Everything I wanted to know about the MIT Isshinryu Club but never got told.

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Created: Tue Nov 19 12:40:21 EST 2002
Last updated: Tue Aug 26 11:15:40 EDT 2003

Table of Contents


Welcome to the MIT Isshinryu dojo! I hope you have fun.

This informal document describes what you can expect from working out with the MIT Isshinryu club. It also describes what's expected of people. If you've never studied a martial art, the atmosphere of a dojo is probably new to you. Even if you have, dojos (even within a style!) have variation -- sometimes quite a bit. Lastly, these are my opinions, and thus, you'll find variation as you talk to other people. These differences of opinion can be quite interesting, so by all means, ask around.

This document is only a guideline to the feel of the MIT Isshinryu dojo. It's difficult to convey an attitude in general, so I'll try to do so by describing many aspects of what we do. After awhile, all of this should coalesce into a general understanding and seem obvious. In fact, you may look back at this document and think, "wow, that really doesn't convey things right". If you can come up with a better phrasing, by all means, let me know!

Not surprisingly, one of the fundamental principles of the dojo is mutual respect. With that omnipresent, people can teach and learn in a safe manner: safe from not only physical harm (either from within or without), but also safe from mental and emotional harm.

This sense of mutual respect is expressed via the etiquette of the club, which may feel very foreign to you, especially if you've never studied a martial art before. Even if you have, there may be some variations. Not to worry: the point of etiquette is mutual respect, not "who can memorize the rules the fastest".

What will I learn?

On the surface, you'll first learn the unarmed combat basics of Isshinryu: we call these "charts". Then, you'll start learning short specific sequences that combine charts or elements of charts, called "fighting techniques". You'll also learn katas, which are elaborate sequences of charts.

You'll also learn self-defense techiques. These techniques are more streetfight-oriented than our charts: when you're grabbed from behind, most of your weapons (e.g., your hands and feet) are unavailable -- but we have self-defense techiques that'll free yourself from your opponent so that you can flee or counterattack.

What else will you learn? Good question. Stamina, self confidence, ability to gauge ranges better, awareness... but also artistry and poise, if you explore such.

What is etiquette? How important is it?

In my own opinion, etiquette is a collection of small details. Individually, they're not that important. Taken together, though, they add up to quite a bit. It's like everyday etiquette: is it a big deal if you don't look where you're going and bump into someone? Probably not. But if you do it all the time, well, that's probably a problem.

Aim for a middle ground: don't be blase about etiquette, but by the same token, you don't need to be an etiquette fascist.

The Five-Second Summary

The important part is that immortal movie line: "Be excellent to each other." Don't sweat the details.

But since that's often a very dis-satisfying answer, the rest of this document are The Details. But remember, the important thing isn't etiquette minutiae, it's the mutual respect.

One More Time...

No, wait, that summary really is all you need to know, so let me repeat it. This whole doc started off as an etiquette document, anyways.

Is etiquette important? Yes, that's why we have it.

Do I need to worry about it? Worry, no. But we do want you to learn and use the etiquette.

And the best way to learn it is to come to class. You'll pick it up by osmosis from your classmates and the senseis. It's often subtle, which is why we'll never get filmed for a Hollywood movie. A lot of it is common sense: try to stand respectfully when listening, pay attention to what's being taught, try to focus on what you're learning and not what other people are doing, etc. It's understood that you'll have bad days with your good days: try to come to class and overcome the bad part of your day. You may be really sleep-deprived, and we appreciate that you're trying, but do try to be mindful of others. For instance, if you have to yawn, just do so discreetly. :)

But that's just my opinion. Ask around if you have other questions, concerns, comments, etc. The senseis have interesting answers; part of what makes them interesting is how they differ.

Beginnings and endings

The class starts with a set of formal bows from the seiza, or sitting, position. At the front of class are 5 photos, who are representative of all the teachers who have come before us. We bow to them first in a sign of respect for having established and taught this tradition.

Next, the senseis and students bow to each other. This is an indication of respect for the students who have come to learn and the sensei who have come to teach. At this point, the students say, "onegai shimasu" (ohn-ee-gai she-mahs), which means "please teach me".

Class then proceeds with warmups.

At the end of class, we often end with "10 punches": it's hard to describe and easy to do. You'll see; it's easy. :)

Lastly, we again have a set of formal bows: first to the masters, then senseis and students, and then the students face the senior student, who also bows to the rest of the students. This third bow is a form of shorthand: it is indicative of all the students bowing to each other and thanking them for working together. Following this, the students then say, "domo arigato gozaimashita" (doe-moe are-ee-gah-toe go-zai-ee-mahsht -- yes, that last syllable is weird), which means "thank you very much". The senseis then respond with two phrases that mean "thank you as well, and my pleasure". Translation from the Japanese culture and language to English/American is ludicrously difficult here.

For the curious, the masters (as viewed from left to right) are: Chojun Miyagi (one of Tatsuo Shimabuku's teachers), Kichiro Shimabuku (current grandmaster), Tatsuo Shimabuku (founder), Gichin Funakoshi (instrumental in bringing karate from Okinawa to Japan), and Chotoku Kiyan (one of Tatsuo Shimabuku's teachers).

Japanese words

Commonly used commands:

kiotsuke attention, usually said just before 'rei'
rei bow
hajime begin
yame stop
hontai reverse, as in direction

Typically, we count in Japanese as well, which people learn via osmosis over a few weeks. Some people are into learning the Japanese words for the things we do, so they'll sometimes sprinkle them into class.

The dojo

Probably the first thing a newcomer notices is that we bow when entering or leaving the dojo. (Other clubs instead bow when stepping onto or off the mat, for similar reasons described below.) The reason is to show respect for the room and what it entails: that we (senseis and students alike) have come to learn and to teach. For myself, it's the point where I switch off the real world (problem sets, needing to get my car's oil changed, etc) and switch on the dojo (what am I going to practice today, what questions do I have from last practice, etc).

Part of showing respect for the room is keeping it neat: we sweep the floors and generally try to keep our personal stuff neatly tucked into the back corners.

Each other

A dojo where people respect each other is key to learning. The teaching and learning is bi-directional: even though it may seem that the senseis are doing all the teaching, they are still learning from their students. This is why we bow to each other.

When waiting, or listening to instruction, the "at rest" position you should adopt is with your feet about shoulder-width apart and with your hands resting in front of your thighs. Some people like to keep their hands in (loose) fists; I personally find this creates distracting tension in my body. At the very least, try not to slouch.

Health and safety

Let's start with food and water.

Eat! Before class, eat. Your body will need the fuel. But not right before class, because stomach cramps are Not Fun. Trust me. My rule of thumb is to be done with a light meal 2 hours before class stars. Your mileage will almost certainly vary.

Water is important. Dehydration is not fun. Again, trust me. If you like, bring water or gatorade to class. There are water bubblers in the Athletic Center.

Sleep is usually good, but I'm hoping you all knew that already.


People have all sorts of pre-existing medical conditions. A cold, or an injury, or whatnot. Try to work through it, of course: part of the challenge of any martial art is working through what you think your limits are. But injuring yourself further is bad. Learning to listen to your body takes awhile. The best rule of thumb I've heard is: the day after a practice, you should be sore, but not in pain. Soreness means that you used your muscles. (Many times for me, the part that's the most sore is my brain.) But pain is bad: it means you injured yourself, and you need to back off a bit to allow your body to heal.

It's best to let the senseis know about what might impair your ability to practice. You may also find that you need to do additional work outside the dojo to overcome these limitations (working out in the gym to build up strength or flexibility, or going running to build up endurance, etc).

Ultimately, the decision on what is safe for you is your decision, and yours alone. Never let anyone, be it other students or the senseis, sway you into doing something that you feel is unsafe. If you need to vary what's being done to accomodate your conditions, do so discreetly. (For instance, I have a bad right knee. If it's not properly warmed up, I just do things with less intensity than what's being led until it's warmed up.) If you're corrected (i.e., someone points out that you're not doing something quite right), just politely inform whoever you're working with that you are experiencing a problem -- ("It's my knee again") -- they may even have ideas on how to overcome it.

So really, the take-home message here is: don't play at extremes. Karate is partially about finding your limits and going past them, so if you never bump up against them, you'll never make serious progress. But this shouldn't turn into "extreme karate" with 3's replacing the e's, either.


When you start, wear clothes that are comfortable. If you have gym clothes, that's great. After all, the point is to try Isshinryu for awhile to see if you like it, and not to worry about something supremely superficial like your clothing.

If you decide to study with us, you'll need to get a gi. A gi is the martial art uniform you see people wearing. There are many different kinds of flavors: you need to get a karate gi (as opposed to, say, tae kwon do or kung fu or kendo). White is the formal color, so if you only get one, get one in white. Some people like to get more than one gi (it helps with laundry), and some people like to get black gis, which is ok. Other colors are disallowed, as is mix-and-matching the white and black gis.

If you like, you may adorn your gi with an Isshinryu patch or an MIT Isshinryu Club patch. The senseis have these for sale (they're something like $2 or $3 per patch). That's purely a personal aesthetics issue. (Many people like to have patches. I personally prefer my gis to be unadorned.)


If you come in late to class, stand in the back until instructed what to do. Many times, a sensei will simply indicate for you to join warm-ups with everyone else.

If you know you're going to miss practice, please let the senseis know ahead of time. It's no big deal if you don't, but it's nice to know ahead of time who will be there and who won't be. Letting the senior student know as well can help; the senseis and senior student can be reached at isshinryu at mit.edu.

Lining up

Rank order starts with the seniormost student at the front of class, on the right hand side of the row. Rank descends to that person's left, and then similarly through the rows. (Random trivia: other styles line up with seniormost person on the left.) Line up directly behind someone; if the last row is incomplete, the empty slots should be on the left.

Note that there is no seniority within rank, so if you're a white belt who started last week, you are still of the same rank as a white belt who's about to test for yellow belt. While the two of you will line up to the left of the yellow belts, the two of you should alternate you lines up to the right of whom across classes, but not within a class: that is, if A and B are both of the same rank, then on (say) Monday, A lines up to the right of B all the time during that class, but on Wednesday, B should line up to the right of A.

If there's three of you, then hash it up accordingly. This is way too much explanation for such a trivial detail...


In our dojo, we use two kinds of bows: seated and standing bows.

When standing, your heels should be together with your toes pointed outwards (about 45' between them). Your arms should be held at your sides. Bow from the waist about 45 degrees.

When seated in seiza position, you place your hands on the floor; your hands should be balled into fists. Again, bow from the waist, bringing your forehead almost to the floor. If you can (it depends on your flexibility), try to keep your hips resting on top of your feet.

Asking questions

So, there you are, and you have a question. Who do you ask?

The short answer is: the senseis. After all, they're there to teach. :)

The technical answer is: anyone of higher rank than you.

However, some people at your rank may be interested in your question, so you could ask them. Likewise, they may be concentrating on something, so you may not wish to disturb them.

While it's true that most people are usually busy with something, my experience has been that everyone is happy to stop what they're doing to answer a question. Naturally, it's polite to wait for a person to finish doing a kata or something before interrupting.

If someone asks you a question, you can either field the question yourself, or refer them to someone higher up. In general, I like teaching, so I'll usually answer the question, although there have been times when I've been madly prepping for a testing, and in those cases, I would refer them on. (That's never happened, actually; people know, "oh, dave's busy" and skip over me to the next senior person.)

Do you have to go in order of rank when asking a question? No. Usually, people just ask a sensei directly. Don't be surprised, however, if a few other students wander over to listen in. Good questions come from all quarters. :)

Sometimes, whoever's leading will defer your question to the end of class. Many excellent questions take a long time to answer, so rather than tying up class to answer the question at that moment, they'll defer the question until later. This isn't meant to be derogatory; on the contrary, it means that you've probably hit upon something interesting, but that there isn't time to focus on it at the moment.


When listening, unless instructed otherwise, please stand in the "at rest" position: feet shoulder-width apart, hands resting in front of your thighs. Whoever's instructing you will let you know when they want you to follow their movements as they describe them.

Working with a partner

Sometimes we work with a partner during class, be it warmups or exercises.

In general, the senior person should be aware of the junior person's abilities and modify accordingly to keep things safe. If it's just "situps with a partner", then there's not much to do. If we're doing something where there's contact, then there's a lot of control to be exercised. Good communication between you and your partner is vital. Just because you're junior doesn't mean that there isn't half the burden of communicating with your partner on you.

Obviously, start slowly. If you and your partner are experienced, you can start at a much elevated rate. But if you and your partner are both new, then by all means, start slowly and carefully. You may be encouraged to push a bit, but you need to be mindful of safety issues.

If you feel unsafe, just stop and let your partner know. If something happened that made you feel uncomfortable, let the senseis know after class.

Leading a group

Whether you're leading the whole class or just a group, you need to be mindful of what's going on. Keep track of physical, mental, and emotional parameters. Are they exhausted? Do people need water? Are they bored? Or are they trying to absorb too much information? Are they succeeding or are they getting frustrated?

If I could instruct a person how to be a good teacher in a few paragraphs, I'd be a multimillionaire from the book and lecture circuit. :) If you have questions, feel free to ask others in class.

Speaking to others in class

When speaking to others in class, do so in a forceful, confrontational manner. No, wait, just kidding. :)

Aside from the obvious, you should refrain from answering questions not directed at yourself. This usually occurs when Person A is instructing a group of people and Person B asks a question. It's not that we don't want your input; just wait until Person A calls upon you for your comments.


We teach more than just Isshinryu; we also teach what we call "self defense". (Not exactly the greatest label, as Isshinryu can also be used for self defense.) These self-defense techniques address a variety of situations where you may not want to escalate all the way up to punching or kicking someone. For instance, if grabbed, you may simply want to effect a release. ("Hey, let go!" as opposed to "OK, now I'm going to go postal on you.")

We practice these self-defense techniques at random intervals, so it may be a few classes before you see them.


Kumite, or sparring, is always completely optional. Your skill (or lack thereof) in kumite will not be considered for promotion.

In general, our kumite is done without pads, and only at the highest levels do we allow light contact. For us, kumite is about achieving mu-shin, or no mind: getting to a state where you are purely reacting, and not being pre-occupied with a fight.

Kumite is only allowed at yellow belt and above.


We don't do much weapons work with Isshinryu. You start at white belt, or 10th kyu. When you reach purple belt, or 4th kyu, you'll learn the bo, or quarterstaff. After that, you'll learn the sai, or sai. (OK, so, there isn't an English word for sai. :) )

Please refrain from touching other people's weapons. It's OK to ask to handle them (although some people dislike other people handling their weapons), but that should generally be done outside of class.

Etiquette outside the dojo

There is a variety of opinion on this. Here's mine.

"Dojo etiquette" starts and ends when I enter the dojo. People stop being "Frank" or "Melissa" and become fellow students, or "Sensei". Now, this doesn't mean that I revert to my usual rude self around these people after class, so clearly, some aspect of the dojo's etiquette is still in force. But I don't normally bow to Frank or Melissa when wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, so for me, that boundary is "inside the dojo". And email, heh, that's a fun one. If I'm speaking in my karate persona, then I might refer to people as "Sensei", but otherwise, I'll talk about them as "Frank" or "Melissa".

The senior student

If you feel reluctant to speak to one of the senseis about something in class, you can always talk to the senior student. Part of their responsibility is to field questions from the rest of class, and if necessary, they can obliquely discuss the situation with the senseis ("some people in the class are concerned about X...").

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David Leung, dcltdw at mit.edu