All the way back in December of 2019, I wrote a post outlining the proper guidelines a prospective student should follow when attending ANY martial arts school. Some of these are simply a matter of tradition, some of them are necessary to ensure that a dojo runs smoothly. Some, mostly all of them, are also a show of respect for the school you’ve chosen to attend. I think we can all agree that even if you’ve studied in a different style or have a different set of core beliefs, you should still show respect when inside someone else’s dojo. ESPECIALLY if your goal is to have it become your dojo, as well. Of course, if your core beliefs don’t align with the school you’re visiting, you likely shouldn’t be joining. But that’s a concept for a different post.
In recent months, I’ve returned to the dojo environment after a significant hiatus. My absence from any martial arts school was equal parts circumstance and COVID-19. But I’ve had the opportunity to observe some students, visitors and outsiders in the dojo I currently train with. Taking into consideration some of the things I’ve observed, I thought it would be ideal to once again share some of the basic principles of conduct within the dojo. This is never an exhaustive list and is often subjective to what’s been seen in the dojo but it’s all good stuff. Here we go:
- Bow when entering or exiting the dojo: This seems like a bit of a tiny detail, but it is an important one. It provides a show of respect; respect towards the instructors, respect towards the ones who trained before you, and respect towards the school. It also evokes a sense of discipline. Even though you may not realize it now, that tiny detail begins to lay the foundational discipline that should become the cornerstone of your training;
- Ensure your Gi, or karate uniform, is clean and pressed: This one is important not only for protocol and etiquette, but for hygiene reasons as well. And you would be surprised how many people overlook it. There’s nothing worse than someone who assumes that their last workout wasn’t intense enough to warrant laundering their uniform. Make sure it’s clean. Not only does that ensure a more “pleasant” environment for yourself and the other students, it shows proper respect for the uniform you wear on your journey. Keep an eye on the condition of your uniform. If it’s become yellowed and stained, regardless of washing, it’s time to replace it. If there are tears and/or holes, have them repaired (unless they’re unsightly even once fixed). You shouldn’t have to iron your gi but if you do, for the love of ALL that’s good and holy, don’t iron a crease down the center of your pants. Your going to karate class, not a business meeting;
- Stand straight and pay attention: When not executing a movement in the immediate moment, it is imperative that you stand straight and tall, heels together and thumbs tucked into the front of your belt. Keep your gaze towards the front and pay close attention to what the head instructor is saying. Try to avoid looking around and fidgeting. A big part of discipline is being able to focus long enough to build an attention span beyond that of a goldfish and if you fidget and spend your time, you may miss an integral piece of information you needed for what you’re working on;
- Acknowledge every instruction given: Different styles will have different ways of doing this. Some will choose a shallow bow when the head instructor provides instruction, some will answer in the affirmative by saying Hai (Japanese for “yes”) or something of the like… The method of acknowledgment will depend on the style and school you’re in. But once it’s clear that the instructor has completed providing instruction, this small acknowledgment is not only a sign of respect but provide the instructor with some cursory way of knowing that you’ve understood what’s been said;
- No food or drink within the dojo: You would think this one would be common sense, but a martial arts school is no place for you to sip your mocha-choca latte while your kid trains. Since the average martial arts class only lasts about an hour and a half to two hours, you can manage this easily without having food and drink within the confines of a training environment. In recent years, I’ve noticed that it’s become a bit more of a common thing for the practitioners to carry water bottles into the dojo and take water breaks throughout training. I’m pretty divided on this, considering Sensei always use to tell us to use the washroom and grab our drink BEFORE class started, because once you bowed in, you were in until you bowed out. But from a health perspective, I understand better than most that proper hydration is important. That being said, my current classes are only an hour in length and the average person should be able to make it through that short period without necessarily sucking back on a bottle;
- Get out of the way: If you become injured or over-tired, bow, step back and sit in seiza (on your knees) at the rear of the class. Stay out of the way and remove yourself from the flow of the class until your fatigue passes or your injury allows you to continue. Of course, if your injury is severe or serious enough to think you need to remove yourself, you likely shouldn’t continue as you could aggravate the injury further. The point is, there’s nothing to be served by standing in the way while others continue and you shouldn’t expect that everyone will stop and wait. After all, this is their time, too;
- Don’t show up late: This one is and always has been, a personal pet peeve of mine. Some instructors will say that if you show up late, it’s better to get “some of the workout” in rather than none at all. Although that is a great concept, showing up late can be disruptive to a class and shows great disrespect to your class and instructors. We all have busy lives. It falls to you to plan ahead and schedule things so that you may attend class. Whether or not showing up late is appropriate will be up to your head instructor, but true respect dictates that if you aren’t fifteen minutes early for class, you’re already late. A good example is a recent evening where I had to fight off a bout of low blood sugar and didn’t make it to class. I’m sure that if I really pushed it fought my way down there, I would have been able to make it only a short period after start of class. But such disrespect for the flow of a dojo’s operations shouldn’t be encouraged;
- Don’t waste your instructor’s time: Although you’ve likely paid a fee for your presence, the instructor(s) within the school are there to impart their knowledge and skills to you and others. If you aren’t going to put in your full effort, then you’re wasting your instructors time. Effectively, you’re also wasting your time AND the fee you paid. You’re also affecting the other student’s ability to learn properly. Karate isn’t something you can walk into a few 1-hour classes and expect to progress. You need to put in some supplementary time training outside the dojo, on your own. This is the only way you’ll truly progress and make any headway. Otherwise, you may as well join a knitting circle;
- Respect and train based on your partner: You will sometimes be paired with someone of lower or higher rank than yourself. If you’re paired with someone of lower rank, you become the example of what is to be taught. If you inflict injury upon your partner, you may discourage them from further learning and you will have gained nothing yourself. If training with someone of higher rank, respect should be given and you should take every advantage to learn from this person as they are in the same position you would be if training with a lower ranked belt. Granted, time has proven that there is just as much you can learn from a lower rank. It depends on how positive your perspective may be…
I’ve seen everything from kids running around, coffee, students fidgeting and looking around… In a school I no longer train with, there was even one guy who showed up forty minutes late for class with a bag of cheeseburgers and ate while the rest of us did calisthenics! Besides the fact that the smell of burgers was killing me, a karate dojo is definitely NOT the place to eating, much less junk food. Even though some of these points could be viewed simply as one’s person’s opinion, it stands to reason that tradition and respect are things that should never be ignored in the dojo.
Folks, no matter what sport or art you study, there will always be guidelines to follow. The martial arts simply have more, and that’s part of the charm. Although the above guidelines are only basic, they apply to any martial arts school you attend. Your specific dojo may have more, and this is one of those moments where it’s important to take the initiative and ask. After all, respect is a primary aspect of karate and all martial arts. Food for thought… ☯