Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning  ©





Intense love does not measure; it just gives.  Mother Theresa


If there is one thing, more than any other, that is common between the fighting systems of the world, it is etiquette. Importance is placed on respecting the training partner, the competitor, and even the enemy. And by respecting the other, one benefits the self; exercises in etiquette represent the more human element of the fighting arts and such emphasis usually carries over into the character of the practitioner in daily life.


(a) Tatami

Full time dojos are a rare sight in the West. Accordingly, laying the tatami is an important pre-class ritual. There are several kinds of tatami and each school has their own peculiar method of laying them down. Judo tatami are most expensive and regarded as the best. Some mix red and green randomly, others carefully create patterns, most use just green. A second popular type is the canvas lain over foam tatami. The canvas is secured using wooden beams that surround the tatami, being held together with a piece of rope that threads its way neatly between the canvas cover and screws poking out of the wooden beams. The last choice are jigsaw mats that are thin, cheap, and come in every colour. Everyone is involved with laying the tatami and those who regularly arrive late or leave early receive their natural amount of unspoken scorn.


(b) Cleaning the dojo

If you are fortunate enough to train in a dojo with a permanent tatami it is usually required for students to sweep it before and after training. In some dojos, it is even required to clean the windows. Often, the dojo is not even dirty, but the ritual must be carried out nevertheless in order to instil that necessary air of humility in the trainees. If classes run back to back, then it is usual to just clean up after training, not before.


(c) Lining up

When lining up at the beginning of the class the students should make a straight line according to the person to their immediate right. Traditionally, but not always in Aikido, one's seniors, or sempai, sit to the right, therefore, the line should run from wherever the senior sits, or, to whomever is sat to the far right. If the line is not straight, i.e. if the senior student, or part of the line, is sat slightly forwards or backwards, then something is wrong. As a beginner at the lower end of the line one can do nothing except match one's place to that of the person to the immediate right. Do not become out of place by matching one's position with that of a senior further up the line. If the problem is halfway along the line, then that is where the correction needs to be, and then subsequent shuffling down the line will see the line become straight. And if it's children, starting a class without that straight line is the surest way to chaos.


(d) Bowing

When bowing from a kneeling position, the body necessarily bends at the waist placing first the left, then right palm on the tatami. It is not good form for one's backside to rise as the head lowers. From a standing position the body should bend not at the waist, but a little higher, around the solar plexus region, and in martial arts, not too deeply. One bow should equal one breath, and the bow should be not too quick nor too slow, just deliberate. One should always look up slightly towards one's partner, and if the school dictates that one looks down then one should try to be as aware as possible of where they are and what they are doing. The emphasis is on awareness, not the looking. The act is both one of courtesy and trust – one’s martial awareness is ready should that trust be broken. One should bow at the beginning when meeting a new partner, and at the end. There is no need to bow every time the tori / uke roles are swapped. Excessive bowing or contests in humility are unnecessary.

When bowing to one's partner, it is best for both to bow at the same time, in harmony. Otherwise, it is up to the junior student to match the time of the senior. If the teacher appears during training and helps with the technique it is customary to thank them with a bow. Some teachers do not like it however if students repeatedly prostrate themselves on the floor at this time, since, they feel as though they have to respond likewise. The student should be aware that by performing a kneeling bow, they are forcing their teacher to do the same, making them feel awkward if they do not usually do so. Instead, take the lead of the teacher. If the teacher goes down for a kneeling bow, then follow. A short standing bow often suffices though, equal to, or a little deeper than that of the teacher. Bow at exactly the same time, but aim to come up just a moment later.

Japanese university freshmen bow while saying the phrase ‘onegaeshimas,’ meaning, ‘Please train with me.’ As they near graduation that same phrase finds itself reduced to something like the ‘oossu’ so often heard in Karate dojos.


(e) Talking

Chatting while training is bad form. Telling one's partner what to do while training is bad form. When one's partner is obviously stuck, try leading them through the technique without words - be a pliable uke. If one must speak, limit it to telling them which posture to start in. Give them every chance to figure it out for themselves. Otherwise, sit down, watch someone else, and then try again. Another problem is that some teachers talk too much. If you do not like it, and many do not, then all one can really do about it is learn the lesson and not talk too much when one becomes a teacher.


(f) Ego

The ego is named as the obstacle to be overcome. An ideal philosophy suited to opulent Lords of past who demanded subservience from their vassals, yet it often appears in devious form in the very place that is supposed to squash it; the dojo often reflects it, being full of those who cringe favour with flattery or exaggerated attention. Not easy to remove, but easy to see. Excessive bowing or politeness can be one form. Learn from the examples displayed before you everyday. It makes quite interesting study.


(g) Leaving the tatami

With good preparation one should never have to leave the tatami during training. Many consider it as a kind of failure. If you eat too much and feel sick then you fail your self. If you do not eat all day and feel queasy, then you fail your self. If you forgot to go to the bathroom and have to leave the tatami, you lose training time, you fail your self. If you forgot to take your watch or ring off, you fail yourself. If you forgot to cut your nails, you fail your self. If you need a drink of water midway, then you fail your self - even if it is allowed. If the training is hard, some clubs do have a scheduled break midway to replenish themselves with a little water. However, if you do need to leave the tatami for any reason, just do so, even if the teacher appears annoyed. If the teacher is angry, view it is their own personal problem, not yours. You do not need to give a reason, but it is polite to inform that you are leaving the tatami since the teacher needs to know where all the students are. Training is a chance to practice overcoming adversity and a large part of the battle is in preparation.


(h) Etiquette as Art

I have heard it said that Judo is ninety percent etiquette. I failed to understand this for years until I saw an old movie clip of Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, performing a few techniques. It was Judo kata demonstrated to perfection, suggesting that Judo is in the kata, not in the shiai. It was not a fight, but a perfect dynamic demonstration of Judo principles. Perhaps Aikido too, is ninety percent etiquette.





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