USAF New Student guide
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The word “dojo” literally means “place of the Way”. In other words, it is a space specially set aside for the practice of a particular path or Way. It is NOT merely a gym or health club and should not be treated as such. Even if the space in which you practice is located in a recreational center or other facility and the mats are stored in a closet before and after training, it is important that you respect the mat area as a special place for a special activity. The dojo is more than just a space; it is a community of like minded individuals and also the repository of many years of sincere effort on the part of all the aikidoka who came before you.
Sincerely following proper dojo etiquette is an important part of your practice. Your outward demeanor is a reflection of your state of mind and inner being. If your demeanor is sloppy, inattentive or overly casual, you are not in the proper frame of mind to benefit from practice. While the rules governing proper etiquette may vary slightly from one dojo to the next, the underlying principles of sincerity, respect and humility are universal and immutable.
You have probably already noticed that a great deal of ceremonial bowing takes place in the dojo. It is important to understand that this activity has no religious significance in the context of your training. In Japanese culture, it is roughly the equivalent of shaking hands or, in a military context, saluting. It is a way to show respect and gratitude, no more. We demonstrate this attitude of respect and thankfulness toward our dojo, the Founder’s memory, our Instructors and our training partners. Japanese culture has evolved a highly complex system of bowing based on the relative status of the individuals involved. Unless you are Japanese (and even if you are!) this can be hopelessly complicated and you are almost certain to err if you attempt to decipher the complex social code governing this behavior. Don’t try. Just perform a simple bow with a sincere heart and you can’t go wrong.
Perform a standing bow when entering and leaving the dojo. Remember that without the tireless efforts of many individuals who have dedicated countless hours of rigorous training over many years, we would not have the privilege of practicing this marvelous art. Respect for the dojo reflects our respect for all those whose dedication makes our practice possible.
Bow “(sitting seiza)” toward the front (shomen) of the practice area usually containing a picture of O-Sensei at the kamiza (or kamidana) when stepping on or leaving the mat. Some dojos prefer that you perform this sitting. In others, a standing bow is permitted; follow the tradition of the dojo. You should be on the mat several minutes prior to the start of class. If you are unavoidably late, wait at the edge of the mat in seiza until the Instructor acknowledges you, and then bow toward the kamiza and the Instructor before joining practice. If you need to leave the mat for any reason, ask the Instructor’s permission first: Do not simply walk off the mat. If in immediate distress, your partner should inform the Instructor. This is for safety reasons as well as respect. The Instructor is responsible for his/her students and needs to know if there is some reason you can’t continue to train. If you get dizzy or need to “catch your breath”, it is acceptable to sit quietly on the edge of the mat until you feel ready to go on. If for personnel reasons, you are uncomfortable with bowing, quietly show your respect in a manner of your comfort.
Beginning and ending class:
A few minutes before class starts, the students will line up in seiza in front of the kamiza. In some dojos, this is done according to rank with senior members to the right. In other dojos this hierarchy is not enforced and students may sit wherever they choose. Sit quietly and attentively. The Instructor will bow onto the mat, sit in front of the class and lead the students in a kneeling bow towards the photo of O-Sensei. (Remember that this is not a religious act so much as an expression of remembrance and gratitude, sort of like bowing your head in memory of a revered grandparent.) The Instructor will turn and face the class, bow and say with the class, “onegai shimasu” (o-nay-guy-she-mass) which means “may I be of service”, or “please grant me this favor”. This phrase is also used when bowing in to a new partner. At the end of class this process is repeated in reverse, bowing first to O-Sensei, then to the class with the phrase “domo arigato gozaimashita” (doh-moh-ahh-ree-gah-toh goh-zai-mashta) meaning “thank you very much (past-tense, for what you have just received)”. Bow to each of your partners. Bow to the Instructor when he helps you. Sit in seiza and bow when the Instructor is helping someone near you on the mat. In other words, you can’t get in trouble for bowing too much! (Can one ever be too respectful?) While all of this bowing may seem excessive and somewhat redundant, remember that the very essence of budo is respect. Each bow should be performed with an attitude of sincerity and humility that is physically evident in your demeanor.
Your uniform (do-gi or keiko-gi):
Your uniform (usually referred to simply as a “gi”) is a traditional way to dress for practice. Some say it was derived from the padded clothing worn under the Samurai’s armor. In any case, changing into this uniform serves to further separate your practice from the mundane aspects of daily life. Your gi should be plain white. Some people have their name written on a sleeve or a small, discreet kanji inscription on their gi but large, flashy patches, advertising, flags and other decorations are frowned upon. Most USAF dojos do not award colored belts to adults. (There are exceptions; go along with whatever your dojo requires.) The gi jacket is always worn with the left lapel crossed over the right (unless you are a Shinto priest or the unfortunate subject of a funeral.) Some one will show you the correct way to tie the belt or “obi”. Always make sure that you and your gi are clean and free of odor. (Some folks don’t wash the belt, apparently hoping it will turn black all by itself.) Keep your finger and toe nails clipped and do not wear jewelry on the mat since it might scrape you or your partner. Tape wedding bands or other jewelry which cannot physically be removed.
The divided skirt-like garment you see is called a “hakama”. It is a traditional Japanese article of clothing. In the past, this was not some esoteric training uniform; for the Samurai, it was everyday attire. For most modern Japanese, it will be worn only a few times during a person’s life, usually at very formal occasions such as traditional weddings. The hakama is worn by practitioners of most of the traditional martial arts of Japan (“koryu”- old schools) as well as more modern derivatives such as Kendo, Kyudo and Aikido. In most USAF dojos, the hakama is only worn by students who have achieved the rank of shodan. Again, there are exceptions. Female members are sometimes allowed to wear it (presumably for reasons of modesty) whenever they choose but most modern women prefer to be treated equally with their male counterparts and do not avail themselves of this option. In other schools, those about to receive their black belt or those who are called upon to teach are allowed to wear it. As always, follow the tradition established by your particular Instructor. Black or dark (indigo) blue are the only acceptable colors; this is formal attire, not a costume. You may read or hear elaborate treatises about the symbolism of the number of pleats or the type of knot that is tied or other myths such as that the hakama is worn to hide the footwork of the practitioner. Most of these stories are of somewhat dubious origin and have no basis in the historical record. The elaborate folding that you see black belts engaged in after class is designed to preserve sharp pleats in the hakama and is not some kind of religious ceremony.
Taken from the USAF New Student Guide