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Principles


There are few things more unnerving than finding yourself in a social situation and not knowing how you are expected to behave... whether it's making a speech, meeting the Queen, or simply walking into a room full of people you don't know. Similarly, one's early days in aikido can seem like a mysterious procession of forms and rituals, surrounded by others who all seem to have a much better idea of what they are supposed to be doing, and full of potential for embarrassment when you 'get it wrong'.

Social etiquette can have a reputation for being "a set of rules which other people will look down on you for not knowing, even though they are unspoken and unwritten". That's unfortunate (not least because in some cases that's how people use it...!) - as in fact, etiquette is best seen as a way of ensuring that everyone has some guidelines about how to behave, and therefore need never feel worried that they are going to 'get it wrong' and 'cause offence'. I deliberately put those phrases in quotation marks, because as far as aikido etiquette is concerned, there are two very simple reasons why you should never be made to feel you have 'got it wrong' or 'caused offence'.

First - if you are alert, considerate and sincere, and behave towards others as you would expect them to behave towards you, there is little reason to suppose you will commit a grave breach of etiquette, whether on or off the tatami.

Second - if you are attentive and watch the way in which your teacher ensures the safety of those training, you will appreciate that most of the apparent forms and rules in aikido are, fundamentally, there to ensure that we can practice martial arts techniques without harming ourselves or our training partners.

That said, you will find that different clubs and traditions do things different ways - hence the importance of being alert and attentive. The "etiquette" of using a roundabout is one way of ensuring that everyone can use a roundabout without risking their lives every time... but France and England, for instance, have different 'roundabout etiquette', and if you use the wrong one in the wrong context, it could be very dangerous indeed.
If you practise at other clubs and find they do things differently, it's not an indication that either club is wrong - just different etiquette. Be alert to the differences, and extend them the courtesy of doing it their way while you are their guest.

Practical Guidelines


Some of the safety-related rules in aikido, you will find, are very consistent. Here are some basics which you are likely to find apply pretty much everywhere:

  • The teacher is responsible for everyone's safety, and you are responsible for the safety of you, your partner and those around you. Always follow the teacher's instruction. Practise what you are invited to practise, and perform the techniques as shown.

  • Start when you are invited to start, and stop when told. The teacher will always make this clear - but be alert for the signal to stop, and stop at once (don't finish off the technique you are doing, as you may miss subsequent instruction).

  • Some teachers will call "Hajime" ("Begin" in Japanese) and "Yame" ("Stop"). If the teacher wants everyone on the tatami to stop at once (for instance, if there is a safety problem or someone is injured), he/she will clap once.

The corollary of this is - never clap your hands during practice... unless you want a dojo full of people to stop, turn and stare at you. I learnt this rule of etiquette the hard way!

- Once a class is in progress, only enter or leave the tatami with the teacher's permission, and bow when stepping on or off the mats. It is particularly important not to enter the tatami unless invited by the teacher. That way there should be no risk of accidentally walking into someone else's practice, or getting landed on.

  • Reduce the risk of injury to you and your training partners, by removing all jewellery, piercings etc before practice, and by ensuring that your fingernails and toenails are kept short and well-trimmed. If you are unfortunate enough to get a cut or a graze, leave the tatami as promptly as possible and get it dressed.

  • Remember that aikido brings us into close contact with our partners: be considerate, and try not to inflict avoidable unpleasantness - make sure you and your clothing are clean and pleasant to be around.

  • Remember that aikido also brings us into close contact with the tatami: only ever step onto the tatami with bare feet; your aikido kit should include shoes or flip-flops for getting from the changing-room to the mats. If blood from a cut or graze gets onto the mat, clean it up as promptly as possible, preferably with an antiseptic wipe.

  • Aikido includes practise with weapons - albeit wooden ones. Inspect your weapons regularly for signs of damage, and never practise with a weapon which shows any sign of splits, cracks, flaws or splinters. If a weapon fails at the wrong moment, the consequences are potentially very serious.

Bowing


In the West, bowing is definitely towards the 'formal' end of the scale of social gestures. In Japan, it is a normal everyday greeting and indication of respect, more closely equivalent to a handshake - though with the advantage that you can indicate respect by bowing, without having to receive a bow in return.
If you are accustomed to Western greetings, there can seem to be an awful lot of bowing in aikido - but there are many good reasons to practise aikido in a spirit of respect:

* respect for the founder, O Sensei, for developing aikido in the first place;

* respect for the teacher, who dedicates experience and time to helping us learn;

* respect for your training partners, who put themselves at your mercy so you can train (and put up with all your mistakes...)

With that in mind, here are some of the times when bowing is used to indicate respect:

* When entering or leaving the dojo

* When stepping on or off the tatami (kneeling or standing bow, as you prefer, to the kamiza - the place where O Sensei's photo is displayed)

* At the beginning and end of the class (all bow first to the kamiza and then to the teacher)

* When pairing up to practise a technique, and when ending that pairing.

Beyond that, it will vary by dojo. In some dojo, partners bow after each person has practised a technique four times and the partners are switching roles; in some dojo, on completion of the class, students bow to the last person they practised with. Be sensitive to the different customs, and if you feel gratitude or respect, say so with a bow... doing so is very unlikely to offend.

At the beginning and end of the class, the kneeling bow to the teacher is accompanied by Japanese phrases as follows:

WhenPhraseVery rough guide to (English) pronunciationMeaning
Beginning of class onegai shimasuon-egg-eye she-massPlease (literally: "I request a favour")
End of class domo arigato gozaimashita door-more arry-gateau goes-eye-mash-tar Thank you very much for what has just taken place


Other


A few other points about etiquette:

Weapons

  • Because of their origins and their potential to cause harm, aikido weapons are treated with the same respect as real ones. Treat a bokken as you would a real sword; never grab it by the 'blade'. Hold it at your left hip if you are about to use it, and at your right hip if you are just carrying it from one place to another. There is practical logic behind this, but that's a topic for another article, another time.
  • It is considered ill-mannered to step on someone else's weapons, kick them aside or use them without invitation.
  • If you do borrow a weapon in the course of a lesson, ensure that you return it. It is also a good idea to mark your weapon (usually on the butt) so you can be sure which one is yours, and not wander off inadvertently with someone else's.

The Dojo


The layout of a dojo is adapted from that of Shinto and Buddhist temples, and this has an effect on some aspects of etiquette. A focal point of the dojo is the kamiza (literally "seat of the spirits"), and in any aikido dojo, this is where a photo of O Sensei will be displayed - sometimes accompanied by a scroll of calligraphy and a flower arrangement. The kamiza simply provides a focus for our expressions of respect towards O Sensei for the development and teachings of aikido.

This part of the dojo is also called the joseki or 'high point', and all other activities are oriented in relation to it. Hence, the teacher sits closest to the kamiza and the students sit opposite, facing it across the tatami. Traditional dojo are often laid out so that, if you are seated facing the kamiza, the entrance is to your right.

Formally, students would sit in order of rank, with the most senior students on the right and the most junior on the left. One explanation for this is that, in case of an attack on the dojo, the most capable students would be best placed to defend - and also best positioned to draw their swords (from their left hip, with their right hands). Fortunately, this is hardly ever necessary these days.


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