Bow to your Sensei, but they must always bow back.
In martial arts, why do we bow? Anyone who spends even a short time in the martial arts world finds an ever growing sub culture of respectful martial artists and martial arts enthusiasts. This subculture exists because of the shared bond between those who train, you see it is impossible to progress in martial arts without cultivating some patience and self worth. It is the shared experience of picking yourself up when you’re down, not quitting when it hurts and learning from your mistakes that binds people regardless of their class or position outside the dojo. Martial arts training is the only place you can kick, punch, choke and throw your way into life long friendships.
Understanding the comradery we can see why martial art instructors typically get respect from their students. Because they have they have lived through the sweat, blood and tears, they’ve already been there. Whatever terrible pain it is that you’re going through now, while learning to stretch, tapping out all the time when you roll or taking all those shots in sparring, you can get strength from knowing your coach has already been through the storm before you. The most inspiring teachers continue training for their whole lives, yielding many positive spiritual and psychological benefits outside of the amazing physical feats some also become capable of, they can serve as an inspiration to many through their own trials and how they have conquered adversity.
This is why I like the Japanese word for teacher: Sensei. While Sensei is a title like that of a teacher, in Japan it is not actually restricted to one who teaches a martial art, it means a teacher of anything, one who has come before you and has the experience available to share. This Japanese title along with the import of Asian martial arts has also made the journey from East to West but it’s meaning now is typically much narrower and restricted to that of a martial arts teacher rather than a teacher of anything.
Unlike Rex from the comedic film Napolean Dynamite who demands that you bow, most instructors have humility and humbly earn respect.
What do you picture when you hear the word Sensei? Do you conjure up images of a 1980’s Karate Kid with Mr Miyagi, a thoughtful quiet man with metaphors and pearls of wisdom?
“Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?”
Maybe Mr Miyagi’s nemesis John Kreese, Sensei of the notorious Cobra Kai is more up your street?
Perhaps “sensei” makes you think of the impishly cheeky yet deadly serious master Xian Chow, who put Van Damme’s character Kurt Sloane through his paces as he trained for revenge in the timeless Kickboxer.
“Winner, Palm tree!”
As Bruce Lee illustrates in this scene from Enter the dragon a good sensei is there to help you understand your training, not to simply have you repeat useless movements unquestioningly but for you to really know what you are doing. And when you bow, don’t look at the ground!
All the great martial arts coaches and teachers I’ve worked with have shared a quirky sense of humour, I think it’s just something that’s picked up after so many years spent training and teaching. However if you are willing to turn up to class and meet them half way by doing your work, by practicing in your own time and honestly giving your all you will get all the help in the world from your Sensei, because they understand that mastery is simply staying the path long enough. They will nurture your growth with their experience, so even when you pay for class and buy equipment from your gym to support them also take the time to express your thanks to your teacher/coach/sensei with a bow or a hand shake, it will go a long way!
A true Sensei is always remembered for what they have given to others despite the fact that most of what they give is forgotten. Many brilliant instructors never find fame outside of their local community but we can look to some more well known teachers to find examples of their character.
Morihei Ueshiba or “O-Sensei” is the founder of Aikido and while he was a very strong fighter and proved himself many times throughout his life he is remembered fondly for his positive effect and influence on others, in training and in their personal lives. In this short except of a rare interview you get a glance at this humour and his philosophy of training to improve and master oneself through martial arts.
This short documentary “The Simple Warrior” was made to pay tribute to Carlson Gracie Snr who passed away in 2006. He was a Gracie Jujitsu practitioner and coach with many accolades, but this short film (30 minutes total) shows how he was remembered for his other qualities too.
Sometimes instructors can be put on a pedestal but it’s important to remember a great sensei is still human after all, they just remind us of the qualities in ourselves, they remind us of our potential and inspire us to achieve more. When we bow we are not submitting to them, only showing our respect for those qualities we admire.
I ask my students to pay respect by bowing because without me they would have no-one leading the practice and in turn I bow to them to show my mutual respect, for without them I would be teaching an empty room. It is a tradition that I am proud to be part of, from teacher to student, starting and ending with a bow.