Joined: 09 Jan 2005
Location: Wilmington, MA
Styles: Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu
|Posted: Thu Nov 10, 2005 9:30 am Post subject: The Rituals of My Martial Arts
|Working part time at a marital arts studio, I perform and teach rituals, every day. I train and train others in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu (Show-rin-roo) Karate, which is translated as "Little Pine Forest Style". Not unlike the small saplings in a pine forest, the style dictates that its students sway and bend with the wind. The style is geared towards getting out of the way and using your opponent's weight against them, rather than steam rolling over them. It is a traditional Okinawan Karate dojo. We use Japanese terms and we follow traditional Japanese etiquette and rituals. In the martial arts, everything has a higher meaning, the art and ritual are very important. There are hidden meanings in everything. I am sure you have heard of the art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and the steps that must be followed. At first glance, you only see the obvious bows, counting in Japanese, instructor titles and taking off your shoes when you enter, but as you watch and learn there is so much more to it. I am still learning everyday about meanings and rituals. When I came to the dojo four years ago, I knew nothing about Japanese traditions or martial arts. The small understanding I have now is limited but when compared to what I did not know before, it is huge.
When in the reception area of the dojo, you will be asked to remove your shoes. There are no street shoes allowed in the training halls or dojos. Leaving your shoes at the door signifies leaving your grudges, troubles or dirt at the door. It is a supportive environment and if you have a qualm with someone do not bring it inside. Leaving worries and troubles at the door can be hard in this day in age, so shake off the dirt and literally leave it at the door. Traditionally, it is the student's responsibility to clean and care for the dojo. So, it is in their best interest to keep most of the dirt in the entryway.
Before leaving the reception area and entering the dojo's formal training halls, we have a small hallway we call the "Hall of Masters". The portraits lining the walls are of the masters of our particular style of karate. Before anyone enters or exits the hall, a bow or rei (ray) is required for respect. We have two types of bows at our school - standing and kneeling bows. The standing bow is done while at the doorways of the formal dojos and the doorway to the "Hall of Masters". The second bow will come later. For the standing bow, you first put your feet into a "V" shape, heels touching. Next, your hands fall softly by your side. Then, you lower yourself by bending at the waist, eyes looking down. This is to again enter the dojo in the right frame of mind, respectfully and ready to learn.
The ritual of the gi or uniform is an equalizer. The dojo is a meritocracy, which means you achieve stature by merit, not who you know, or how popular you are. The first time I put on a gi, it was coarse and awkward. I felt self-conscience, until I went onto the dojo floor. I looked just like everyone else. I train with doctors, carpenters, gas station attendants and baggers at the local grocery. We all look the same in that gi. The only difference is the belt around our waist. Our belts tell our rank. The bagger at the grocery store is one of the highest ranked students I listed. Your financial standing or your educational background does not matter on the dojo floor, only merit.
Waiting for class we usually socialize, warm up our joints and practice a few moves. I have been training with most of these people for years, two to three times a week. When the time arrives for class, the instructor calls out "shugo" (shoe-go) it means to line up. We line up in a grid pattern. The highest rank to the right, the next behind them and the next behind them. When the row is full usually four or five to a row the next line starts, and so on. Until the lowest ranked person, is lined up to the left side of the floor. This is so the lowest ranked student can easily look over to the right and see how the more experienced students are doing the technique. It makes the new students feel better to have a tutor right there ready to help. It is also quite ceremonious to work your way from one side of the room to the other. Being the head student in the room has it's responsibilities; usually they are asked to warm up the class or teach a small portion of the class.
At the beginning of every class is a meditation or mokuso (mok-soo). Just like removing your shoe and bowing are to help you get into the frame of mind to train, so does the meditation. You relax; you empty your cup, so to speak. Mokuso is sitting in seiza (say-za) or kneeling. Getting into seiza has its rituals, moving your left side first; you place your left knee on the floor and then follow it with your right. In the Samurai days, it was essential and advantageous to be able to defend yourself at all times, if you still have your right foot on the ground, you are better able to jump to action. Kneeling or seiza, your back is straight, your head is up and your hands are flat on your lap. While in mokuso, you close your eyes and you are instructed to try to breathe using your diaphragm. Letting your stomach move out on inhale and in on exhale instead of your chest moving, this improves your lung capacity. It is a training tool to help you better control anxiety. More oxygen gets in to your system this way making it is easier to calm your nerves. When and if confronted by obstacles or an attack, it should help you stay centered and less panicky. I have been able to use it to calm myself when speaking in front of a lot of people.
The bow or, in Japanese, rei is a sign of respect. This is where the second bow comes in. After, the meditation while still sitting in a seiza, there is the bowing in. We bow to the Shomen (Show-men), which is a symbol for those who have come before us, trained and taught in order for us to learn. Next we bow to the American flag; this has been added since 9/11. This bow is for those who have died, have fought, are fighting and are willing to fight for this country. Next, there is a bow to otigai (oh-ti-guy) or others. You are bowing to the people you are about to train with. Still two more bows, to your instructor and finally to the head instructor of the school. Each bow must follow certain protocol. While sitting in seiza, your left hand comes down in front of you, then your right hand making a triangle with your forefingers and thumbs. Next, you lower your head but do not touch the ground. Then you say either "onegai shimasu" (oh-nee-ga she-mas) which translates as "please teach me" at the beginning of class or "arigato gozaimasu" (a-ree-ga-toe go-zie-mus) which means "thank you very much" at the end of class. Then your right hand comes back to your lap followed by your left hand. Moving the left hand first is a signal of non intent. Left hand traditionally being the less dominant hand shows you are submissive to those you bow to. Also, I was told that the Samurai presented the less dominate hand so that if the person or persons they were bowing to meant to do the Samurai harm, the harm would happen to the left hand. The Samurai would still have their dominant hand, the right hand, to fight with.
In training there is a subtle difference in the way our feet must come together to bow, the differences between our feet coming together in the attention or kiotsuke (kyo-skay). It is traditional for the students to do a standing bow through out the classes. The karate is the reason people come, but to get to the karate there are steps. In kata or form, you move your left foot to right with your hands by your side to do a standing bow. You move your left side first because this signifies that you are not attacking. Again, as I stated that before traditionally your right side is more dominate and by moving left first you are telling all that you mean no harm. However, when you are about to either spar or perform a drill you bring your right to your left. This is so your partner knows your intent. Despite this, you and your partner want to work with each other again so it is understood that your intent can not be to harm, only to learn and train.
Kata is form, which is a series of choreographed moves. It is the same kata that marital arts students have been practicing and performing for years. It puts the basic moves into motion, better preparing you for a day you may need your training to save your life or someone else's life. Before, you begin your kata, you kiotsuke (stand at attention) and you rei (bow). Then, you yio (yoy) for your kata. You announce your kata meaning by calling out the name of the kata and finally you do your kata. Yio is a special type of attention. Our katas come from many different marital arts. Each kata has its own yio or attention according to the master who made the kata.
In ippon (e-pon) meaning drills and kumite (koo-mee-tay) meaning sparring, you move your right foot to your left. Which means, we are ready to defend and attack. Customarily at the dojo I train at, the fighting and drills have minimum contact but the ritual calls for the difference in moving your feet. Knowing the difference helps when on the defense of a drill. The drills are also a set of moves like the katas but you work with a partner. While facing your partner standing in yio, The yio for our drills are the same. In this his yio you stand straight up, feet are parallel shoulder width apart and hands are in fists pointing towards the ground. The instructor calls out "kiotsuke"; your right foot comes to meet your left foot. Then, the instructor calls out "rei", bowing to each other you say "onegai shimasu" to your partner. Next, is the kawate (ka-wa-tay) or on guard stance, if you are the attacker you put your right foot back, again moving right first as a sign of intent, doing a low block and let out a loud kiai or spirit yell. If you are on the defense, you remain in yio. Now the drill actually begins and you and your partner run through the moves either on your own count or the instructors count. Ending the drill similar to beginning, you again stand in yio, kiotsuke, rei and now say "arigato gozaimasu".
The dojo takes pride in the traditions and rituals of the Karate Do (empty handed way). By teaching respect for the traditions of others, hopefully, it will help the students to accept and respect each other. Knowing all the reasons behind each pieces of the ritual is more important than knowing the ritual. Each step is important. Each step is a moment to learn and grow. Each tradition reflects the respect to the origins of the art. I take great pride in my work, teaching my small understanding of an art form, so rich in heritage and rituals.