Martial Arts practice begins and ends with courtesy. At the beginning of our practice we “bow in” with a short ceremony, at the end we “bow out”. The ceremony is spiritual but not religious, and is a very important part of the training.
The importance of the ceremony is that we are shifting from our every day state of mind, to one conducive to practice. We are symbolically wiping off the feet of our mind so we don’t drag in the mental mud we’ve accumulated during the day.
We practice three bows. At the beginning of practice we bow to the kamiza – the traditional seat of the spirits at the front of the class. We hold in mind a sense of respect for those who died before us so that we may practice our art. We then bow to the sensei (teacher) of the class and hold in mind the thought – please guide us in our practice so we may grow. We then bow together and hold in mind the thought – please may we all learn safely together today, help each other, and grow as a community of warriors.
If some religious or other doctrine you practice prevents you from bowing, that is absolutely fine.
The bow is not a sign of supplication, but a sign of mutual respect. Nobody is bowing down to anyone, we are bowing together to show mutual respect. This is a gesture similar to a military salute or a handshake, but the importance is what you hold in mind during the bow.
During class, it is traditional to bow to the sensei after he gives some instruction. Again, this is not supplication but a symbol that says, “thanks for sharing”. The sensei bows back as a symbol stating, “thank you for listening.” Respect is always mutual.
When working with a partner or partners during class, it is traditional to begin and end with a short bow. We create a mindset of mutual respect and safety prior to working with one another, and say thanks after we practice.
Our classes are significantly less formal than in many other martial arts schools. There is no, “yes sir”, “no sir” or snapping to attention. This formality generally comes from schools where the original teachers came from the military and brought some of those traditions into their practice. Some people enjoy the formality and tradition, and that’s fine, but we don’t practice that way.
Sensei, loosely translates to “teacher” in Japanese and we generally use it in this context. It is better translated as “one who has gone before” as in a person with more experience.
As a title, in Japan, it is not reserved for martial arts teachers. Sensei has the same meaning as Doctor for someone who has achieved an advanced degree. If you were in College, you might refer to your teacher as “Doctor” X or “Professor” Y. This is the meaning of sensei.
In Japanese, the title is placed after the proper name. John Moore Sensei is correct, while Sensei John Moore seems correct in English but would confuse a Japanese speaker. We place the title after the name.
In class, you would traditionally refer to the teacher as “sensei”. If there were more than one teacher present you could refer to a teacher by their family name then title, “Moore Sensei”. It is up to you how you would like to refer to the teacher (as long as it is respectful). You may call our teachers by their given name. It is our tradition that the student decides when it is appropriate to refer to the teacher as sensei.
We currently do not use any other titles for our teachers. A lot of American martial arts teachers appropriate Japanese titles, or make them up. Some systems, like Bujinkan, have many levels of teaching and ranks. We choose to keep things simple.
We purposefully do not use the title “master” or any derivative, and do not translate the title sensei that way. It is our philosophy that nobody is ever a master of anything, that learning never ends, and the best teachers in the world continue to evolve.