The Meaning of the Bow
In my opinion, bowing is the most important technique in all of the martial arts. In this post I will explain what the different types of bows are why the bow is so important.
There are generally 2 types of bows: standing and kneeling. In the martial arts you will only see one type of kneeling bow, which is demonstrated below.
This bow is originally from India, and was symbolic of touching your head to the feet of your teacher. This is the greatest respect you can show, as the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, and the feet one of the least sacred areas of the body.
You will see this bow most commonly in Japanese martial arts, from the kneeling position called seiza. This bow is a sign of deep respect and humility, as you are bring your head down to your partner, but it is also a sign of trust. You are taking your eyes off of your partner for a few seconds, trusting that they will not attack you and that they follow the same honor code that you follow. Usually the only BJJ practitioners that do this are ones that have previous traditional martial arts training, although some schools require this type of bow before every match.
Some practitioners do a major modification to this bow and shake hands with their partner while dropping the head down.
Covered Fist / Peace Over War Bow
One bow that you will see more in China but in some Japanese martial arts is the covered fist. The left hand is open, which is symbolic of peace, kindness, compassion, and the softer side of the martial arts (the yin of yin / yang). The right hand is in a fist, symbolic of fighting, self defense, war, strength, fearlessness, and power (the yang of yin yang). The peace hand is on top because the true martial artist seeks peace and meets others with peace. They do not show off their power of their ability to fight- that is hidden, but there if necessary.
The symbolism of the covered fist is probably the best representation of the martial arts, in that it shows the balance of the martial artist on and off the mat: they can be strong or soft when needed, depending on the circumstance. If someone breaks into their house, they will be strong. If a loved one needs a shoulder to cry on, they can be soft. On the mat, they will be strong when exploding into a technique or finishing a technique, and soft in their ability to relax and respond to their opponents force.
Probably the most common bow is to bring both hands to the sides where the palms touch the thighs. You will see this in Judo and many other Japanese martial arts, as well as in many Korean systems. The hands being open and flat shows your partner that you do not have a weapon, and as in all the other bows, bringing the head down is a sign of humility and respect.
This is a bow that you will see in some harder styles of Karate, like Kyokushin and Enshin. These are very powerful systems that focus on power and toughness (physical and mental). They desensitize themselves to pain, practice power striking, and generally do not move back in matches! Their bow is an expression of the toughness of their art.
They will also say “Osss” when they do the bow. This loosely translates as “I will work hard.”
This bow is symbolically the most beautiful of all the bows. The pranam is the bow that you will see in Muay Thai and in some other South East Asian arts, such as some styles of Penchak Silat. South East Asia was heavily influenced by India, where this bow came from. This bow is done today in India by non martial artists when greeting one another.
In this bow, the palms come together in front of the heart, then comes up toward the forehead. The two hands coming together has several different symbolisms. One meaning is “You and I are one in the same spirit of learning. We will help eachother to get better.” Another is the symbolic unity of body and mind. The most spiritual interpretation is “I bow to the God / Spirit in you,” or “The God in me bows to the God in you.”
The palms going from the heart to the head is symbolic that the energy of the evolved martial artist revolves between the head and heart. It means that the practitioner seeks both wisdom (head) and love (heart). The practitioner is able to think and concentrate (head) and feel (heart) in a balanced way. In India, the human body is said to have different energy centers. There are 7 centers in the spine and brain. The lower centers, from the tailbone up to the lower back, is considered the animal part of the body, responsible for procreation and other physical activities. The higher centers, from the heart up to the point between the eyebrows, known as the third eye, is what is considered the divine part of the body, where humans can direct their energy to evolve to higher levels. The point between the eyebrows is known as the center of wisdom, and the heart the center of love. Great martial artists are not just great fighters, they live their lives guided by wisdom and love, not enslaved by their habits.
In India, when they pranam, they will say “Namaste,” which means “I bow to the God in you,” or “the God in me bows to the God in you.”
Whats the point?
Bowing is not a tradition to make school owners and teachers happy. Most do not do it to establish a deep spiritual connection with the founder of any art you may practice. It is a symbolic ritual to train your thoughts and emotions.
How do you train a dog? You give it feedback. When it barks when it shouldn’t you clap or forcefully tell it “No!” After several times, the dog associates a negative consequence with barking at the wrong time so it stops.
When you bow, you are practicing humility, respect, appreciation, and mindfulness. Each time you enter and leave the mat, and before and after training, you are associating these feelings with practice. If you do it sincerely enough times, you will associate your practice with the deeper benefits of training: humility, respect, appreciation, and mindfulness.
There is another Eastern concept that many Westerners have not been exposed to, but it is powerful. There are physical actions you can take that will influence and guide your emotions, and these physical actions actually create an energy pattern in the body. Bringing your head down is a sign of submissiveness in the animal kingdom. Among martial artists, it is a sign of humility and receptivity.
The practice of standing with your feet together and arms being symmetrical also affects the nervous system and the emotions. Body language experts have done research that show that people that stand at attention, in a symmetrical stance while silent, will retain more information in a learning environment than others who do not assume the posture. This is one of the reasons you will see the military use this.
You may learn different skills in life, like how to drive, how to be an engineer, a new language, but how do you learn humility and the other deeper skills of the martial arts? The physical ritual of bowing is a reminder of the inner feelings that are associated with those actions. In this way you are creating and deepening the habits of peace, humility, respect, appreciation, patience, love, mindfulness, and wisdom.
The most important part of bowing is sincerity. One of my past students had a Tae Kwon Do black belt and suffered from arrogance. He would bow before a match, and the look on his face was “I am going to humiliate you.” He was doing the outward ritual mostly correct, except that he didn’t do the bow slowly, which showed his lack of sincerity and his aggression. Bowing slowly is the way to practice it sincerely.
Bowing slow has several benefits besides developing sincerity. First, you are controlling aggression. If you are nervous before a match or training, your energy level is high and your energy is uncontrolled. Bowing slowly will get you to slow down. It will also subtly help your partner to relax. In BJJ especially, if you are nervous or aggressive, your partner is in close contact with you , and they will feel your nervous or aggressive energy.
Second, you are practicing stillness and calmness. At my dojo, we have a saying on the front door, “Leave Your Ego at the Door.” Part of the meaning is to leave your problems off the mat. You have all day to obsess about your problems and your life. When you enter the dojo, that is YOU time. You cannot think about money, relationships, work, school, or whatever it is that you think habitually all day. Someone is trying to submit you. You have to be in the here and now. This time that you will not think about the outside world begins when you step on the mat and bow. Your practice begins with peace and ends with peace.
If you are not sure how to really do the bow correctly, here are some things you can repeat to yourself or do to practice right attitude, until it is a habit:
- “I am here to learn and improve (in the spirit of humility).”
- “I appreciate and respect my teachers, the school, and my training partners. They are here to help me and I am here to help them.”
- Be silent for a few seconds, and do the bow slowly and deliberately. Mindfulness is not something practiced in the West! If you have trouble with this, you can say to yourself “Relax.”