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An old saying states, "Karate begins and ends with manners"
Often new students wonder why we bow in the martial arts. Many are concerned that bowing may have some religious significance—it does not. While it may be used in religious settings, it is not a religious gesture. In Korea and other Eastern cultures, the bow is used in business or social situations that have no relationship to religion.

It is said that Joe Lewis, karate champion and founder of contact karate, when asked why he did not bow, said that since he did not bow to his own mother, why should he bow to anyone else. In Western culture, we shake hands to greet someone, to congratulate someone, and to express gratitude. Using Mr. Lewis' logic, since he does not shake hands with his mother when he meets her, he must also not shake hands with anyone else. In Eastern culture, bowing expresses the same functions as handshakes and other physical greetings. An old saying states, "Grain droops as it ripens." Only a few hundred years ago, in European society, a courtly bow was a considered a form of greeting.

A handshake is not just a shaking of hand; it conveys information. There are different types of handshakes depending on the situation and relationship between the two people, such as the simple handshake used as a courtesy upon greeting or saying farewell; the two-handed consoling handshake used with the grieving; the firm, curt handshake used to seal a deal; the brisk, animated handshake used to congratulate; and many more. The bow is used in the same manner.

There are different types of bows, such as the cursory bow (a bow of about 5 degrees) used in the same manner as Westerns use a nod of the head, the shallow bow (a bow of about 15 degrees used similar to the handshake, the ordinary bow (a bow of about 30 degrees) used as a sign of respect, the polite bow (a bow of about 45 degrees) used to convey deep respect or gratitude, or an apology; and the ceremonial bow (a bow of about 90 degrees) that is reserved for ceremonial or religious purposes.

Warrior history

Etiquette has always been an important part of warrior behavior. Eastern warriors carried their swords and drew them from the left side, so they would place their swords on their right side as a symbol of their peaceful intent. This placement made it difficult to draw the sword quickly, thus rendering it ineffective. Failure to complete this customary behavior while in the presence of a superior was a grave breach of etiquette. Western medieval knights also had a strict code of behavior. When greeting each other, they took hold of each other's right hand, the weapon hand, and kept hold while interacting at a close distance.

For centuries, warriors have had strict protocols, such as how to enter rooms, where to sit in a room when superiors or other warriors are present, and how to remove, wear, or handle weapons in the presence of others. These protocols were strictly observed so that a warrior didn’t appear threatening. Modern warriors have the same sort of protocols. Some say the military salute protocol shows that one's weapon hand is empty and therefore poses no threat.

In the military, officers don’t salute enlisted personnel or junior officers, they only return a salute rendered to them. In general, senior ranks do not bow to junior ranks, they only return bows rendered to them. The person in a junior position renders respect to the person in a senior position and the senior person returns the gesture, not vice versa.

The President of the United States has always been considered the most powerful position in the world. As such, the President only returns salute or bows, he or she does not initiate them when greeting Eastern dignitaries and he or she does not bow lower than the dignitary’s bow since it expresses subjection.

Why bow is used

  • To honor the Eastern heritage of the martial arts, by using the Eastern cultural display of respect.
  • To show respect to a person or to the person's position or rank.
  • To show respect without and humility within.
  • To indicate the start of formal class and entry into the "world of martial arts training."
  • To indicate a willingness to learn from teachers and fellow students.
  • To remind you that your partner is a person—not a practice dummy.
  • To indicate the end of class and reentry into the "ordinary world."
Also used as:
  • A greeting, as when entering a business meeting.
  • A symbol of some sort of combined accomplishment or mutual understanding, such when signing a contract.
  • A display of gratitude, as when receiving an award.

When to bow

  • When entering or exiting the school. When entering the school, stop just inside the entrance and bow toward the training area as a sign of respect for the school and as an indicator that you are now entering the world of martial arts training. When exiting the school, stop just inside the entrance, and bow toward the training area as a sign of respect for the school and as an indicator that you are now re-entering the ordinary world.
  • When first meeting a more senior belt than yourself, including your instructor. As a greeting, bow to each senior belt you meet for the first time during a training day. After the first meeting, bowing is not normally required. However, if making some special request from the instructor or a senior black belt, it is proper to bow. Some instructors want students to bow each time they speak directly to him or her. Don’t always expect the instructor to return the bow since instructors sometimes talk to a hundred students a day. Usually, any bows used after the first one to the same person are quick, courtesy bows.
  • When entering or exiting instructor's office. Some instructors want students to bow when entering or exiting the instructor's office.
  • When entering or exiting training area. Each time you step into the training area, bow toward the center of the training area as an indication that you are ready to forget everything in your life and are entering your training frame of mind. Each time you step out of the training area, bow toward the center of the training area as an indication that you are exiting your training frame of mind
  • When class begins and ends. Although it varies from school to school, there are typically one or more formal standing or kneeling bows given at the beginning of class. Usually, the first bows are to toward the ceremonial wall as a sign of respect to the martial art, its founders, and those who have come and gone before you. Then bows are made in respect to the instructors. Sometimes a bow is made as a sign of respect to fellow students. All these bows signify that you are ready to train. Although it varies from school to school, there are typically one or more formal standing or kneeling given at the end of class. These bows signify that the training session is over.
  • When working with a partner. Each time you start working with a new partner, it is proper etiquette to bow to him or her and then bow again when you finish. Some schools bow when passing a piece of equipment to another student.
  • When sparring. Each match begins and ends with a bow. After committing a foul, bow to the opponent. At the start of last round with an opponent, bow to the opponent. Bow to the opponent at other times it seems fitting.
  • When performing a pattern. Each pattern begins and ends with a bow.

How to bow

  • Motion. Bend at the waist, keep back straight, and do not bob your head. Inhale when bowing, exhale, and then inhale while rising up. The breathing helps convey your sincerity through your body language. Bow smoothly, both while descending and ascending, do not jerk back upward.
  • Hands. Hand position varies according to the protocol of individual schools. Some schools let arms and hands hang naturally at the sides, some schools keep arms and hands straight down the sides of the legs, and other schools use various types of hand positions, such as the enclosed fist position. Hands are never slapped on the sides of the thighs.
  • Feet. Informally, the feet may be separated. Formally, the feet should be together.
  • Eyes. When bowing as a sign of respect and trust, such as in the traditional bow, the back and neck are kept straight, so the eyes are lowered. Eastern cultures consider looking up with your face when you bow to be rude. When you bow to an opponent in class or completion, you never expect an attack, and you would never bow to an attacker anyway, so always lowering the eyes in a bow is the correct way to bow.

    However, some, me included, think that when facing an opponent, even in a controlled environment such as in class or a tournament, that you should maintain a warrior spirit that is prepared for battle by only bowing slightly so you may keep your eyes on your opponent (do not bend so far you have to bend the neck to look up). In a combat bow, you are still bowing as a sign of respect, but you watch the opponent. As President Reagan said "Trust, but verify."
  • Words. Normally, you do not speak while bowing except for short statements, such a "Yes sir!" "Thank you, ma’am,!" etc.

Seated bow

Procedure for a seated bow depends on the situation and/or status of the person receiving the bow.
  • While seated at attention, hands lay flat on upper thighs.
  • When seated relaxed, hands either lay flat on upper thighs or folded.
  • The angle of bowing and the spacing between the hands will differ according to whether the person receiving the bow is junior, equal, or senior to you. With seated bows, the hands should slide directly forward to the front of the knees. 

Standing bow

From standard attention stance. Stand with the body vertical and straight, face forward with head erect, feet side-by-side with heels and toes touching, legs straight but not locked, arms and hands at the side of the body, hands held straight and flat with fingers held tightly together and thumb tucked in with palms against the side of the legs (close-leg stance).
  • Traditional bow. From attention stance, bend the upper body approximately 30 degrees forward with the head and eyes lowered, then return to the upright position. It is important to keep the head and eyes lowered as a sign of respect; it is considered rude not to do so. 
  • Combat bow. Another type of bow is the combat bow. Similar to the traditional bow, it is used as a sign of respect to the opponent, but it also shows preparedness by guarding against a sneak attack. The combat bow motion is similar to the traditional bow except for hand position. When standing at attention, instead of holding flat palms against the sides of the legs, hold the hands in tight fists with knuckles facing forward with the thumbs nearly touching the sides of the legs.

    To perform the combat bow, bend the upper body approximately 15 degrees forward while keeping the eyes on the opponent. Since you are preparing for a possible attack, do not lower the eyes; keep your eyes on the other person’s chest. In combat, you show respect for the opponent but still maintain vigilance. While bowing, bring the arms forcibly up in front of the body, forearms parallel, fists in front of lower face with knuckles facing outward. Then return the body to the upright position, returning the arms to their original position.

    Clenched fist bowing is not common in the traditional martial arts, but there are exceptions. The sumo performs a clenched fist bow before he begins his attack, and in some forms of kenjutsu and kempo, practitioners sometimes kneel on one knee and place a fist on the floor as a form of acknowledgment or salute.
  • Business card bow. Business cards in the West are treated with about as much respect as paper clips, but in the East, handing a card to a person is a small ritual of respect. When handing your business card to an Easterner, hold the top corner in each hand, with the card facing the person, and bow. The other person will usually receive the card with both hands while also bowing. When handing a card to a stranger, information on the card will provide the other person with your status so they will know how to bow to you. When in doubt about the other person's rank, bow slightly lower and hold a little longer.
  • Passing bow. Occasionally, you may be forced to pass in front of someone, which is impolite. Excuse yourself by bowing slightly and holding out your right hand with the edge downward as if you are cutting your way, and offer a quiet apology. 

Kneeling bow

  • Kneeling attention stance. From a standing attention stance, step left foot backward and toward the right extending the toes and ankle, kneel on left knee with the top of left foot flat on the floor just right of the center-line of the body. Step right foot backward and toward the left extending toes and ankle, kneel on the right knee with the top of right foot flat on the floor with toes overlapping the toes of left foot. Sit on the ankles with body vertical and straight, face forward with head erect, place palms on upper thighs with fingers toward the inside of the thighs.
  • Traditional kneeling bows. From kneeling stance, bend upper body forward at the waist with head and eyes lowered, while sliding both hands down the thighs and beside the knees. Hand movements show there is no threat, and thus show a sign of trust. Bow then return to the upright position.
  • For persons junior to you. Bow slightly while sliding both hands down the thighs and beside the knees until fingertips are just touching the floor.
  • For person equal to you. Bow a little deeper while sliding both hands down the thighs and beside the knees until hands are flat on the floor. Then slide hands forward; pointing fingertips inward until they are parallel with the kneecaps.
  • For person senior to you. Bow even deeper until forehead is about 8 to 10 inches above the floor. The hands are moved closer together until fingertips almost touch.
  • Formal military bow. Very formal bow predominantly used in military circles. The forehead is bowed to a point approximately 6 inches above the floor, the fingertips almost touching.
  • Nobility bow. Reserved for the presence of nobility. Bow descends to its lowest point with the back parallel to the floor, fingertips touching.
  • Other kneeling bows:
  • Some schools use a two-step method of placing hands on the floor. The most common way is to place left hand, then a right hand. Hands are retracted in opposite order. Belief is that placement of the left hand on the floor first is derived from the swordsman's practice of placing left hand down first. The left hand is needed to secure the scabbard, while the right-hand grasps the handle to draw the sword. By placing left hand on the floor first, the swordsman seriously impaired his ability to draw his weapon, and thus shows trust and respect.
  • Some schools slide hands forward and simultaneously place them on the floor. Belief is that placing one hand on the floor followed by the other shows a lack of trust, while placing both hands on the floor shows the least threat and greatest trust.

Bowing variations

  • When bowing-in, some schools bow twice, clap hands twice, and bow a third time. This is more of a Buddhist religious bow.
  • Some schools use semi-closed hand bows where hands are placed knuckles down with thumbs forward in the appearance of a loose fist. Belief is that, along with the above sword draw explanation, since open hand would still allow a swordsman to draw his sword, the loose fist with the thumbs forward shows there is no threat.
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