Why do we bow?

People often ask about bowing (rei 礼) in aikidō. Some people especially wonder if bowing has any religious significance. It does not.

In Western culture, it is considered polite to shake hands when greeting someone, to say "please" when making a request, and to say "thank you" to express gratitude. In Japanese culture, bowing partly serves all of these functions.

Bowing helps to introduce students to a basic element of Japanese culture, which will become especially important for anyone wishing to practice aikidō abroad. Bowing may be an expression of respect, indicating a willingness to learn from teachers and fellow students. Bowing to a partner may help to remind you that your partner is a person, not a practice dummy.

The initial bow signifies the beginning of formal practice. Thereafter, throughout the practice period you should focus completely upon aikidō training and try to observe basic dōjō etiquette. Bowing out at the end of practice signifies a return to the regular concerns of daily life.

In some dōjō a senior student may call out instructions for bowing at the start and end of class. The first bow is shōmen ni rei 正面に礼 meaning "bow to front". The second bow may depend upon who is leading practice at that time: sensei ni rei 先生に礼 meaning "bow to teacher" or sempai ni rei 先輩に礼 meaning "bow to senior student". At the end of class, there is typically a call for a third bow after the instructor has left the mat: otagai ni rei お互いに礼 meaning "bow to each other". In other dōjō all of this bowing may take place without any calling out of instructions. All of this formal bowing is generally executed as seated bowing (za-rei 座礼). Less formal bowing during practice (such as between partners at the start or end of an exercise) is sometimes executed as standing bowing (tachi-rei 立ち礼).

What do we say in Japanese at the start and end of class?

When bowing at the start of class, we say onegai shimasu お願いします meaning "I make a request". This is basically a polite way of saying "please". We also say this to our partner each time we start to practice. In addition to expressing polite respect, it may help to remind you that your partner is a person, not a practice dummy.

When bowing at the end of class, we say dōmo arigatō gozaimashita どうも有り難うございました meaning "Thank you very much (for a completed action)". We say this first while bowing to the instructor and then again while bowing individually to those others with whom we have trained during practice. Often we also say this to our previous partner each time we change partners during practice.

Does aikidō have tournament competitions?

Zanshinkan Dōjō is committed to the faithful transmission of aikidō as developed by its founder. Accordingly, we do not emphasize aikidō as a system of combat but rather as a means of self-cultivation and self-improvement. Thus, aikidō has no tournaments, competitions, contests, or sparring. Aikidō techniques are learned cooperatively at a pace commensurate with the abilities of each trainee. The goal of aikidō is not the defeat of others but the defeat of the negative characteristics which inhabit one's own mind and inhibit its functioning.

Nonetheless, the potential of aikidō as an effective means of self-defense should not be neglected. One reason for the prohibition against competition in aikidō is that many aikidō techniques would have to be excluded because of their potential to cause serious injury. By training cooperatively, even potentially lethal techniques can be practiced without substantial risk. While training typically begins with formal static techniques, it gradually advances to more flowing spontaneous responses at a faster pace with multiple attackers. Remember to practice within the limits of your partner's abilities.

How often and vigorously do I have to train?

The only way to advance in aikidō is through regular and continued training. Attendance is not mandatory, but in order to improve in aikidō one probably needs to practice at least twice a week.

Your training is your own responsibility. No one can take you by the hand and lead you to proficiency. It is not the responsibility of the instructor to ensure that you learn anything. Part of aikidō training is learning to observe effectively. Before asking for help, you should first try to understand the technique for yourself by watching others.

Aikidō training encompasses more than techniques. Training in aikidō includes observation and modification of both physical and psychological patterns of thought and behavior. In particular, you must pay attention to both your physical and psychological reactions to various circumstances. Thus, part of aikidō training is the cultivation of awareness and self-awareness.

Aikidō training is a cooperative, not a competitive, enterprise. Techniques are learned through training with a partner, not an opponent. You must always be careful to practice in such a way that you temper the speed and power of your technique in accordance with the abilities of your partner.

Finally, it must be emphasized that there are no shortcuts to proficiency in aikidō. Attaining proficiency in aikidō is simply a matter of sustained and dedicated training. No one becomes an expert in just a few months or years.

Who are uke and nage?

During practice of an aikidō technique, the one who is thrown is called uke 受け or "receiver" (i.e., the one who receives the throw or who receives their own body by ultimately falling). The one who throws is called nage 投げ or "throw" (i.e., the one who personifies or becomes the throw). At high levels of practice, however, the distinction between uke and nage becomes blurred. In part, this is because it becomes unclear who initiates the technique and because, from a certain perspective, uke and nage are thoroughly interdependent.

What if I cannot throw my partner?

Sometimes students are surprised to find that their attempts to execute certain throws do not always seem to achieve the expected results. It is important to remember that individual aikidō techniques, as we practice them in the dōjō, are idealizations. No particular technique works all of the time. Rather, aikidō techniques are meant to be sensitive to the specific conditions of an attack. However, since it is often difficult to cover all of the possible condition-dependent variations for a technique, we first adopt a general type of attack and learn to respond to it. At more advanced levels of training, we may try to see how such generalized strategies may be applied to more specific cases.

When practicing techniques, training usually starts with slow kihon waza 基本技 or "foundational technique" beginning from a static pose. It is at this stage, largely devoid of momentum, that students often experience the most difficulty in experiencing the efficacy and appreciating the power of a technique. However, repeated practice in this basic manner is essential in order to internalize the fundamental movements essential to effective technique. Training later progresses to swifter nagare waza 流れ技 or "flowing technique" beginning from dynamic motion. With direct apprehension of timing and momentum, techniques may begin to feel more effective. More advanced training may incorporate jiyū waza 自由技 or "free technique" featuring more free-style practice, as well as randori 乱取り or "disorder/war taking", involving rapid free technique with multiple attackers. Still higher levels of practice may involve henka waza 変化技 or "change technique", shifting from one technique to another in the midst of a movement, as well as kaeshi waza 返し技 or "return technique", in which uke and nage reverse roles in the midst of a technique. It is during such less structured forms of practice that the true power of aikidō techniques becomes abundantly clear. Nonetheless, such proficiency can only be gained by repeated practice of basic kihon waza.

What if I become tired or injured?

If at any time during aikidō training you become too tired to continue, or if an injury prevents you from performing some aikidō movement or technique, it is permissible to temporarily bow out of practice until you feel you can continue. During this period, you may sit at the edge of the mat to rest and observe. If you must leave the dōjō, ask the instructor for permission.

What if different instructors teach something differently?

Aikidō classes at Zanshinkan Dōjō may be taught by a variety of people at varying levels of advancement. We have found that everyone has something valuable to contribute to the enterprise of learning aikidō, and one should not therefore assume that classes taught by lower ranking or less experienced instructors are in any way inferior or lacking in value.

Sometimes even high-level instructors may teach specific techniques in slightly different ways. There are many reasons for this, ranging from different personal styles, through different circumstances of applicability, to different detailed emphases of instruction. Many techniques have a large variety of formal variations, and all techniques have an essentially infinite variety of subtle variations in response to specific circumstances. In such situations, do not seek to stubbornly stick with a slightly different form that you may already have studied. Instead, seize the opportunity to gain new insight into a technique which you may think you already understand. (Toyoda-sensei sometimes said that, when his advanced students began to grasp a certain technique, he would instantly change it.)

What are irimi and tenkan forms of each technique?

Many aikidō techniques can be performed in at least two basic ways. There are two different teaching styles for describing these two basic variations on a given technique: by movement or by location. The terms describing the variations by movement are irimi 入身 ("entering the body") and tenkan 転換 ("turning" or "diverting"). An irimi movement will typically involve stepping close to uke and perhaps moving forward in a direct line. A tenkan movement will typically involve turning beside or behind uke, usually in at least a half-turn. The terms describing the variations by location are omote 表 ("front") and ura 裏 ("rear"). Typically, the form of a technique described as omote will correspond to the one involving an irimi movement. Similarly, the form of a technique described as ura typically will correspond to the one involving a tenkan movement. (Toyoda-sensei usually preferred to describe such basic variations by movement, but some other instructors prefer to describe them by location.)

Why do we sometimes train with weapons?

Often, weekly classes are held which are devoted exclusively to training with 杖 or "wooden staff" and bokken 木剣 or "wooden sword", the two principal weapons used in aikidō, as well as with tantō 短刀 or "dagger". However, as the goal of aikidō is not primarily to learn to use weapons, students are encouraged to attend a minimum of two non-weapons classes per week if they wish to attend weapons classes.

There are many reasons for weapons training in aikidō. First, many aikidō movements are derived from classical weapons arts. There is thus a historical rationale for learning weapons movements. Second, weapons training is helpful in learning proper distancing (ma-ai), and it provides an opportunity to practice moving as though the weapon were an extension of one's own body rather than simply an object held in the hands. Third, many advanced aikidō techniques involve defenses against weapons. In order to ensure that such techniques can be practiced safely, it is important for students to know how to attack properly with weapons. Finally, weapons training is an excellent way to learn principles governing lines of attack and defense. All aikidō techniques begin with the defender moving off of the path of attack and then creating a new (often non-straight) path for application of an aikidō technique.

Always bear in mind that weapons are instruments designed to kill, and even a wooden sword can be deadly. (The famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi often used only a wooden sword to defeat in combat opponents armed with metal swords.) Always practice within the limits of your partner's abilities. Treat weapons with caution and respect. To emphasize this point, you may notice that we often bow to each other (and carefully orient the "blade" in a particular direction) whenever handing over a practice weapon.

There are several types of weapons practice in aikidō. At the most basic level, we practice tai-sabaki 休捌き or basic "body-movement" with weapons, as well as suburi 素振り or "elementary swinging" of weapons. At a more advanced level, we practice taking a weapon away from an attacker with our empty hands: tantō-tori 短刀取り or "knife-taking", jō-tori 杖取り or "staff-taking", and bokken-tori 木剣取り or "(wooden) sword-taking". We may also practice certain kata 形 or "forms", prescribed patterns of movement with bokken or . In addition, we may practice jō nage 杖投げ or "staff throwing", using the to throw an attacker. At a much more advanced level, we may practice paired weapons forms in which both partners hold weapons, such as kumi tachi 組太刀 or "joined longswords" and kumi jō 組杖 or "joined staves".

What are some important points of etiquette?

Where do I sit?

The place where we practice aikidō is called a dōjō 道場 ("place of the way"), and there is a traditional etiquette to its layout. The front is called kamiza 上座 ("high seat/cushion"); this is the place where the picture of Ō-sensei (and perhaps some calligraphy by a chief instructor) usually hangs and where the instructor(s) will sit. Opposite the kamiza is shimoza 下座 ("low seat/cushion"), which is where students are seated. Facing the kamiza, the right side is jōseki 上席 ("high seat/mat"), and traditionally the more senior students are seated at this end. The left side is shimoseki 下席 ("low seat/mat"), and more junior students are seated at this end. (Ideally, if architecture permits, this lower end is also located closest to the doorway.) Thus, strictly speaking, if you are seating yourself on the mat along shimoza, facing kamiza, simply look to your right, and you should see a student who is senior to you. Line up on the mat parallel to that senior student. If everyone does this, the result is a straight line of students seated along shimoza at a distance from the edge of the mat chosen by the most senior student present. Of course, not all dōjō adhere strictly to this traditional rank-ordering of students along shimoza, and sometimes it can be complicated to determine precisely who is senior to whom, but in general it is a safe policy to line up evenly with the student to one's right.

How did aikidō come to exist?

The founder of aikidō, Morihei Ueshiba (now commonly referred to as Ō-sensei or "Great teacher"), was born in Tanabe, Japan, in 1883. Devoting himself to hard physical conditioning and to the practice of martial arts (budō), he received certificates of mastery in several styles of jūjutsu, sword fighting, and spear fighting. By combining his martial training with insights from philosophical and religious studies, he gave birth to the modern martial art of aikidō.

On the technical side, aikidō is rooted in several styles of jūjutsu (from which modern jūdō is also derived), in particular Daito-ryū aiki-jūjutsu, but also Kitō-ryū jūjutsu and Shinkage-ryū jūjutsu. Aikidō also draws heavily upon the sword (especially Yagyū-ryū kenjutsu) and spear (yarijutsu) fighting arts. Oversimplifying somewhat, we may say that aikidō takes the joint locks and throws from jūjutsu and combines them with the body movements of sword and spear fighting. However, we must also realize that many aikidō techniques are the result of Master Ueshiba's own innovation.

On the philosophical and religious side, Ueshiba studied Shingon-shū Buddhism and Zen, as well as the neo-Shinto Ōmoto-kyō. While there is no single unified philosophy in aikidō, some practitioners occasionally quote various cryptic sayings of the founder. A small sampling of these might include the following.

At the core of almost all philosophical interpretations of aikidō, however, we may identify at least two fundamental threads: commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict whenever possible, and commitment to self-improvement through aikidō training.


(version 2013-11-19-a)

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