Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Importance of Bowing

"The bow is done to show humility and is used to express a lack of arrogance. In addition, it serves as a sign of mutual respect between teachers and students and between opponents."

Master Carlos Gracie Jr.



The bow is perhaps one of the most misunderstood traditions in martial arts. Many people may think of it as a religious affiliation or as a sign of a master-slave type relationship between an instructor and his or her student. This interpretation is false. Instead, the bow is done to show humility and is used to express a lack of arrogance. In addition, it serves as a sign of mutual respect between teachers and students and between practitioners and opponents. If you were to compare the Asian bow to a Western tradition, it would most closely represent the handshake. In BJJ as well as in many other martial arts, the bow can be done from a standing position or a kneeling position.

Now that you know why some Martial Artist practitioners bow, let's look at when the bow is appropriate. You should bow when you enter the Academy or Dojo. At that time, you are clearing your mind of daily problems and events, and "emptying your cup" so that you are concentrating on BJJ(or your specific Art) and able to absorb the martial arts material you are about to learn. Just as you bow when you enter the Academy or dojo, you should bow when you leave the dojo. This signifies that your training on the mat has finished.

Some BJJ classes are started by bowing toward the front of the Academy or dojo. We bow toward the middle of the mat because that is where our instructor is and where the work is done. We bow to our instructor to show our respect and gratitude for his teachings, and to signify the full attention of practicing. Alertness is emphasized in martial arts training because of the inherit danger of learning and practicing combat. Therefore, the bow is important because it signifies that we are concentrated on the task and training ahead.

Bowing should be done between two people prior and immediately after sparring. Sparring partners often shake hands too. The bowing that occurs here indicates to each other that the practitioners are alert and ready. The bow after the sparring match shows gratitude to the other person. Each person learns something about himself, his opponent, and combat through a sparring match. The ending bow is thanking the other person for the learning.

We also bow to the instructor at the end of class, walk in belt rank to give another personal bow, hand shake and hug to the instructor and each other.

BJJ originated from the Japanese, so there are some Japanese ways that are involved in BJJ training. Especially if you are training with Brazilians. They are more formal when it comes to training. They are not that removed from the Japanese influence the Gracie's learned. The old school BJJ teachers also have a heavy Judo influence.

Bows Are Not Simply "Japanese Handshakes"

It is common knowledge that bowing is customary in Japan. Watching the Japanese bow at any place and any time can appear amusing to our foreign eyes. Conversely, do we find watching people shake hands amusing? In the Western world, we typically offer our hands when we wish to be perceived as showing sincerity. The Japanese prefer to bow. Like the handshake, the bow can convey a salutation, a farewell, or an expression of thanks and gratitude.



The bow, although, is not the exact equivalent of the handshake. Handshakes have little variation, other than length of time and the strength employed. This may tell one very little, other than one or both persons have strong hands. On the other hand, the bow can convey a number of different things to its partakers and observers alike. Various bows have different meanings. As well, the type and level of emotions that may be involved and the nature of the relationship between the persons bowing can be observed. Correct bowing is complex. There are different nuances involved with the type of bow and situation in which it is used. The depth of the bow depends on the relationship between the two people meeting. Bows can range from shallow nods to kneeling bows where one's head touches the floor. This latter bow, however, is seldom practiced or seen these days. As well as replacing the handshake, a bow can replace "thank you", "please" and other commonly used terms of gratitude and respect.

Many Japanese appear to bow with little conscious thought. This can be seen when a Japanese person is immersed in a telephone conversation and is bowing to the unseen party. It is incorrect to assume that all Japanese understand the fine distinctions of bowing. With globalization and the Westernizing of Japan, etiquette classicists note that many Japanese know only the rudimentary elements of correct bowing.

Bowing is Not About Religion

When we reviewed the kanji for "rei," we noted that it appeared as a pictogram for a person kneeling at an altar. This does not necessarily connote a person "in prayer." As was noted, Japanese kanji have many meanings and "rei" is no exception. Although bows are used in prayer in Japan and form integral parts of many religions, the bow used in the dojo is not part of a religious ceremony.

Interestingly, the bow is not solely a Japanese gesture used in a religious context. This particular act of submission originated in Christianity. In fact, there is still exists an ancient order that prostates the complete body on the floor facing the East. Islam is well-known for its bowing.

In Japanese culture, however, we see the bow used more for business and social interactions than religious ones. To this end, it is more akin to our Western handshake than to Eastern religion.

Historical Martial Arts Bowing - A Lesson in Self Defence

The densho (tradition) of the Confucian-inspired Japanese rules of demeanor has continued until present in the various dojos throughout the world. Originally the exclusive domain of the warrior class samurai, many of these structured and formal rules of etiquette have been codified, including how one should bow, since the time of the Minamoto no Yoritomo, who founded the Kamakura Shogunate approximately 800 years ago. The Ogasawara Reiho taught to the Kamakura Shogunate was adopted nationally as a standardized form of etiquette. Even today, there exists an Ogasawara Ryu, which is a school of etiquette. The rules of etiquette, though, pre-date the Kamakura Shogunate. It is notable that etiquette and specifically bowing is copied from warrior behaviors.

I find it truly sad when my fellow martial artists berate or disparage the use of at least some traditional Japanese etiquette, including bowing, in the dojo. It is interesting that many of these teachers are quick to note that they teach "jujutsu" or "karate", but outside of the actual words "jujutsu" or "karate" and the use of the unique practice uniform ("gi"), there is little else that distinguishes the school as a Japanese martial arts dojo. Perhaps these schools should call their arts "fighting" or "self-defense" and skip the rather tenuous links to Japanese martial arts. However, I digress.

There are many reasons for beginning to study the martial arts. One the main reasons that a person may initially enter a dojo is self-defense. Surprisingly, several Japanese martial arts masters note that the purpose of etiquette, and its expression through the use of the bow, is self defense. This is not to suggest that one should bow to an incoming mae geri (front kick). When one reflects more deeply on this supposition it becomes clear that reigi saho (etiquette manners) is self defense. On its face, we know that etiquette has a dictionary definition of "long-observed behavior proper to a specific context whose effect is to ensure social order."

Keeping with this definition, we are familiar with Japanese etiquette and particularly bowing as a "long observed" behavior that is used in a "specific context." With respect to it having the effect "to ensure social order", we need only review some historical warrior behaviors. For example, the sword is carried and drawn from the left side. A samurai would place his sword on his right side as a symbol of his peaceful intent. This placement made it tough to access the weapon quickly, thus rendering it ineffective. Failure to complete this customary behavior whilst in the presence of a superior ranking party was a grave breach of etiquette that could result in immediate execution.

These warriors had many strict protocols including how they entered rooms, to where they were seated in these rooms when superiors or other warriors were present, to how they removed and put on their swords in the presence of others. These protocols were strictly observed so that the warrior appeared to pose no threat. This etiquette code of behavior helped ensure the safety of others around the warrior. Moreover, it was a form of self-defense for the warrior since all were subject to these etiquette protocols; hence, the warrior had the ability to interact with others free of the fear of being exposed to a lethal risk

These patterns of behavior are not strictly the domain of historical Japanese culture. Two pieces of Western lore appear to support the notion of etiquette being central to self defense. In the first, medieval knights, when greeting each other, took hold of the other's right hand, which was the weapon hand. This was the forerunner of the modern handshake. Unlike the modern handshake, the knights kept hold of one another's arm while interacting at such a close distance. This ensured mutual safety while at close distance. Secondly, although unsubstantiated, it has been held that the modern day military-style salute showed that one's weapon hand was empty and therefore posed no threat. Others dispute this claim and note it is performed this way (right hand touching the forehead) historically in medieval tournaments. At these events, the two knights opened the fronts of their helmets to show their faces to their opponent and to the audience. Suffice it to state, the salute has military origins as does the bow.