Many of my students have asked why we bow in martial arts.
My journey in Martial Arts began when I was about 5 years old. My father was my first Sensei, and he taught me early on that bowing is as much a part of training as the strikes and kicks. We constantly bow in martial arts: Bowing to your teacher, bowing to your partner, and even bowing to the inanimate mats that we are about to set foot on. These are all healthy ways to show respect for the things in our life that allow us to train and grow. But this habit is not as commonplace or as natural to many Westerners. Some feel uncomfortable with the concept, and many are simply unfamiliar with the proper times and places one might choose to do it.
When I first opened my first Martial Arts school over 18 years ago, I made it a point to tell my students that they MUST bow before coming onto the mat. And that they MUST bow to me and each other. But as I matured as a teacher I came to the conclusion that a bow means much more when it is not forced. It is much better when it is offered. And even when a bow is not given there is still valuable training to do. And with or without proper bowing we still need to step on the mat and work. So today bowing in my school is not mandatory. I simply tell my students what it means when I bow to someone and how I am affected when someones bows to me. But at no point do I want someone to bow unless they mean it.
Bowing to Your Muay Thai Teacher
Upon seeing my coach Jongsanan I never fail to bow to him. Ever. It is not a grand ceremony. It is not done with buckets of pomp and circumstance. I simply put my hands together and bow my forehead to my fingers. That’s it. A one-and-a-half second gesture. And as is common in Thailand, the person of higher status may not even acknowledge it. But EVERY time I see him or say good by to him I do this to remind him (and myself) that I am thankful for his guidance, I am grateful for his care and diligence, I admire who he is, and am humbled by his accomplishments. There are layers of genuine sentiment and communication in that one simple act.
Bowing to Your Partner
If you were to ask 100 people what it means when you bow to someone almost all of them would say something like “It shows respect.” Which is in fact correct. But imagine two people of similar rank bowing to each other before or after training together and one of them HATES the other. I mean lets face it, there is no way that you will enjoy everyone you train with. Some people may frustrate you, some may intimidate you, some may for what ever reason make you simply uncomfortable. In those situations I still bow. I know that growing and learning does not always feel good. True development can often be frustrating, intimidating, and uncomfortable. The fact that I may not enjoy training with a particular person does not mean that I am not gaining valuable experiences. My feelings aside, that person was there to train with me, and in one way or another I am better for it. And even if there is no other reason to be grateful, I should be grateful for that. I am bowing to the opportunity as much as I am bowing to the person.
Why We Bow in Martial Arts: Bowing When Entering or Leaving the Training Area
When new students arrive at my Muay Thai school they may notice other students taking a moment to bow before stepping onto the mat. And often without being instructed to, they follow suit. I know that they assume the act shows respect to the mats. And yes, for some of us that area is as much a church as it is a gym. But the truth is that the mats don’t care if you bow. The punching bags, jump ropes, and boxing ring also don’t care. For me personally I do this bow to show my love for one of the most incredible places in my life.
But I also do it for another reason. When I arrive to the gym I can have a variety of things going on in my head. Paying bills, frustrations with my computer, rude finger gestures from an angry driver, gun threats at my daughter’s school, or even the occasional argument with my wife. All of these things can be very heavy. But I carry all of these things right up to the mat. And when I bow I put them down. And I leave them there and don’t pick them up again until I bow out. Because I know all of my concerns will be waiting patiently for me when I come back out. That bow gives me permission to enter the one rare sanctuary where I can be free of it all. When on the mat I am willing to sweat, bruise, or even bleed a little, but at least I can do all of those things care free.
Whether you are bowing to your coach, your partner, your opponent, or an empty room, I believe there is rarely a time when you regret it. It seems that there is far more to gain from bowing more often than not enough. Even if your bow goes unnoticed or unappreciated, it still allows you to live in a positive and humble manner. And that is what good Martial Artists strive for. This is why we bow in Martial Arts.
Ben Brown is the Head Coach at PHAS3 Muay Thai in Santa Rosa, California.