The traditional Japanese answer is: [highlight] because our teachers did it, and out of respect, we adopt their form to hold our practice.[/highlight]
Well, okay. But I’m not Japanese, and if you are reading this, you probably aren’t either. As an American, as a philosopher, as a poet, that isn’t enough for me. I bow in and bow out because I find it helpful. I feel like it brings the class together, it unites all the participants in a single movement, a single physical set of acts – and rituals have great power in the human psyche. If we can bow together, we can probably work together, we can begin to let go of our separation, we can turn and look out to the horizon of Aikido, searching for peace.
On a personal level, bowing in calms me quickly, allows me to let go of the day that was behind me. As the sensei, it reminds me of my job, that I am taking responsibility for what happens over the next hour in a formal way (where my tendency might be to just play for an hour – although there’s nothing wrong with that). Bowing out gives me energy to face the evening, reminds me what I want to carry out with me from Aikido into the world.
The japanese word for a bow is shomen-rei, literally meaning “face-respect”. You’re paying respect to another person by bowing to them, acknowledging their fundamental worthiness to participate in the system of human kindnesses.