Respect and why we bow

Respect. It’s a pretty simple concept. As a noun, you can boil it down to how we feel about someone. When it’s a verb, to respect someone is to hold them in high regard. Sounds simple, right? Well, sometimes.

We’re talking about respect this season at the Dojo, and the number of ways we show respect in our lives: “yes, ma’am,” holding a door open for someone, looking a person in the eyes when they speak, and so many other ways. With so many ways to show respect, why is bowing when we begin class so important?

A simple act

Bowing is such a simple act. It’s just a lowering of the head for a second or two, yet the meaning lasts much longer. What exactly is that meaning?

For me, it means I’m no longer in charge. How does that translate to respect? Simply put, when I bow my head to someone else, I’m telling him or her that I trust them to lead or teach me. In that moment, I have let go. It’s a giving over of my wants, my understanding, and my control to someone else. That’s not an easy thing for any of us to do. To relinquish control and say, ‘Yes, you may know more than I do,’ is pretty tough. I’m an extremely intelligent person, so to be able to say that I don’t know everything, or that I have more to learn about a familiar topic is difficult.

Who’s in control?

That, though, is what respect is all about. In any religion, when you pray, you bow your head. Whether it’s for guidance, comfort, or understanding, the foundation for each of those is respect. You’ve given yourself over to a higher power.  It’s a letting go of yourself to let someone else lead.

In karate, bowing shows that same humility. The instructor is in charge and in control. I’ve thrown thousands of jabs in my time as a martial arts student. It’s a pretty simple technique, or so I think. After throwing 1,000 of them, I’m pretty sure I’ve nailed it. When I bow onto the mat, however, I realize that my instructor hasn’t thrown 1,000 jabs, but probably has thrown 20, 30, 50,000 or more. I bow my head, because there’s always more to learn, and I know that I need to close my mouth, open my ears and eyes, and learn it.

Respect. A bow. One simple act, full of power.


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