For six months I studied abroad and, without a local Tomiki Style dojo, I joined the Glasgow University Aikido club and studied Aikikai style. Of necessity, I became more adept at spotting the same Aiki principles hidden under a different varnish. That ability soon yielded a strange realization. I found myself noting that my techniques were not different just because I had studied Tomiki style, but because my American partner for a specific technique had been six inches shorter than I was. My kote gaeshi was too intense not just because I used a dynamic Randori method, but because my usual partner back home was double jointed.
None of those thoughts had a serious impact on me until I found myself exhausted at the end of a long practice and confused as to why we spent so much time chain bowing in the much more formal setting. You bowed to a picture, you bowed to a mat, you bowed to a sensei, you bowed to a partner, you bowed to a dojo, and you bowed to every correction and every piece of advice.
Then, recalling the ghosts of uke’s past who had been haunting during that previous lesson, I realized why we bow not just to our teacher but also our entire dojo. No one is the product of his own efforts. Every martial artist is moving forward under the invisible influence of many who went before them. More than being the sum of our own discipline, we are the hours our Sensei spent forcing us to re-learn how to walk and the effort they put into explaining the feeling a correct roll. Each technique is made from not only our days spent repeating and examining our own form, but the weeks sacrificed by loyal uke who fall and discuss and suggest and cajole until we reach the next stage in our development.
In a kata competition you can easily see if the competitors are from different dojos. You can read the fingerprints left on their techniques. And in an odd way, you can see their sensei’s habits and mentalities in their actions. It is a strange, but I think rather profound gift.
Through our training we learn to see all those people whose movements are forged into our muscle memory. Wrestling with a sibling, sports with your parents, being thrown by a sensei you no longer get to see, even a person who has passed on but carved their technique into your reflexes – these and so much more are held within us.
It is crazy to think I would recognize a man I have never met by working with his students, but happens. Whether it is Doan Sensei’s precise stabs, Current Sensei’s not-as-simple-as-it-looks staff grip, King Sensei’s uniquely – shall we say “persuasive” – gedan ate, Stevens Shihan’s politely overwhelming face grabs, Ball Sensei’s thirty-components-in-half-a-second gyaku gamae ate, and Townsend Sensei’s you-think-its-your-idea-until-your-head-hits-the-floor ude gaeshi; you can see teachers in their students. That in itself is almost overwhelming but consider for a moment; if we travelled back in time, there is someone who would watch us and see Morihei Ueshiba, or Kenji Tomiki reflected back at them. That is why we still bow to their pictures.
We bow to acknowledge that, every time we step on a mat, we have a legion standing behind us. They support us, enrich us; and we represent them. Make no mistake, you are representing the people who have spent so much effort shaping you. Even in our own dojo we are not free from this responsibility. From every seminar, from every visit, from every one-week guest, and every online video we gain a new supporter standing behind us whose work needs to be validated; and there can only be one response to the kindness we have received.
As Aikidoka we justify them with discipline, we honor them with a bow, and we pay their effort forward each time we give or receive technique and take our place in the invisible legion urging another martial artist towards their next success.