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Why do Martial Artists Bow? Big Lessons Behind a Small Gesture

As a Martial Arts Instructor, my students are always asking me questions. Sometimes the questions can be thoughtful, challenging, or just silly.

But either way, I love when students ask questions because it shows curiosity and interest in what they’re learning. And you know who usually has the best questions?


You see, once you’ve been practicing martial arts for a while you end up getting into the routine of how things are done. Sometimes, you forget how unique or foreign certain aspects of training can be to a fresh pair of eyes. But for beginners, it’s WAY different. To them, everything is new and exciting and sometimes a little strange. That’s why they always have great questions.

One question that I get asked a lot is:

"Why do we bow?"

Most students will hear a pretty simple answer to this question.

“We bow to show respect."

While this answer is absolutely correct, there are deeper lessons to be learned through the bows we perform in class. And those lessons are based on two of my all time favorite words:

Trust and Gratitude. (Don’t they sound nice together?)

I want my students to feel those two things every time they bow in class. Now, that might seem difficult, especially with students as young as four years old. But, there is an exercise we practice that makes it super easy for them to get it in just minutes.

That exercise is called, “one steps."

If you’ve never seen one steps before, I’ll give you a quick explanation. Or you can check out this video example below….

During one steps, two students bow to each other. One student punches towards the second student who responds with a block and a counter attack. Then, the roles are reversed. Students finish the exercise by bowing to each other again.

"But, what does this have to do with trust and gratitude?"

When students practice their one steps, they know right away who is going to “win” and who is going to “lose” the encounter. So, one person has to be willing to sacrifice his own body so the other student can learn. The second student is responsible for performing a strong and accurate counter attack to the first student while also keeping him safe.

So, when the students bow, they always have to keep two things in mind.

1. They have to trust their partner will not hurt them.

2. They need to express gratitude that their partner is willing to trust them with their safety.

Once the students begin to genuinely feel trust and gratitude towards each other when they bow, something else happens. They learn to care about each other and see the importance of considering other people’s feelings and desires, not just their own.

It doesn’t just stop there! We bow so many times in class, for so many reasons.

And each time a student makes that simple gesture of bending at the waist, it’s a little reminder to trust, be grateful, and care about the needs of others.

Believe me. All those bows add up to something great:

Real. Genuine. Respect.

-Brian Schmidt

Master Instructor

Traditional Martial Arts Center

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