Many people, especially in the west, find bowing an odd practice and will sometimes describe it as being demeaning. It can seen as a sign of subservience to many and may often be against normal religious/cultural practices, so not everyone is keen on it.
However in some cultures, bowing is not only the physical manifestation of respect, it’s also a sign of gratitude. In many of these cultures, bowing is also a substitute for a handshake. Such is the case in Tang Soo Do etiquette.
Why do we bow in Tang Soo Do?
Bowing in any martial art, including Tang Soo Do, is considered to be part of standard etiquette. It’s a sign of respect, not just to your Instructors and seniors, but also to the Do Jang (the training centre) and the Art itself. When you bow in Tang Soo Do to your Instructors and your seniors, it’s a sign that you not only respect them and trust them, you’re also showing them gratitude for teaching you the art.
If your Instructor or senior bows in return, this means that they reciprocate this feeling of respect and gratitude - respect that you were able to receive their teachings and gratitude that you decided to train with them today. In simpler terms, bowing in Tang Soo Do is the physical manifestation of respect, trust and gratitude.
How to bow properly in Tang Soo Do
Bowing is a very simple motion to do, but not many people do it correctly. Some students, despite not being new to Tang Soo Do, still don’t know how to bow properly. So, if you feel like you’re doing it wrong, don’t feel too bad about it. You’re in the Do Jang to learn, after all.
When you do a standard bow, put your hands on your sides with fingers kept together. You should also keep both the big toes and the heels of your feet together.
For the bow itself, start bending at the waist at a 30 - 40 degree angle. Make sure that you keep your body straight while you do this and not bend your neck forward as you bow. Your shoulders should also be pulled back, whilst still keeping your back straight.
In many other martial arts, students maintain eye contact as they bow, which is meant to be a sign of readiness, in case their partner attacks them mid-bow, but in the case of Tang Soo Do, you break eye contact as you bow. This is a sign not only of utmost respect, but also of trust, that your partner is disciplined enough not to do anything rash inside the Do Jang. You should be looking at the floor while you bow or at your Instructor's or senior’s feet. Once the bow is done, simply straighten yourself up. Sometimes, bowing can include greetings, such as “Good morning, sir” or “Good evening, ma'am”. This is mostly used when bowing to your Chief Instructor or to visiting Instructors.
Who you should bow to and when?
It can be difficult to determine when the right time is to bow, especially so if you’re new to Tang Soo Do. Some Do Jang encourage bowing at certain times, for example, whilst others are more relaxed on the matter. That said, the best advice is you should observe your seniors and your Instructors and follow their examples. Bow when they bow.
Here are some of the key times you should bow in Tang Soo Do:
When you meet your seniors for the first time in class, you should say hello and bow to them. Seniors are the students that outrank you, which can be everyone when you first start. This is to signify that you are aware of their presence and also a good way to show them respect. You only need to bow to your seniors once during the training session - there’s no need to bow to them every time you see them.
Your Chief Instructor
Your Do Jang’s Chief Instructor should be shown the utmost respect every time, particularly if they hold the rank of Master. As such, bowing to the Master/Chief Instructor happens more often than you would bow to your seniors. You bow to your Master/Chief Instructor when they step into the Do Jang and you also bow before you talk to them. Before and after any practice session, you will also have to bow to your instructor as part of the 'salutations'. You should bow lower than you normally would if you bowed to your seniors.
Before and after drills
Before each drill or exercise, you will also need to bow to your training partner. After each individual drill, you should also give thanks by bowing.
Before and after sparring
In competition sparring, you are required to bow to your opponent, the referees and the judges. You may also be required to bow to your coach as well. After the bout, whether you win or lose, your will also have to bow to your opponent. When we spar in class, we bow to our partner before & after the sparring match/practice.
Bow to the Do Jang
You should bow on entering the Do Jang and before leaving it. This is to signify respect and gratitude towards the place of training, so as soon as you enter the building proper, you should bow. The Do Jang is a physical manifestation of the art of Tang Soo Do, so showing respect to the Do Jang shows respect to the martial art by extension. You should also bow (as well as saluting the flags) on entering and exiting the training mats.
You’re not required to bow to your seniors or Instructors when you meet them outside of the Do Jang, although it is good practice and remains a sign of respect. If your senior or Instructor does initiate a bow, even when they’re not in the Do Jang or are not in uniform, it’s proper etiquette to return the bow yourself. A good rule of thumb is, if you are both in uniform though, bowing etiquette should prevail.
Usually, when you are of a higher rank, you don’t have to initiate a bow to your juniors. If you notice some of your juniors not initiating bows when they meet with their seniors, don't initiate the bow yourself, but correct your juniors instead. As a senior in Tag Soo Do, it is part of your role to make sure everyone observes the normal etiquette and rules of behaviour.
Why do we bow to the Flags?
Our Tang Soo Do schools bow to the national flag. Bowing to the flags isn’t a form of nationalism, but rather an extension of respect to the art itself.
So there you go... There's a lot in a bow. Don't neglect the etiquette and protocol of bowing next time you're in the Do Jang.