Bowing is a common ritual in martial arts schools. There is often a series of bows at the beginning and end of each class, in addition to the bowing we do to our partners before and after training together, as well as when we enter and exit the training area. People new to the martial arts often wonder what the purpose of all the bowing is and whether or not it’s really necessary. Unlike many rituals, its purpose is still as relevant today as it was when it was first conceived.
The first and most important purpose of bowing is to show respect.
While nowadays the application of martial arts is generally either in self-defense or competition, there is still an inherent violence to its practice. As a result, there must be a high level of trust between student and teacher, as well as between training partners. You must be able to trust that those with whom you train will show proper restraint, control, and ultimately respect for you, and consequently will do their best to perform techniques without hurting you.
When you bow in at the beginning and end of class, you’re showing respect for the art you’re learning and the power it’s capable of. There is also usually a bow to show respect for your instructor, implicitly stating that you trust them to teach you to the best of their ability with your safety in mind. Then there is usually one last bow to show respect for the class as a whole, implicitly stating that we are united in purpose and in mutual respect for each others’ desire to learn and be safe.
Some less traditional schools use handshakes in place of bowing, which is fine in my books. Every combat art need little rituals to remind us all that what we’re learning has the potential for harm and should be respected accordingly.