Dojo Etiquette and Selecting your Training Partner in Class by Steve Kanney

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Aikido is a very social practice. The reasons for this fact may be clearer than one might imagine. Humans are essentially social animals. Without society, clearly we would not survive. A violent situation is entirely social – it is between two or more parties. So if Aikido is going to be relevant to our lives as well as martial interaction, it is of necessity a social martial art.

However, being social in nature does not mean the rules of engagement mirror that of a social club. For a martial art to be effective, it must enter a social domain and promote rules of engagement that follow a very strict martial discipline designed to meet the goals of training.

The simple decision process of whom you select as a partner takes place in every class, and must fit these rules of engagement in order for Aikido training to produce positive results. It can make the determination whether a dojo is a martial arts training center or merely a social club. We will look at this question from two angles – the martial aspects and the sempai-kohai relationship.

The martial aspect of this decision is straightforward. To the extent anyone has been in some sort of altercation, one notices the simple fact that the person attacking you is not normally someone you like. If you had to pick someone you wanted to attack you, chances are that would not be the person you get. Their body type might not fit your preference and their general aggression and wish to do you harm may be offensive and disconcerting. The point of training in class is to move towards mimicking the environment of such an altercation. So if you insert your own preferences into your training by selecting your partner based upon your personal likes and dislikes, that strategy in no way prepares you for a martial situation.

The better approach is to remain open to everyone and see what lessons will be coming your way during that training session. When you get a partner who is difficult, you should rejoice. It is a good opportunity to test your knowledge and see where your practice needs work. Should you find a partner that smells bad, again you should rejoice. Can you be guaranteed someone who attacks you on the street will be freshly showered and wearing the perfume or cologne of your choosing? Can you get past the odor without distraction in class? Were you hoping to get a certain type of athletic workout in class? Is that what you would be thinking during a real attack? Generally, if your partner is someone offensive to you, learning patience is critical to martial arts training. Chances are a real attacker will also be offensive to you. That’s usually what makes them an attacker. Patience can transition your feelings to compassion and turn the attack into a friendly discussion. As we can see, some of the reasons we might have for preferring one partner over another can be very destructive to the underlying purpose of training.

Letting go of your personal preferences and learning patience are critical aspects of practice. But before we conclude, let’s look at the sempai-kohai relationship, which systematizes the social interaction in practice.

On the plaque on our dojo’s wall, Sugano Sensei explains that one should take care of their juniors and respect their seniors. This is the martial tradition. Sempai does everything for the benefit of their kohai, and kohai listens carefully without questioning under the assumption that sempai knows more. The broad system of ranking people within a dojo has the benefit of giving people a systematized approach on how to interact constructively. With no system on who is senior, everyone in the dojo could feel a need to fight for the superior position in every class. This increase in aggression is precisely the opposite of why we are training.

However, the ranking process itself does not have any absolutes in terms of how each rank compares with another. People advance in rank by learning certain lessons for their own practice. Each lesson is not specified by the rank, but by the individual’s training. Two people with the same rank can have a broadly different understanding and level of skill. Since there is no absolute level of understanding or skill associated with a given rank, it actually does not make sense for the system of sempai-kohai relationships in the dojo to absolute either. Rather, they form a starting point for relations.

There are a number of reasons to cross the boundaries of this system of relationships. However, the decision to cross this line comes with significant practice and is not an appropriate decision for beginners in general. Here are a couple of simple examples. If your senior tells you to do something you know with absolute certainty is wrong – perhaps it is dangerous or violates the principles of practice – the correct action is not to follow the suggestion. One should be respectful to their sempai, but gently guide them towards your best understanding of what is wrong with their approach. In order to engage in this sort of action with your senior, your knowledge that they are wrong must cross the most stringent threshold. The reason is that you begin with the assumption that your sempai tells you something for your benefit alone and they know more than you do. A simple gut feeling that “that doesn’t seem right to me” is not sufficient. You need to have a clear understanding of the principles of the practice and know precisely why the instruction you received violates those principles directly. Otherwise, refrain from the temptation to instruct your sempai, listen to their direction and you may find out why they gave you the suggestion.

Another example is when you tell your sempai of a significant injury you have and why you must adjust your training for your safety. If your sempai repeatedly ignores your concerns due to lack of self control and places your safety at risk, you should go so far as to respectfully refuse to train with that person. Even if they turn to you to bow and practice a technique, you should deflect the overture and select another partner. This example is a legitimate reason to choose your training partner in class judiciously.

From the discussion above, we should be able to see that every decision we make in class, even the decision of who to train with, affects the quality of our practice. If you select a training partner based upon your personal likes or interests, you give up the actual training to accept others and develop patience. You also give up the ability to learn from the types of situations you may actually be faced with in a violent encounter. Your practice becomes stale and your experience of the dojo is more of a social club than martial training. If you violate the sempai-kohai system by failing to respect your sempai without proper reason, your experience of the dojo will act to reinforce your own ignorance of correct practice rather than learning from your interactions with others. It is a form of arrogance which will increase your chances of getting into a violent situation and reduce your chances of getting out of it. You should note that even when your sempai is doing something that is clearly incorrect, respecting them as human beings is still an essential part of the practice as taught by Koichi Tohei. Respecting the humanity of an assailant is actually the best way to diffuse the violence.

Everyone makes their own decisions with regard to how to train – properly or not. But everyone also receives the results of their decisions – substantial benefits or not. The systems are there for guidance, but as in any endeavor, one gets out of it what they put into it…

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Dojo Etiquette







19 responses to “Dojo Etiquette and Selecting your Training Partner in Class by Steve Kanney”

  1. Jason Avatar

    Do we choose our partners in class? Do we actually “choose” the people we want to train with or don’t want to train with? I’m not aware of this or haven’t been aware of it previously. I can understand, obviously, the situation in which you may feel that you are in danger of injury, and for that reason perhaps you may choose to not train that that person or change the manner in which you would train with that person. I was always under the impression that you look at someone, bow to the person in front of you, they bow back and your train.

    This is an interesting blog post and I almost agree with all of the conclusions drawn and their respective reasoning, but I feel like I’m missing something. I’d say generally speaking when Sensei posts on the blog, be it a comment or full post, it’s in order to teach a lesson. I understand what has been written, I’m just not sure I understand the underlying message that is trying to be conveyed. Is the breach of dojo etiquette NOT training with someone who wants to train with you?? And if that’s the case…isn’t that common sense? Don’t we train in class in order to…well…train in class? Isn’t that why we are there? I’m not sure why someone would choose to NOT train with someone – especially if they wanted to train with you…unless it was an injury situation like outlined above.

    So I think I may be missing something. However, with respect to some other issues above, here is where my thoughts differ. If we are discussing dojo etiquette, and we all know that our dojo really is somewhat relaxed as dojo etiquette goes, then why is a “difficult” partner or a partner who smells bad not a breach of any standard of etiquette, not simply to their sempai, but to everyone in the dojo including Sensei? I wouldn’t say that these particular partners are to be rejoiced simply because they can be used as tools to learn from; Uke’s job and purpose is to be a tool that Nage is able to learn from! I seem to think that my purpose as an Uke is to provide appropriate resistance for Nage, make sure Nage is aware of any openings, etc. My purpose is not to frustrate the efforts of Nage, nor is it to be unsanitary to the point where it offends…right? But that being said – while I may think that being a “difficult” partner or smelling bad may be offensive – I agree that even that should not necessarily be something that would affect your training to the point where you would refuse to do so (albeit not necessarily an easy thing to overcome). While I don’t think it is something to rejoice about, I do think it is something you power through, for your personal development, for your partner’s development and for your dojo’s development.

    In my limited experience I have learned that partners are partners. They come in all sorts, sizes and fashions. Some are very hard, some are very rough, some are wet noodles, and yes some lack self-control. Some partners smell and some partners are chatty. Some partners need direction and some you learn from more than others. All are good for you in a sense, of course if you have the belief and the mindset to be aware and accepting of such a concept. I am not aware of anyone in our dojo that would or has refused to train with someone for any reason (honestly, except for myself with Sato-san and that has to do with an injury – and even that was somewhat short lived). I’m also not aware of any such occurrence that would have risen to the level of a breach of our dojo etiquette. As I said in the beginning, I always just thought that your partner is the person who is in front of us, or next to us, or looking at us…I can’t remember anything different occurring in our dojo.

    And just a quick word on that – we are a small dojo, and I think for the most part, a close knit dojo. I couldn’t imagine anyone actually, willfully doing something untoward to another member of the dojo. I just don’t think it happens. Am I wrong?

    Lastly – since there was a “social” aspect to the blog, I just wanted to address that briefly. I agree with what was said above. Yes we are social beings (I object to the use of the word animal – in the immortal words of Joseph Merrick – I am not an animal), and yes, this is a “social” art, as much as it prepares you for an anti-social altercation. And yes, the concept of learning in any setting, especially this one, is going to involve social interaction. Yet, I’m not sure that I necessarily believe this statement from above “For a martial art to be effective, it must enter a social domain and promote rules of engagement that follow a very strict martial discipline designed to meet the goals of training”.

    Now, I will be the first one to admit that from time to time I goof off in class, and possibly too much. I can also tell you that I take my Aikido training very seriously – to the point where behind my family and my work, I am not sure that there is anything more important in my life. So, to me, a social club this is not, but it is absolutely social and rightfully so. Would it be better if you didn’t have friends in class? I don’t know. I don’t know what “better” means. Would I still come to class if I had no friends there? Sure. You can’t train in Aikido in a vacuum. Your training, beyond the physical, HAS TO BE about you in relation to the universe. Am I wrong? In other words, you’ll encounter friends, people who aren’t friends, people you know, those you don’t, those who may soon be friends. What I’m saying is your Aikido training is NOT ONLY physical. In order for your training to be effective is has to be social! Is that what the blog post meant??

    Me personally? I like that I know the people I train with, and that I’m friends with the people I train with. I’m glad that we get together outside of the dojo, I wish we did that more often. Cliff’s idea of a Kyu award celebration was great. I’m glad that we plan on attending seminars together. There are people that I’ve spoken to in our dojo that say that they actually train more because of the relationships that they’ve developed in the dojo. Some say that those relationships foster a deeper level and commitment to training. I can honestly say that had it not been for being friends with the people in the dojo I would not have gone to a seminar as early as I did. Having done so I think I may have nearly quashed my anxiety surrounding such an experience. I like talking to and being around the people that I train with – apart from the fact that I enjoy it, I think I learn from it, and I think it makes me a better person.

    But nonetheless – we are all here for the training… the friends we make along the way are just the gravy!

    1. RiC Rivera Avatar
      RiC Rivera

      I agree with Jason, as much as to take time right now when i should be in bed (on Military) i have to wake up super early. The blog states thing about etiquette, yet the standard rules of just about any dojo that is or has ever been, states that one should respect their body. I know you learn from that in fact your it correct to say that when faced with a person in an altercation we cannot choose how nice that person smell rather we have deal with what at hand , yet in a dojo setting one should respect that their uniform should and always be cleaned as their body. So if your uniform is not, you are offending the dojo etiquette.
      I personally don’t wish to train with someone who has no respect to dojo etiquette when it comes to cleanliness. I recently went to a seminar where am at currently , it would have been rude if i went in there representing myself my dojo and my Sensei if i enter wearing a dirty uniform and smelling bad , am sure those member of that dojo would be talking about it and they would take offends to it. Our dojo is relaxed and i like that but at the same time we are adults and should follow most or all of our dojo etiquettes.


  2. admin Avatar

    Lot’s of stuff here, so I will reply in a number of posts. First issue: If you simply pick your partner based upon who is sitting in front of you, you are missing the willful decision “…no, I don’t particularly want to work with this person, I really want to work with that one over there. Then my practice will be more enjoyable.” This willful decision is based upon the idea that you train for your own enjoyment and don’t care much about the people around you. This approach is generally ineffective in reducing the selfish ego, which will result in your being less effective in self defense and more miserable in general. Best is to take the opposite approach of looking to help others.

    1. Jason Avatar

      By making the willful decision that you aren’t going to “pick a partner” to work with and simply work with the collective group for the benefit of yourself, the individual partner and the collective group – everybody wins and is benefited and thus the “picking” part is completely taken out of the equation. I still don’t understand the concept of “picking a partner”… don’t we just work with each other for the benefit of each other and our respective training???

      1. admin Avatar

        If you took classes at Saotome’s seminar and tried to bow into his uke, you would know what I mean…

  3. admin Avatar

    Now for the smelly difficult person…there are 2 parts to this discussion – is it a violation of etiquette and how to respond.

    When making a determination of whether something is a violation of etiquette or not, you must consider the intent of the act. If someone does not wash their ghi because they don’t feel like it, that is disrespectful to their training partners. This is a violation of etiquette. But suppose they simply cannot afford to wash their ghi? They are ashamed at their poverty and cannot offer better circumstances for their training partners. Should we demand only people of a certain income level are allowed to train? What if their body just emits an odor which is more offensive than most other people. They can’t help it. Should we as a dojo put every new member up for a smell test to see if their particular odor meets our aesthetic requirements? I don’t think etiquette would call for this. What if the person notices some people in the dojo are overly disturbed by bad odors. So they decide to come in to class a bit funky from time to time to help them improve their reaction. Yes, this is a bit creative, but not a violation of etiquette. They are trying to help people practice.

    1. Jason Avatar

      Haaaaa – I agree with your general altruistic intentions, but respectfully disagree on your global view. If you don’t wash your gi – it is offensive and disrespectful, regardless of what your intentions may be or whether you have no intention at all! Without thinking too hard about this, I think I can safely say this is a hard and fast rule. The first thing we learn about SELF respect is that it starts with activities of daily living – keeping yourself clean, keeping yourself groomed, maintaining clean clothes. This is especially important in a dojo since we are always in close proximity to each other, sweating, etc. This is when your lack of self respect becomes disrespectful to others. It seems harsh to coin it in terms of a lack of self respect and a disrespect to you fellow partners. You can call this what you want though – whether you intentionally don’t wash your gi, or intentionally don’t use deoderant, or intentionally don’t shower. If you are not doing these very basic things…there is a fundamental problem. Period. The only way I personally could excuse such behavior is perhaps if the individual is mentally challenged, in which case I don’t think they should be training in a deadly martial art.

      Now all that being said – what I put in my previous posts still holds true. I think as a good Aikidoka – on the path of whatever you may be on the path of and/or for – and these are your partners, you train with them. You get beyond whatever YOUR issue or compunction is for the benefit of your own growth, and that of your fellow partners.

      1. admin Avatar

        You said, ” If you don’t wash your gi – it is offensive and disrespectful, regardless of what your intentions may be or whether you have no intention at all! Without thinking too hard about this, I think I can safely say this is a hard and fast rule…You can call this what you want though – whether you intentionally don’t wash your gi, or intentionally don’t use deoderant, or intentionally don’t shower. If you are not doing these very basic things…there is a fundamental problem. Period.” As soon as you set yourself up with hard and fast rules in training, what happens? The person who knows your rules uses them to defeat you. If you never change them, they can always defeat you the same way. This is the same thing as saying that killing someone is always bad…what if they are in the process of killing 1,000 people and there is no way to stop them but to kill them? In that case not killing them is bad! Killing is normally much worse than smelling bad. So how come killing someone can become good but smelling bad can never become good?

        1. Jason Avatar

          Well luckily this is not my rule…its society’s. And it is not a rule of training or rule of engagement, it is a rule of common decency. Hygiene is not generally speaking something that an opponent will defeat you with. Although I guess I can envision a scenario.

          I agree with what you’re saying regarding the attachment to a certain thing being your downfall – but I just don’t think it applies here There are rules in our lives, in our society, both legal, moral and otherwise that we must follow. Rules and laws are the hallmark of a civilization. And you should adhere to them, unless it is not appropriate, in which case that would be an exception to that rule. So there are rules that should be followed but generally speaking, exceptions to every rule. Since our modern society has deemed it an offense to not bathe, to not be clean, and to emit body odor – it naturally follows that those who do not follow the path of cleanliness and proper hygiene are offensive. Not only by my definition, but by society’s. It is an unwanted and unkind intrusion and breach of personal space. And because we are always training and sweating in close proximity, if not on top of one another, this intrusion and breach is amplified.

          What if I just decide I don’t want to go to the bathroom in the toilet anymore?? What if instead I just feel like urinating on myself, or in the middle of a room or wherever I feel? Well, that would be wrong – fundamentally. It’s a hard a fast rule that we use toilets! We didn’t always…but now we do. Well we didn’t always bathe and use deodorant, but now we do. So now it’s a rule of hygiene, and being clean and not smelling is the acceptable norm – and being dirty and smelling is unacceptable.

          As far as your analogy goes, it’s just not the same. You’re asking is it ok to do something bad to prevent something bad – then if I don’t do the bad thing, to prevent the bad thing, then it’s a bad thing that I do. In the issue at hand – the smelly person is not doing a bad thing to prevent a bad thing – they’re just doing a bad thing, not following the social norm of bathing, being clean, etc. As far as your absolutism argument goes, I cannot envision a scenario where not bathing and being clean would be acceptable. Perhaps if you are marooned on an island, following a zombie apocalypse or if you’re working undercover as a homeless bum. But regardless of where or when I think it MAY be acceptable – In the dojo it just has no place! I believe it is always wrong to not bathe, not be clean and to smell bad in the dojo. Am I wrong?

          1. admin Avatar

            Here is a very simple example of where it would be good practice to show up to class smelling bad. A particular student has the idea that there is no good reason to show up to class smelling badly and you happen to know they will attend a particular class. You want to help them close openings to being defeated. Don’t shower and train with them. They are repulsed. At the moment they have the repulsed reaction, counter them and do it repeatedly until they learn to stop having an excessive reaction to your hygiene. The person who smells bad is helping them lose attachment to hygiene and close an opening to being defeated. If, as an example, you are not supposed to be attached to any physical phenomena when defending yourself in order to be effective, your training partner should not be restricted by the use of any physical phenomena in helping you learn to do exactly that.

    2. Jason Avatar

      One more thing though… I don’t think odor has anything to do with aesthetics…

  4. admin Avatar

    Now how to react to the smelly difficult person – if they are violating etiquette, the reaction should be to help them understand the part of their intention which is destructive to their practice. If they learn why they are harming their own objectives, they will know how to adjust. If the person is not interested in the subject or resistant to it, you should not force the issue. Rather wait for them to inquire about the issue itself or why they are experiencing the negative consequences from their actions, and them begin the process. This is more normally the way Aikido is taught. Refusing to train with them out of protest can be part of the instruction process if it is appropriate for the situation. But if it is a reaction based upon your own personal preferences it is actually more harmful to your practice.

    Now if they are not violating effort, do not discriminate between that person and anyone else in the dojo. If there is a particular problem, simply experience the sensory impact without preference. Powering through it assumes a person who is experiencing something unpleasant that needs to overcome it. We are all naturally pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. The problem is that we misidentify who the “we” is in this sentence and wind up pursuing real pain and avoiding real pleasure. (see Physical pain is neither good not bad, it is simply pain. It comes, it goes. Do not harbor a preference for it either way. This form of training will be much more helpful.

    1. Jason Avatar

      Agreed. I thought the person who smells and the person who is difficult were two different people. Like the difficult person would be the one who was overly and gratuitously resistant, didn’t follow directions, was too aggressive, regularly too rough, etc. I don’t think we can lump them together because I don’t think they would be handled similarly. So what I’m about to say relates only to the smelly partner. This is a bit personal, its a hygiene issue, its a sensitive issue – honestly I really don’t want to be speaking to anyone about their level of hygiene or lack thereof. Nor do I think that I should.

      As far as the difficult partner is concerned – no problem there. That’s a safety issue and an issue dealing directly with the manner of training.

  5. admin Avatar

    As for the social aspects, good friends are very helpful if they have the same goal as you do. But what if they are trying to do something that is exactly opposite? Say your best friend starts robbing banks. Do you stay best friends with them? If you do, you might find yourself suffering from guilt by association. Which takes priority here, the friendship or the activity?

    When I am talking about the strict discipline, it is not impersonal. You can still feel for the person who robs banks, but if you let the fact that they are your buddy take priority, you might find yourself robbing banks alongside them eventually. This is wrong. Feel for them, help them change, and if they insist on continuing their activities, don’t be their buddy. Only be there to help them when they want to change. So in practice, your attachment to them as people cannot take priority over how they act. In fact, how they act should govern how you interact with them and not your attachment to them as people.

    On the other hand, if they are genuine about study of principles and becoming a better person, hanging out with them after class where you can help them and they can help you – it is beneficial. But when you are on the mats, you are practicing a martial art and not being buddies with anyone. They are really trying to attack you and you really need to defend yourself…

    1. Jason Avatar

      Agreed for the most part. What I’d like to pull out here is what you say about when you step on the mats, you’re not buddies, you’re training. I’d like to explore that…but kind of think I should get back to work because I’ve just written way too much here.

      In short – I like the notion, and respect and accept the notion, that once you step on the mat you enter another domain where you are not your self. You are not a lawyer, banker, doctor, secretary or restaurant worker. You have one focus and that is to learn and train.

      Admittedly this is something I should work on. I have the humility to separate myself from my profession but maybe perhaps not from my relationships necessarily.

  6. Jason Avatar

    This is a response to the 8/16 Admin post that starts, “Here is a very simple example.” My response is that I totally disagree…in part because the smelly person is offensive before I’ve done anything, I just show up to class wanting to train… and now there is an offensive odor coup against me because I seem to have a different opinion than someone else… It doesn’t sound right. And also in part because this theory of non-attachment taken to the extreme in this example seems like its a license to be offensive just as long as it’s painted with the “non-attachment” brush. “Ah well I stabbed the guy in the gut seven times because he kept staring and concentrating on the knife… I was just trying to get him to not be attached to the knife.” or “Ah well I punched the guy in the gut seven times because he kept staring and concentrating on my fist… I was just trying to get him to not be attached to my fist.” or “Ah well I ________ the guy in the gut seven times because he kept staring and concentrating on _______… I was just trying to get him to not be attached to ___________.” Insert whatever you like. Just because you do something in the spirit of doing the right thing doesn’t mean that the ends justify the means. I’m sure lots of people would like to bomb abortion clinics because they are pro life, but it doesn’t make it right.

    I understand the concept, theory and its reasoning and application. I just don’t think it applies in this instance.

    1. admin Avatar

      Actually, in the case I gave, the person who shows up smelly knows in advance the other person has an outsized aversion to bad odors and say wants to learn how to close openings to being defeated. Their decision not to shower is in response to the other person’s questions about training. Simply showing up without showering and looking for random people to disturb is not correct practice.

      As for the degree of the response, you only do what is necessary to help the person learn. So in this instance, you keep countering the person when their perception closes down because they are over-reacting to your hygiene. When they figure out that their attachment to hygiene is causing them a problem, you excuse yourself from class and go take a shower. There is no longer a need to inflict offense after the lesson is learned…

      1. Jason Avatar

        I think I’m too attached to this debate…

  7. Ric Avatar

    i still see things the way i see them. while at the dojo etiquette should be followed, am one of those person that can differentiate between work , play, fight / flight. I can understand the concept of training with someone with bad odor as preparing me to deal with the diffuclty but if and when am approached on the outside of dojo with a confrontational person who has bad odor i would not have a problem engaging. i believe one has nothing to do with the other. then also in life one is never gaurantee success in anything one does. So while am in the dojo I hope everyone respect themselves as much as to bathe dialy hopefully before class, use deodorant , if they cant afford to launder thier gi then i be glad to wash it for them. Am not perfect , I can only inspire to better then the day before because yesterday has passed.

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