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Humility & The Humble Bow

Humility & The Humble Bow

Matthew Sylvester is currently the Technical Consultant for 'Fighters', 'Combat', 'TKD & Korean Martial Arts' and 'Traditional Karate'. His role involves interviewing numerous stars and stars-in-the-making, covering the Combat Champions League and testing and reviewing martial arts equipment. Rather than just opening a box of goodies, reading the blurb and then writing a review, Matthew reads the books from cover to cover, wears the clothing, watches the entire DVD and tests the equipment. In his spare time Matthew also runs

With regard to his martial arts background Matthew has been studying martial arts since 1991. Matthew has trained and graded in the following styles: Tae Kwon Do, Kemporyu Karate Kickboxing, Ao Denkou Jitsu, Aikoushin Ju Jitsu, Shunryu Kempo, Kubojutsu, Family Awareness Safety Training, and Shotokan Karate. Matthew has also dabbled in BJJ, Eskrima, Muay Thai, Kyokushinkai, Lau Gar, American Kenpo, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Kuk Sool Won and Ninjutsu. Matthew is also soon to start writing a series of articles for 'TKD & Korean Martial Arts' on the applications of the TKD forms.

As the title suggests, this article is about the importance of humility and suggests a combative use for the bowing motion. I'm grateful to Matthew for sharing this article with members and visitors to this site.

All the best,


Humility & The Humble Bow

by Matthew Sylvester

Every martial art has at least some tenets or ideals that promote 'goodness'. By goodness, I mean that they require the student to follow a set of morals and ethics, which would generally be viewed by the majority as good. These usually include humility, the ability to keep going no matter what (indomitable spirit), honesty/ integrity, and perseverance in the face of adversity, and finally honour.

Students are more often than not asked to explain what each of these means, and to give an example of how they themselves have experienced these tenets. I was asked to do this at a grading for example.

Humility is a good one to start with. If one is humble it means that not only should you avoid over-estimating your own abilities, but also underestimating another's. It also means that you accept, or listen to and give consideration to, advice and views offered by others of both higher and lower stations than yourself. A graduate working in a cheese packing factory for example, might well have to ask someone who left school with no qualifications whatsoever, to show them how to pack a certain cheese a number of times, and still find themselves unable to do it. I did and felt more than humbled when I still struggled to do such a simple thing.

Humility further means that you are modest and ready (if not willing), to acknowledge when you are wrong, or have been defeated in a fair match. The latter would apply in sparring. If you are a black belt and a white belt gets a point in, stop sparring (or back off) and acknowledge and praise the point. It does not mean that you blitz them into the ground for making you look bad.

I once organised a club where people could meet and train with other styles, without having to worry about politics. In this club, if a white belt offered some advice, or had a view on something, then they were listened to, and their view was considered. It was even put to the test and, if it worked, accepted and practiced. This not only broadened our outlook and knowledge, it set a good example for the student and encouraged them at the same time. Hopefully they would develop into broad-minded instructors who are more than willing to listen to ideas.

I once went skiing with my school. I was 14/15 and looking forward to trying out this new experience. Imagine my terror when I realized that not only could I not steer myself, I had trouble stopping. It was when a toddler skied over my skis as I careered out of control that I realized there was far more to skiing than I previously thought. I was also far less confident in my ability to master this skill than I had been whilst on the dry ski slope at home. The same applies to the martial arts.

There are always students who think that they know it all, and that all they have to learn is how to fight. Some might even think that they know how to fight, and that all they need to learn is how to fight more effectively. There are other students who have studied in other schools and other arts, and who think that they are right (I've been told that I come across like this without meaning to) and hate being told that they are wrong. All these students lack humility. Using another personal example; I was sparring my instructor (a Mr Paul Smith of the TAGB) and, at yellow belt level, thought I was pretty good. I was blocking his kicks, or else taking them on my stomach. The last kick that I took, hit me so hard I thought my kidneys were going to leave through my back. Everyone heard the sound of all the air in my body leaving in a split second. That one thing taught me never to disrespect my instructor in such a way again and also taught me never to take a kick again.

There is another class of students that lacks humility as well. These people generally stand in the front line of the class and wear black belts. Before I go any further, I must say that these people are in the minority and that I must generalise in order to get my point across.

I have a fear of failure and exams. As a result I do not like grading, nor do I like being labelled as a white belt, or a red belt etc. Both come hand in hand with each other. As a result, I studied TKD for four years and only reached 7th Kup. This did not reflect my ability. Because of the colour of my belt I would face people in organised sparathons who would spar with me as if they were taking it easy, and doing me a favour by keeping their guard open or throwing slow kicks etc. One person even sparred with me whilst wearing a baseball cap. Imagine her surprise when I kicked it off her head and followed through with a blitz to the back of her head.

Another time I was in Holland training under Luigi Melis in WTF Tae Kwon Do and fought a black belt. Because I was used to punching, I kept throwing fakes to the head and then punching to the chest. As a result I started to build up a good lead and he built up a good temper. All he looked at was the colour of my belt (white due to the fact that I had not graded in WTF), rather than the person he was fighting.

The point of these two examples is that, no matter what we felt because of the way that we had acted, at the end of both confrontations we bowed and shook hands. The most common way of displaying humility in the martial arts is through the bow. We are bowing not only to acknowledge the knowledge and skill of the person we face, but also to thank them for giving us the ability to fight and train with them, without facing the possibility of serious injury. The black belt should bow to the white belt with just as much humility as the person to whom they are bowing, because both parties have (or should have) learnt or will learn, something from the experience.

But is that all there is to the common bow? Aside from a sign of humility and thanks, is there any other way that the bow, whether from a standing or kneeling position can be used? Does it have any more significance than that? From what I have been shown, the answer is a definite yes.

Imagine that someone has come from behind and grasped you in a bear hug. What should you do? Well, you could always acknowledge their superior strength and skill. After all, they did manage to get behind you.

In fact such is their skill that they deserve the deepest bow possible; the kneeling bow. With the kneeling bow, you must ensure that you land as near to their feet as possible in order to disrupt their balance. The picture shows the defendant starting the drop to the ground and the following one shows the attacker already at a disadvantage as he bends to move with the technique.

Note that the hands of the defender are placed on the ground just as he would do were he bowing normally. Moving them into this position slightly eases the grip of the attacker, and helps to stop the defender from planting their face into the ground. It is essential to remember that the technique is performed almost exactly as it would be were the practitioner in a normal class.

You will also notice that the attacker has both hands 'free' in these pictures. Imagine what would happen if the defender were to grasp one or both of their hands. Break falling would take on a completely different meaning, as has the bow. Imagine the defender had first broken the grip and brought the attacker's arms straight over his (the defender's) shoulders, palm upwards. Both arms would be severely damaged if not broken and the technique has not even been applied yet!

So, to summarize. Humility is an important aspect of the martial arts and life in general, and is something that should be learnt by all. This does not mean that you should be falsely modest or constantly underplay your successes. To do the former would result in people viewing you as shallow, and to do the latter would mean that you were constantly overlooked whilst those who made some noise about their achievements advanced.

The bow is the universal symbol of humility within the arts and some oriental cultures, and should be practised and learnt as much as possible. Humility should be displayed at all times, especially when in the face of adversity and, when appropriate, so should the bow. Both of them could well enable you to escape from a bad situation. The hidden aspects of the bow should show those that thought they knew everything, that there is always something that they can learn, do not take anything at face value. Even this article should be questioned or expanded upon.

Copyright © Matthew Sylvester 2007

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