Why We Bow in Jiu-Jitsu
“A master who cannot bow to a disciple cannot bow to buddha.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
When I took my first jiu-jitsu class many years ago, the instructor told me I would have to bow at the waist before stepping on the mats, every time. He did it with ease, as though he was taking a breath, and there was a rhythm to the way he stepped onto the mats that made it apparent he had done it thousands of times before. Meanwhile I clumsily bent over, whipping my head out of sync with my body and slapping my hips off beat, like some kind of strange dance.
That first awkward bow has stuck with me through the years. I can’t stress enough the importance of bowing in jiu-jitsu to my students, but I can also recognize that the humbling practice is not a thing we humans naturally engage in.
When I run a prospective student through their first class, we always briefly talk about bowing before we start. I usually explain that bowing shows respect to the mats, to the other students, and most importantly to ourselves. That is my elevator pitch for it, but it actually goes much much deeper than that.
To bow is to show gratitude. To bow is to show that you have learned something. To bow is to recognize that when we come together to do jiu-jitsu, we are greater than the sum of our parts. Humility is a key component of martial arts training. Without it we lose our way, we risk becoming selfish, accolade chasing, and seeking only external validation for our lives.
So bow deeply, bow often, and stay on the path.