In Aikido, you will have training for both physical and mental aspects. Physical training emphasizes more on the fitness of the body and specific techniques while mental training allows you to have peace in your mind and body even under dangerous circumstances.
Your training actually begins right at the door of the dojo: here you will take your first bow in the direction towards the kamiza (a shrine usually at the front of the dojo). We do this as a sign of respect to the place (for which we are able to train in) as well as the learning we receive in this space. Once you step inside, you take your shoes off near the door and point them toward the outside. First, is not to dirty the space – a common Japanese practice. Placing the shoes outward however, is a physical reminder that negative thoughts from the outside world are not to penetrate inward and only positivity goes outward from the dojo. This is the first aspect of letting go of the outside and being absolutely present in the here and now – a Buddhist concept of mindfulness. You will see many people walk through the doors timid, stiff or tense from stresses but by the end of the lesson, they walk out calm, relaxed and confident and this is what you take with you from the dojo.
After the first cultural hurdle of entering the room is passed, before stepping onto the mat, you bow again to the kamiza in the middle. This again is a sign of respect to the space but moreover, to the founder who you will see a picture of just above the kami. This etiquette most likely dates back to practices of ancestor worship which is common throughout asia, but in this form, it is recognition and thanks that what you are learning originally came from O’Sensei.
Suddenly, a senior kneels down and claps twice. The class lines up from most senior downwards, more noticeably too everyone is on their knees (another Japanese cultural practice). Sensei then enters, following the same bowing etiquette and then sitting in front of the class, turns and everyone bows with them to O’sensei. Then finally, after turning back around, sensei and students bow to each other. On doing so the words are uttered, “Onegai Shimasu.” At the end of the lesson, “Arigato gozai masu” are uttered as well. You may also hear these words conversed at the start and end of training with your partner. To the beginner, it can sound like total babbal and you will generally spend some time trying to grasp how to repeat these phrases. Don’t worry if you can’t repeat it as you are not expected to and like most things in Japanese culture, this is more so a courtesy.
To the unrequited of the Japanese language, while the last phrase is common, the first phrase is not as common to everyday Japanese speech. It was not till recently, even after having trained for some time, that I actually noticed this oddity and wondered the difference. While both phrases may sound similar the first is very irregular. So what do this phrase mean?
“Shimasu” means “to do” is common in speech, however “O’negai” literally means “to pray to (something)” or “to wish for (something).” More interestingly is this “O” is different to the one used in O’Sensei. Rather it is used to make the phrase more honouring. You may hear it in Japan at New Years Eve celebrations, as “kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu” which translates along the lines of “I pray I do good tidings this year.” The word can be used in many different contexts. At its most basic though, it means “good will” towards the “future” of two meeting parties. Interestingly enough, in the context of training, it can be the equivalent of saying “please” in the sense that by accepting to train with the person, that you are ready to accept what the other person teaches you.
It is funny to think, that we hear this phrase uttered every lesson. And so as you train, keep this in mind. The more your Aikido develops, the more you are consciously able to learn. Sometimes it may be overwhelming that we cannot grasp everything at once, especially as a new beginner. Or as a senior, we sometimes underestimate what we can learn even from someone junior to us. For your training to develop, you may be surprised by how much you can learn from anyone with an open but humble attitude.