At the start of each class when a student comes to the room they do a short little bow to the room. One of the first lessons a student learns from me is that they bow to the room when they enter and when they leave, it is not because we worship the room or the room deserves special recognition, it is simply because we are acknowledging that we have come to train and in the room we are learning the martial arts and outside of the room we go about our lives.
One of the dangers of allowing games or activities in the dojo that are based on fun is that you can get such a lax attitude that the students believe they can play and it is acceptable. Games; such as Capture the Flag, Spider, relay races, Cat and Mouse, etc. etc. are all fun and have some sort of martial value beyond just a warm up drill. Capture the Flag, Spider, Cat and Mouse all teach dodging and evasion skills. Relay races can teach working together skills (such as Wheel Barrow races) or performing under pressure with the Smart Shield drills for the younger students. Having warm up games helps generate enthusiasm for class, gets the blood pumping and the muscles warm. However if the student forgets why we bow when we enter and leave the classroom the fun becomes the focus of the class and it all becomes a game.
Entering the classroom is like entering a darkened room, you flip on the light switch and the room is illuminated, things that were darkened now are lit up. As we bow we should mentally switch on the light switch that we are now prepared to train. We should see that while we have fun and play warm up games they are not the reason we are studying the martial arts. Once we are in the class room our minds should be turned on to learning; to helping out the instructor, or to helping others, or to ask others for help in understanding. We should not be focused on our own needs or own desires to talk, squeal with laughter or carrying on since these can be distracting to the students on the mat already training.
We also bow at the beginning and ending of class; like bowing to the room this is to frame our minds for learning. At the beginning of class this too should mentally flip the switch that we are here to learn karate (or whatever martial art you are studying), however this is also paying respect to your teacher. Often times in class if I have had a higher ranked student help me in class, I will have them stand up next to me as we bow out of class. I do this because I believe that any student that helps deserves recognition from the other students for their help and for their input. This also helps foster the school spirit that we need to be thankful for help and that we should give help freely and that sometimes there is reward for it (in this case recognition).
We also bow when we are doing drills with a partner. When we are engaged in mutual combative or learning drills we bow to our partner out of mutual respect as peers, as training partners. Bowing to each other lets both parties know that we are ready to train, we are engaged in the learning process and that I will respect you and you are to respect me. Not out of fear for my (or your) abilities, or rank, but rather out of mutual respect as another training partner; a person who is going to help me become better at what I enjoy doing by sharing their time, skill, and expertise to help me be a better martial artist. If both parties have that attitude then both students benefit from the experience even if it is only a 2 minute sparring match, or even a quick one time self defense drill scenario.
Here at Hidden Sword Martial Arts bowing is not an act or sign of worship to the room, a shrine, pictures of the founders of the art etc. etc. (I am not saying there is anything wrong with arts that bow, or pay respect to their founders. It’s just that we don’t.) Rather it is a sign of respect, a way of acknowledging that we are here to train in the martial arts, and a way of acknowledging those who are helping us grow in the martial arts.