Everything Counts: Strengthening Your Practice with Proper Etiquette

There’s an ancient saying in the martial arts, “The practice begins and ends with etiquette.” Some replace “etiquette” with “respect”, but it is the same. Without proper etiquette and the right environment so much will be missed from the practice. In fact, most traditional etiquette has been so lacking from most modern martial arts schools throughout the U.S. and abroad that these schools should not even call what they are doing “martial arts”.

This is precisely why very few people in this country understand what the martial arts truly are, what they are not, and why so few ever even try it (estimates are at less than 1% of the population).

Dojo, Dojang, or Dao Chang?
My Grand-Shifu, or Shizu, Master Lu Shui Tian called his practice place a dojang (the proper pinyin and Mandarin Chinese pronunciation is dao chang). That is what my Shifu, Master Park, knew it as. The Japanese and Okinawans call it a dojo, and since they were the first to popularize it in this country, most are familiar with that term.

However you choose to write it or say it, the term refers to so much more than a “training hall”-a more recent mistranslation. It is literally a place to work on oneself-a place of enlightenment / awakening / nirvana / self-realization / heaven or whatever term you prefer. It is a place where you have the potential to raise your consciousness. It is the place where you can find your true self and enjoy more clarity in your life. It is a sanctuary and each student’s responsibility is to keep it that way.

It does not matter if you are Christian or Jew, Muslim or Hindu, Buddhist or Agnostic. It does matter that you believe what you believe and follow your own way rather than just the way you were raised or because you’ve been convinced by others. Your practice only strengthens your connection to your true beliefs. Only you can decide what is right for you.

Proper etiquette leads to a strong environment
For all of the above to become a reality for the sincere student of the martial arts the right environment and school culture is paramount.

Every action that one takes while at the dojang must be with complete and utter respect and focus-even reverence. This is how we strengthen our ability to be mindful in all that we do – both in and outside the dojang. This is how the practice positively changes lives.

How do you measure progress? Is it the color of your sash or belt? Is it based on seniority? No. There is really only one way-in your life. Is your life better because you practice? Are you a better person? Are you calmer and more centered? Are you happier? Do you have more energy and better concentration? That is where you need to look, not around your waist.

Everything counts
If you learn to practice as if everything you do counts it will create a habit in you to live your life the same way. The following is a bit of what is expected of a student of real martial arts and specifically at the Blue Dragon School of Martial Arts and the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association:

Maintaining the Sanctuary
The moment you enter the school the practice begins. Consciously be aware of the shift into greater mindfulness and that you are entering a special place. Acknowledge others as you see them with your full attention momentarily (ergo the bow). Each of you is sacred-practice this. You refer to each other as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Even in the lobby “inside voices” are maintained. Practice speaking to each other quietly to keep the inner focus.

Greet your teacher
I’ve never greeted my teacher with a, “Hey, how ya doin” or pat him on the back. It is very improper to speak in that nonchalant way or to touch your teacher, though your teacher can if he so chooses, as it does not effect them as it does the student. You are with your teacher for your practice, nothing more. Getting personal doesn’t help, it hinders.

When I’ve come to see my teacher I put down whatever is in my hands and place all my focus on acknowledging him with a bow (about 30 degrees) and Salute. If he approaches and speaks to me I’ll do the same thing. And this is no different if I’m in public (i.e. picking him up at the airport for example). Why should I care what others think? My teacher and my practice is more important than all these petty concerns.

Outside the training room (dressing room area)
When leaving the lobby area and entering the lower level where the dressing rooms and training floor is, another mental shift occurs. This is where people are practicing and so total silence is observed. No conversations are to occur here though an inconspicuous whisper if necessary can be okay (use common sense).

However, it is not just voices that must be kept quiet, it is your every action. Practice stepping lightly as you go up or down the steps. Do not throw your bag on the floor and open or close zippers when meditation is in session. Wait quietly if you are in the dressing area until meditation is completed. Take a moment of silence for yourself as well.

There is one specific uniform that is used by all students in class – the black Blue Dragon School shirt, black pants and sash (once you’ve earned one) are required to take class. At any time, the instructor may not accept a student into class without proper uniform. We also show our uniform the same respect we show our practice – it is for class only – avoid “hanging out” in it.

Association shirts are acceptable at Association events (Summer Training Camp, seminars, workshops, etc. where Master Park or Shifu Moore are present).

Any shoe that has been worn outside is to be removed prior to entering the training floor. Designate a special pair of shoes to be a part of your uniform and only wear these for practice on the training floor.

Entering / leaving the training area
Upon entering or leaving the training floor, bow and salute to acknowledge the special place and show your respect and thanks. The flag represents where our practice came from and so we “salute the flag” to show the same respect and thanks. This is not a religious ritual. If a student is uncomfortable for personal or religious reasons it will not be forced or required. It is simply a gesture of etiquette to help you get the most from your practice. There is no form of worship going on here!

If a student wishes to enter the training room while class is already in session, he or she waits at the door until the floor leader finds a good time to bring them in. If warm-up is going on then you go through some exercises in the space outside the training floor but maintain attention to the floor leader so you don’t miss a chance to be brought into the class.

In class
Everything we do at the dojang is designed to enhance the practice and your sense of mindfulness. On the training floor is where it peeks.

Students line up according to rank starting in the front right and working across to the left. A “Black Coat” (apprentice instructor) or other senior student determines the number of students per row. This is usually six but can be increased as necessary. The lines are to be straight with even space between each student all the way across.

Additional rows simply line up the same way directly behind each student in front row. This uniformity is maintained unless or until the floor leader finds reason to do otherwise.

In a big class where there may be eight or more students in each line, it is an opportunity to enhance the practice. For example, students sometimes find it necessary to move when doing #7 (Side Kick) in warm-ups. Instead of moving (where in a larger class this isn’t an option) practice controlling where you place your kick (aim to an empty space in front of the one next to you). Having the whole room turn 45 degrees also works well when performing #8 (Pendulum Kick). We have to make adjustments in both practice and in life. Be mindful in your every action.

Prior to class starting find your place in line. You may go through some gentle stretching or warm-up if you feel the need, but generally just stay in line and in silence-get in the best frame of mind for practice.

Since higher ranks are placed in front and to the right of you, when they enter after you be aware and move yourself over. This can be referred to as “getting bumped”. This does not occur once class has begun. A late student does not bump anyone. The late student finds the first available spot in the last row. If you happen to come upon a small class and there are less than six in the front row then go to the front row. It is important for the front row to be set up as if there are a minimum of six spaces even when there is less than six students for this reason. Brand new students (no sash) may go to the second row in these cases. Others always fill in the front row first (if there are less than six in the front row and you see a brand new student in the second row, then fill in the front row).

Response to instruction
Think of the commercial years ago, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Remember how the whole room would quickly go silent and everyone would tune their attention? It shows you don’t want to miss anything and you are fully aware of the opportunity to learn something. That is how I’ve always been with Master Park, and I’ve missed very little over the years because of it, including intangibles that others didn’t get simply because of a lack of attention. This is only necessary when the whole class is being addressed. However, do not stop what you are doing if the instructor is addressing individual students.

Also, go to one knee, both knees (seiza), or sit cross-legged when the whole class is being addressed or something is being demonstrated when there are others behind you so all can see. Always be aware of the situation. Practice mindfulness at all times.

To ask the instructor a question or approach another student to practice with, Bow and Salute before and after.

“Yes, Sir” is the appropriate affirmative response as is “No, Sir” for a negative response. Avoid the nonchalant, “Yeah”. Be mindful in all that you do.

These simple gestures of respect is for you to practice full attention and appreciation. Practice this, and you’ll learn more because you miss less and the concept of “partners not opponents” is strengthened.

Referring to each other as “Sir” or “Ma’am” is also designed to remove the personal element and helps to keep the practice more focused. It’s less about “me” and more about the practice itself.

We all have our issues. This kind of personal detachment allows us to experience the purity of the practice – letting go of all thoughts, worries and cares. To truly BE HERE. NOW.

Drinks, injuries, or leaving the floor for any reason
“Practice hard” is an essential part of training. Developing the discipline to stay on the floor during drills is an important part of the experience. If necessary, go on every other or even every third count if you find you cannot keep up. Always do your best and don’t cut yourself short. Leaving the floor for a drink in the middle of class is discouraged. Learn to push so you can get stronger. We all can do more than we think we can. If you feel you must, always Bow and Salute before stepping out, and again at the door. But you don’t really want to miss anything do you?

Same for injuries, etc.-alert your instructor before stepping off the floor for any reason.

It is strongly discouraged for students to date each other. It is rare when two people get together for things to work out. Then at least one does not want to see the other and so they stop their training and lose any and all benefit from the practice. Do you want that responsibility?

Men and women alike must be able to feel that the dojang is their sanctuary. For this to be possible no one should be feeling that they have to avoid someone else. I will not teach someone I feel is disrupting the environment. They will be told to leave, period. Protect the environment and each other’s experience.

It’s your place, take good care of it
In the book, “The Martial Way and Its Virtues” by F.J. Chu, it states, “The warrior keeps his swords immaculate; the businessman keeps his desk clear; the painter cleans his brushes; and the martial artist helps to keep his dojo clean.”

The school does not maintain itself. Students do. The training floor is mopped, the mirrors are cleaned, garbage is taken out, bathrooms maintained, etc. No one person should be expected to do this – that is the mentality at a gym, a “Y”, or a club, not at a dojang. It is a privilege to take part in this maintenance and therefore only Yellow Sash or above are allowed. At the end of the night, assist with any cleaning or equipment storage before leaving. Cleaning is an active show of thanks.

If you see something out of place, put it where it belongs. If someone leaves a cup or jar that they were drinking from, put it in the garbage or out of sight. If an article of clothing or some other personal belonging is left in the lobby or other place it doesn’t belong, place it in a safe place, out of sight.

Seniors take care of juniors. Seniors care for and maintain the environment for everyone.

Originally published October, 2004 under the title “While at the Dojang…”

Everything Counts: Strengthening Your Practice | BDSMA

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.



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