Rei & Yoi
by Jordi Muria Gratacós


In Karate-do, and any other martial art for that matter, there are some rituals relating to etiquette which are intended to help us and teach us to cultivate our spirit and morality, with a series of lessons that are applicable not only in the dojo but also outside of it.

The ultimate aim of karate-do lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of your character.

G. Funakoshi

We can read some maxims coined by masters that were handed down for us to reflect on our practice, so it does not become a mere physical act of throwing kicks and punches in thin air three times a week whilst completely forgetting about the moral lessons inherent to the dojo.

We can find references to correct etiquette in the book Bubishi (Article 3. Advice on the correct etiquette). This book, despite its origin and author being unknown, was highly regarded by the masters of the the 20th century. Miyagi Chojun Sensei (1888-1953) was inspired by the Kempo Hakku to choose the name for his style, and Funakoshi Gichin Sensei (1868-1957) mentioned the Bubishi in his "master text" Karate-do Kyohan.

We should also bear in mind that in the past, when Karate was not commercialized, sensei wouldn’t accept students who didn't display good manners and moral values. Karate teaching and practice was very personal, it usually took place at the sensei's home. Besides not wanting to teach a fighting art to the wrong kind of person, they wouldn't appreciate having rude and immoral visitors at home.

The dojo kun is another feature which reflects the masters' concern about Karate-do not being just a physical act. It should instead transcend from the dojo into the character of the student so they can grow as a person. Several items of the dojo kun refer directly to etiquette and behavior. The dojo kun of my group is that of the Jundokan. This dojo kun was devised by Eiichi Miyazato Sensei. All the items are equally important, that's why they all start with "Hitotsu" (First). The first one states "Be humble and polite". In other schools it also refers to etiquette and moral; in Shotokan it advises to "Strive to perfect your character" and in Kyokushinkai to "Observe the rules of courtesy, respect our seniors and refrain from violence".


In the twenty guiding principles penned by Funakoshi Gichin, the first principle reads: "Do not forget Karate begins and ends with Rei", but what's rei? When is it performed? How is it displayed? And why?

Rei literally means "bow" or "ceremony". In Budo the ultimate purpose of training lies in refining and improving the character of the practitioner. Whenever we bow in the dojo we must be consciously thinking of gratitude and respect, it shouldn’t be an empty gesture. Just like when we practice kata and try to feel the character of each technique, the same should be true when bowing.

We only need to bow in the following situations:

  • When we enter and leave the dojo.

  • Before starting formal training and to bring it to an end.

  • Before and after the performance of kata.

  • Before and after working with a partner.

Body posture is important at all times in a dojo, both when performing rei and when picking up some piece of equipment from the ground. It tells a lot about the practitioner's degree of involvement in what they are doing and their own self-defense.

The stance for rei is musubi-dachi, a natural and unforced standing posture with heels together and toes pointing out at 45º. The knees are not fully stretched, the center of gravity falls on the heels, and the arms are kept by the sides of the body. When bending the upper body forward to bow the hands move forward to the front of the thighs. This form, common in the Jundokan school of Eiichi Miyazato Sensei, is another way to display respect by showing your hands without hiding anything. The breathing is relaxed, breathing in as we bend forward and breathing out as we get back to an upright position. Look ahead throughout the whole motion and keep peripheral vision at 180º, hearing at 360º to be aware of your back. This relates to the Kempo Hakku ("The ears listen well in all directions").


We use rei when we enter and leave the dojo, it could be said it's the first thing we do and the last one. A definition of dojo I like is that expounded by Shosin Nagamine Sensei: "The dojo is a place where courage is fostered and superior human nature is bred through the ecstasy of sweat and hard work. It is a sacred place where the human spirit is polished." Therefore the dojo is a place that will help us improve ourselves.

When we enter the dojo, we take our zori off and we step directly on the tatami so we don't bring any dirtiness inside. We bow to the Shomen, the main wall where the photographs of the ancestors of the school are found. When we bow we say "Onegai shimasu" which translates as "Please, help me". As I said before this place will help us progress as human beings.

The feeling I have when I get in and out of the dojo is one of gratitude. I'm just an enthusiast of Karate-do, and I value any training time as a gift. I'm grateful to my family; since they are well I can spend some time polishing my spirit and my technique.


Once inside the dojo this is no place to socialize with other people, someone leaning against the makiwara and someone else on the tou, chatting and telling each other about their holidays... Other places are more appropriate for that. Instead, we should ask ourselves what we could do for the dojo, and sweep and clean before sensei turns up and formal training begins.

Formal training begins with a group bow. This bow may be ritsu rei (standing bow) or za rei (kneeling bow). These rituals take place at the beginning and at the end of formal training and are a way of thanking our ancestors, teachers and peers for their guidance and company along our martial journey.

Ritsu Rei

Sensei calls "Shugo" and students line up facing the Shomen. The gateway to the dojo is normally opposite or sideways to the Shomen so the sensei can control from their position who enters the dojo. Students of lower grade stand closer to the shimoseki (left wall) and those of higher grade closer to the joseki (right wall). In the past, the reason for this arrangement was that, if any minor issue came up, it could be sorted out by the lower-grade students. Also, to protect the sensei, keeping longtime trusted students closer to the teacher whereas those newer to the dojo were farther away.

Then the sempai (most senior student) calls "Ki o tsuke!" (Attention), and proceeds to recite the Dojo Kun, followed by "Shomen ni Rei" (bow to the front). The sensei then turns around to face the students and the sempai goes on to call "Sensei ni Rei" (bow to the teacher). Students bow and say "Onegai shimasu" (Help me, please).

The same ritual takes place to bring the formal training to an end, only this time students say "Domo arigato gozaimashita" (thank you very much) when they bow to the teacher.

Za Rei

This is the ritual of bowing in seiza-dachi (kneeling). This position, although not a combat one, in the past, budoka might be attacked by surprise, which justifies a minimum of structure to deal with a possible problem. There are two ways of assuming this position. In martial arts where a sword is used, the practitioners kneel down and get up with the right leg, which facilitates unsheathing the weapon. In martial arts where there's no sword, the left leg leads, thus a possible attack can be received with a left guard and a counter-attack delivered with the right arm.

The feet are extended, with the insteps on the ground. It is important that the feet are not crossed, one on top of the other, because in a case of a stomp from behind they would be trapped, unable to move. It is better to leave them just touching each other so one of them can be released if the described scenario occurred. The buttocks sit on the heels, the knees are kept two fists apart, the hands rest on top of the thighs, and the spine remains straight at all times both whilst kneeling down and standing up, with the chin slightly pulled back.

The sensei assumes seiza facing the Shomen. Then the ceremony is led by the sempai who calls "seiza" and the students gradually kneel down, from higher grade to lower grade. The dojo kun is recited by the sempai and then "Mokuso" is called and everybody closes their eyes. Mokuso is a time of preparation and personal concentration, regulating the breathing and focusing on the tasks that await ahead. "Mokuso yame" finishes mokuso and then "Shomen ni Rei" follows. The sensei turns around to face the students who bow when the sempai calls "Sensei ni Rei". "Kiritsu!" is called and the students get up to start formal training.

Bowing in seiza is not as common in Okinawan dojo as it is in Japanese ones.

Finally, when we bow to our sensei and training partners it must be an act of gratitude. We must be grateful to our partners because they walk with us the hard but rewarding path of martial arts, helping us and taking care of us, not hurting us when we practice together. We must thank our sensei for his guidance and all his time spent on helping us polish our spirit and technique, his corrections and patience.

When bowing to a partner, we must be mindful of the distance. Polite and respectful, but keeping good self-defense. We must stay out of the reach of the opponent, and when we bow towards them, we must look at their knees so we can notice and have time to react if they moved.


Yoi is a time for preparation, usually at the beginning and end of kata, but also before and after working with a partner. Like rei, care must be taken that our yoi is correct.

Physical structure

Yoi must be characterized by an adequate and efficient body structure so that the body is prepared for a possible conflict. The old yoi used in kata and still preserved by some schools of Goju-Ryu used heiko-dachi with the arms stretched on the sides of the legs and fists clenched. In 1948 Chojun Miyagi Sensei changed the starting position and preparation for the kata, keeping musubi-dachi and crossing both hands in front of the body.

Once again, we find musubi-dachi, the same stance used for rei, but now with a very different intention. The body weight shifts to the ball of the feet, gaining more stability. The angle of the feet (45 degrees off the centre line) makes it easier and efficient to quickly shift to other stances with similar angles, such as shiko-dachi or neko-ashi-dachi. In addition to this, it also facilitates a swift neneme (diagonal) shift by simply following the direction of the foot, as we do in Saifa and Seiyunchin kata. By keeping the heels together the gap between the legs is closed, protecting the groin against a possible aggression from behind. This position also helps hip rotation, and the contraction of the buttocks and tanden, which fills the body with energy. The spine is kept straight and the san tanden aligned. The chin is pulled back slightly to protect the throat. Finally, the arms cross in front of body protecting the groin with the left hand on top of the right hand.


Mental attitude

It is important to assume yoi with a calm and focused breathing, so we manage to prepare our minds for the "battle" that is ahead of us. It could be likened to the feeling we experience in a real-life situation such as before an exam or job interview. A rushed attitude caused by a nervous state can lead us to make mistakes. We must try to control the situation, the kun "Be calm in mind and quick in action" describes this well.

The action of yoi is performed slowly with emphasis on the mental state of Zanshin. We can describe Zanshin as a "state of alert" which must be experienced before, during and after any action we do. It's a state of concentration and involvement of body and mind required in everything we do.

One of my favorite movies, Peaceful Warrior, defines very well the concept of Zanshin: The teacher, Socrates, is waiting for his student, Dan, on a bridge. When Dan arrives he tells his teacher that he is very busy, with many exams to study for and many things to do, so he asks for a quick lesson as he is in a hurry. Socrates grabs Dan and throws him off the bridge and into the water. Lesson delivered. Dan berates his teacher for his behaviour and Socrates explains the lesson; he's just emptied his student's mind. As he fell he had no other thoughts, he was just thinking about what was happening to him at that moment, he was one-hundred percent focused on that experience, here and now, oblivious of all the junk on his mind, everything that distracts, achieving mindfulness (Zanshin). To me, this scene describes very well the meaning of Zanshin.

Before a conflict or a stressful situation, when this is perceived by the mind, a series of physical changes occur in the body due to the activation of the most primitive part of our brain (hypothalamus). In 1932, an American physiologist, Walter Cannon, coined the term "fight or flight" for the nervous and endocrine reaction of the organism facing a threat. When we find ourselves in a situation of stress we experience some physiological changes:

  • The heart pumps more blood to the muscles.

  • The sight is focused on the target.

  • The sense of hearing is focused on the threat.

  • Pain threshold increases.

  • The sense of touch is heightened.

When we perform yoi we should consider these feelings mentally to try to make a more realistic use of yoi, i.e. to calm down and prepare our body and mind for a conflict. This attitude will also help us with any kind of conflict in our daily lives.


Both rei (courtesy) and yoi (preparation) are two great lessons taught in Karate-do which are useful in daily life. Our etiquette (rei) and our preparation (yoi) in the face of any daily event can be observed by anyone, and it will be judged, as is often the case, providing a glimpse of the kind of person we are. When a student bows and prepares properly, they give a good impression to the sensei who is observing the character of the student. Displaying humility, manners and respect, the student shows the degree of quality and experience of those who have been practicing long enough to not overlook these values. On the contrary, if a student doesn't show interest in these lessons they are revealing a neglected character and little interest in growing and improving as a person which is the ultimate aim in Martial Arts.

"Karate is not limited to the Dojo" is the key to progress as a human being, absorbing the lessons we learn in the dojo to apply them in daily life.

Jordi Muria Gratacós

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”