By Dennis Lawson
Published on Jan 12th, 2015

During a consultation with a studio owner I became concerned over, what I perceived as a lack of studio formalities. When I approached the owner about this “problem” there was little interest in even discussing the issue. It prompted me to reflect on the changes I’ve seen in Martial Arts etiquette over the last 40+ years. 

Formalities vary greatly from one art form to another. The formalities used in a studio environment can be quite elaborate. Many dojo’s (Japanese Martial Arts) use terminology in the Japanese language, formal bows to the tokonoma or shrine before and after class, and students sit in seiza (on their knees, sitting on their feet) when the instructor (sensei) is demonstrating. Formalities can also be simple, for example, a round of applause at the beginning and end of a seminar or dance class. 

Why are formalities important? 

There are many purposes to having Formalities. Formalities promote: A positive mental attitude, a commitment to safety during training, and respect for all. The function of formalities is to bring these vague ideas of Attitude, Safety, and Respect to a more concrete level for ourselves and our students. This article will deal with the areas of safety and respect. 

In Ed Parker’s Kenpo, all instructors and any Black Belt is addressed as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.”, and then by their last name. This formality acknowledges the experience, developed expertise, and the amount of time an instructor has devoted to the Art. Instead of referring to instructors with a foreign language term (as above), this form of verbal respect is exactly how we address older members of our community. We commonly use “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” to show respect for an older person’s wisdom, age, ability and experience. By codifying this behavior in our training environments we help ourselves and our students make respectable conduct a part of each training session. We teach and learn good manners each time we experience this conventional standard of politeness or civility,

The concern for respect and safety is the basis for many customs common to our modern culture. For example, a soldier must salute a superior officer. The code of military justice is quite severe if this formality is overlooked. The original meaning of the military’s right hand salute was to clearly illustrate that the soldier was not carrying a weapon; therefore, he posed no threat to the officer.  The custom, now law in many countries, of driving on the left side of the road, was originally instituted for travelers to show each other that they were not carrying a weapon in their right hand.

The commitment to safety and respect is codified in some of the formalities used for entering and leaving class.  Any student, who wishes to leave the training area for any reason, must receive permission from the class instructor. Why is this important? One story to illustrate the significance of having permission before leaving class, comes from my personal experience. I was training with a fellow student in an Aikido class who had asked permission to leave the mat.  After some time, the instructor had me leave the mat to check on the student. I found him in the men’s room, somewhat delirious. He had gotten a concussion during training. I shudder to think how serious this injury could have been had we not know he had left the mat and checked on him. 

If you are late for class, you must stand at the edge of the training floor in your training horse stance, be recognized, and acknowledged by the instructor. You must then return the instructor’s acknowledgement with a salute before joining class. Why this formality? Your salute to the instructor shows that you recognize who’s in charge of the class. Much like the military salute noted above. This process eliminates the possibility of a student stepping into the training area during and ongoing class. Simply stepping into an ongoing class, knowing nothing about the lesson, could put the entering student or others in harm’s way. These formalities allow students to practice within safe bounds. Likewise, regarding respect, in most school systems, a student must have a note or some excuse to enter a class late. Would you come late to a meeting with your boss without having a good excuse?

Stepping on the training area without permission can have dire consequences. Associate Instructor, JJ Simon, tells a story about his friend’s teacher. His introduction to martial arts formalities is quite unique. Larry's instructor was involved in a street fight and ended up chasing his adversary through a series of streets and alleys. During this pursuit, he ended up running through an open basement door and across a set of mats, when he heard "Hey! Take your shoes off on the mat."

He stopped; and after throwing some expletives around, pulled a knife on the man on the mat who had yelled at him. The man snatched him up and threw him to the ground. He locked his wrist and took away his knife. At some point, the man told him he was “doing it all wrong.” That man became his martial arts instructor.

Senior instructor Mark Brosten tells a story of a new student who walked into a martial arts school and was admiring the weapons displayed on the wall. When he took a weapon down and started to handle it he promptly found himself on the floor with his eye swelling shut. Some traditions never lose their sting.

Perhaps this “old school” kind of discipline still has a place in modern training environments. In times of danger or crisis, swift and exacting negative reinforcement can save a life. An unskilled individual who mishandles a weapon puts himself and others in danger. For example, a GAO (United States General Accounting Office) report on accidental shootings states “In 1988 some 1,501 people were killed in the United States by accidental discharges of firearms, and many more were injured. Among those killed were 277 children under the age of 15.”

What formalities do you use in your studio? What is their purpose? Why are they important? Developing a positive mental attitude in training environments will be addressed in a later article.


Filed under Philosophy and Opinion

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

Other Articles by Dennis Lawson

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