Contributed by Sue Ellis
Anyone who has ever watched Aikido practice notices right away that there is lots of bowing involved. To “western” eyes, this can be a little disconcerting and even uncomfortable – we often don’t understand at first what this traditional aspect of Aikido signifies.
Quite simply, bowing indicates respect – for the art of Aikido, its founder, our instructors, our fellow students, and our practice hall.
Bowing is not a form of worship, as some mistakenly believe. Instead, it reflects a common form of greeting and expression of gratitude practiced in Japan. Think of the stereotypical image of Japanese businessmen greeting each other with a bow instead of a handshake. Even making a purchase in Japan today is concluded with a slight bow from both the customer and the store clerk (a habit that causes some quizzical looks from Canadian cashiers!).
In the dojo, bowing can take a number of “forms”. Here are some of the more common ones:
1) Bow towards the kamiza whenever you enter or leave the practice hall – in our case, the mat area. If you are just “passing through” to the change rooms or kitchen, a shallow standing bow is appropriate. When you are entering the mat area for practice, a full bow performed from seiza is customary. Similarly, the full seated bow is performed when leaving the mat after practice.
2) Bowing during the opening and closing of practice is performed from seiza, first towards the kamiza as a form of respect for O-Sensei and the art of Aikido, and then to the sensei leading the practice. During opening, it is accompanied by a spoken onegaishimasu – which essentially means “please help me (practice)”. At closing, the wording is arigatoo gozaimashita or “thank you”. At closing, it is also traditional to bow to the partners you trained with during that session – again, as thanks for their help.
3) During practice, you will bow to a potential partner as an invitation to train with you, and then after training as a form of thanks. Generally, this will take the form of a seated bow.
4) During practice, bow to the sensei after he or she demonstrates a technique, either to the class as a whole, or to a small sub-group of students. This is a full seated bow.
Finally, the relative depth of your bow is determined by who you are bowing to. When bowing to your sempai (i.e., more senior students or teachers), you traditionally are expected to bow lower than they do.
If you still feel uncomfortable bowing even once you understand the background and meaning of this tradition, remember that it is not mandatory for the practice of Aikido at Naka Ima. Instead please show your respect and gratitude in a way that feels most comfortable for you.