Rules for Aikido Training

At the Aiki Arts Center, we observe formal rules of dojo etiquette in order to cultivate mindfulness, safety, respect, dignity, and harmony. Practice of good dojo etiquette is an essential aspect of Aikido training.

The five major rules of etiquette in our dojo are:

  • Receive instruction respectfully.
  • Arrive 30 minutes before class.
  • Remember to bow.
  • Stay put when Sensei is demonstrating.
  • Practice emotional responsibility.

The rules are explained in detail below. When you enter the dojo or register as a student, you are agreeing to abide by these rules. Please study the rules carefully before attending your first Aikido class.

Rule #1: Receive Instruction Respectfully

When given an instruction by any of the Sensei (teachers), respond with “Hai, Sensei” or “Thank you, Sensei,” bow to the Sensei, and then follow the instruction to the best of your ability.

Rule #2: Arrive 30 Minutes Before Class

Arrive at the dojo 30 minutes before the scheduled start time. The start time on the schedule is when we bow in and begin our class. Before class starts, we need to set up the training mats together, change into gi (training uniforms), and take a bit of time to make the mental transition from the rhythms of the outside world to the rhythms of the dojo.

Our arrival time policy is about respect (don’t leave your fellow students to set up the mats without you), community (have a bit of time before class to get to know people), and, above all, safety (we’ve learned through many years of teaching that safe training requires a high degree of mindfulness, and that one key to mindful training is having time to settle into the dojo space beforehand).

The practice of arriving 30 minutes before the start of class is part of your Aikido training. If this means developing a whole new set of time-management skills, then that’s also part of your Aikido training.

If you arrive less than 15 minutes before the scheduled class time, you will be asked to sit and watch class instead of joining the training. If you are asked to sit and watch class due to lateness, or for any other reason, receive it like any other instruction: bow and say “Hai, Sensei.” Please remember that this sort of request is never punitive; it’s about cultivating a safe and mindful training environment.

Rule #3: Remember to Bow

Face the front of the room and give a good bow when you are entering or exiting the dojo, or when you are stepping onto or off of the mat. When it’s time to practice in partners, bow to your partner before you begin training with them, and again when that round of partnered practice is over. Bow to thank the Sensei after receiving instruction, and bow when someone bows to you.

Bowing is a mindfulness practice, and also a way of communicating to your Sensei and your fellow students that you’re fully present and paying deep attention to your work with them.

Rule #4: Stay Put When Sensei Is Demonstrating

There are a number of points in each class where the students sit in a row to watch the Sensei demonstrate whatever exercise everyone is about to practice. During these demonstrations, sit silently and give the Sensei your full attention––not only so that you can learn from the demonstration, but also so that you don’t distract anyone else.

If you’re on the mat when the students are called to line up and watch a demonstration, remain on the mat and line up with the other students. If you’re not on the mat at the time, sit down and watch from wherever you happen to be. Never get on or off the mat during a demonstration, except in an emergency.

If you need to bow off of the mat to get a drink of water or use the restroom, the best time to do it is right after a demonstration ends; you can also bow off of the mat during any period of solo or partnered practice.

Rule #5: Practice Emotional Responsibility

Aikido is difficult to learn, and continually challenging. Sooner or later, Aikido training brings us face-to-face with any long-standing issues we might have around physicality, conflict, connection, boundaries, learning, and self-image. Because of this, intense emotions often arise in the course of training.

Emotional responsibility means continuing to conduct oneself with calm dignity, and continuing to treat others with civility, respect, and care, even when one is experiencing intense feelings such as frustration, anger, fear, or shame.

Emotional responsibility means refusing to allow one’s personal conduct to be governed by emotional reactivity. It means staying aware of one’s emotional reactions and exploring them as a source of information about the issues one might need to work on. It demands a commitment to mindfulness, humility, and honest self-reflection.

The diligent practice of emotional responsibility is central to Aikido training, and developing greater capacity for emotional responsiblity is one of the central goals and benefits of Aikido training.

Receiving instruction from the Sensei, especially when it comes to matters of dojo etiquette, can trigger strong emotional reactions for some students. This is an area where practicing emotional responsibility is especially important and potentially challenging.

Why is this sometimes so challenging? Because so many of us, in our younger years, were raised or educated in ways that instilled a sense of shame; when we were corrected on something, the correction often involved unneccessary shaming. When a person has had that sort of experience in their early life, those feelings of shame can rise up in them whenever they receive any sort of correction.

Practicing emotional responsibility means recognizing the difference between feeling shame (as a result of inner triggers related to past mistreatment) and actually being mistreated in a way intended to cause shame (which is something no Sensei in our dojo will ever do).

Let’s look at an example. It’s the middle of an Aikido class, and the students are training in partners. The Sensei leading the class claps her hands to signal that this round of partner training is over, and it’s time for everyone to sit and watch as the Sensei demonstrates the next exercise. As the demonstration begins, one new student gets up and steps off the mat to get a drink of water. After the demonstration, as everyone pairs up to practice the new exercise, the Sensei approaches the student and says, “Please don’t get up and leave the mat during demonstrations. The best time to bow off the mat for water is right after the demonstration is over.”

The student feels a surge of shame. If the student doesn’t practice emotional responsibility, this innocent moment of forgetfulness and correction could escalate. A student who’s prone to being hard on themself might spiral deeper into their shame and convince themselves that they’re a hopeless screw-up; they might even give their shame so much power that they give up on their training.

Or, if the student is more prone to protecting themselves from feelings of shame by blaming others, their shame might turn to anger; they might deal with their feelings of shame by convincing themselves that the Sensei is intentionally picking on them and shaming them. They’ll blame their shame on the Sensei, because it feels better than blaming themselves; their state of emotional reactivity keeps them from recognizing that it’s not actually necessary to blame anyone at all. Students who deal with internalized shame in this emotionally irresponsible way will eventually leave the dojo in anger, carrying a needless and unpleasant burden of resentment at their imagined mistreatment.

So what would emotional responsibility look like in this situation? The emotionally responsible student, when they feel that surge of shame, will continue to conduct themselves with impeccable etiquette. They’ll bow and say “Hai, Sensei,” and the Sensei will return the bow and say something like “Hai” or “Thank you,” and then the student will rejoin the class and focus on their training.

If this emotionally responsible student is still troubled by feelings of shame or anger, they’ll take a moment to take some deep slow breaths and calmly reflect on the source of those feelings. They’ll recognize that the incident was trivial, and that no one needs to be blamed because no one did anything terrible: the student briefly forgot a bit of dojo etiquette, which is perfectly understandable because there’s so much for an Aikido student to learn and no one can remember it all at first. The Sensei didn’t shout at the student or call them names, she just provided the necessary instruction in a clear and straightforward way.

So the emotionally responsible student will recognize that their shame wasn’t warranted by the situation. They didn’t do anything shameful, and the Sensei didn’t shame them. The student will correctly conclude that their feelings of shame were rooted in their past, and that they don’t have to let past suffering govern the present. In time, if the student continues practicing this sort of emotional responsibility, self-reflection, and dignified conduct, their old shame-related wounds will become less easily triggered and they’ll be more and more able to enjoy their training and the rest of their lives.

This is what emotional responsibility looks like. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of Aikido training to grasp, and ultimately one of the most transformative and rewarding.

Thank you for taking the time to learn our rules of dojo etiquette. If you’re a student or prospective student at the Aiki Arts Center, we look forward to training with you. If not, we hope that reading this sparks some thoughts that will be useful to you in whatever sort of training you do.