up. In this case, Waite Sensei is performing a Buddhist Great Bow. Waite Sensei started his aikido training in England under Chiba Sensei, who was deeply Buddhist, and most of his students carry that tradition.

Bow to Sensei
After the bow to O-Sensei, sensei will turn and face the class. There is no particular prescribed way to do this. Some instructors just manage to turn around, some have clean and precise movements. Burden Sensei usually emulates the method Larry Graham Sensei uses, giving credit to his time as our Shidoin, or Donovan Waite and Peter Bernath, giving honor to the tremendous influence they have had on his training. Facing the line, sensei bows to the class. As he bows the class bows in return, calling out “onegaishimasu” (o-nay-guy-she-mass) which means “may I be of service”, or “please grant me this favor” – essentially, “please help me in my practice”. Sensei is usually silent during this bow, but some will also say onegaishimasu, or dozou (“please”) when indicating the class should spread out for stretches and hitori waza (solo techniques). As before, do not rise from the bow until sensei does.

It seems like a simple act of respect, but it’s much more. During this time each individual member of the dojo in line is asking sensei to accept them as a student and to train them. Essentially, to take responsibility of them during this time. It is renewing their commitment to the art and sensei’s teachings. He bows back as acceptance, granting each student to train that day under them. You’ve entered into an ancient Japanese verbal contract, and it carries through until you bow out of class when you thank sensei for training you, and he thanks and releases you to the wide world beyond the dojo.

Bowing Out
When it is time, sensei will call class to line with a load clap. Face away from O-Senei and fix your gi and hakama, then take your place in line. You should be attentive and not delay in this task. Bowing out is done much like bowing in, with the line calling out “domo arigato goziamasu” (“thank you very much”). If the class is being led by anyone not a full instructor, they will rise to their feet and walk backward to the line, taking their seat at the front of the line. The line will then bow a third time calling out “domo arigato goziamashita” (Thank you very much for what has been given). This is the one homage we give to Paul Chang, and signifies the closing of a class by one who has not attained full teaching privileges. If sensei or a full instructor is teaching, they will direct everyone to make a circle, leaving space for O-Sensei, and everyone bows and thanks each other for working with them. At this point announcements are made, then class is fully dismissed.

Each part of the process has meaning, in many cases deep meaning. Much of it is to honor those sensei that have gone before us and who have greatly impacted the dojo. Take each moment of it with deep respect and consideration. But all of yourself into the entire process. Leave nothing behind. And, soon, you may find that you do the same for your training.