Bowing is a simple thing, really. It’s one of the first things that a Taekwon-Do student learns—often the very first thing, because it’s how we start class. But I’ve seen a surprising number of students get it wrong.
So let’s try to fix that, shall we?
Coming to attention
The first step in bowing is to come into attention stance.
First of all, if you’re carrying anything, put it down. And if you’re wearing a hat, take it off.
Bring your feet together in a ‘V’ shape with your heels touching. Ideally, your feet should form a 45-degree angle. Keep your legs straight (but not locked) and stand up tall.
Foot illustration freedesignmagazine.com (modified)
According to the Encyclopedia, your arms should hang “naturally” by your sides, with a slight bend in your elbows. However, the book’s accompanying photos show a less-than-natural posture. I don’t know anyone who naturally lets their arms hang far away from their body unless they have invisible lat syndrome.
In 2009, Grand Master Tran Trieu Quan tried to quantify the angle of the bend in the elbows (in true Taekwon-Do fashion). He said it should be 30 degrees. Seems about right. [Read GM Tran’s .doc file here]
Your fists should be clenched slightly. A person shouldn’t be able to see light through them, but you also shouldn’t clench hard like you would for a punch.
If you open your fingers, your palms should more or less face the floor. But because of the bend in your elbows, your palms will be tilted upward ever so slightly. Keep your wrists straight.
I sometimes see students standing with their palms facing forward instead of downward. Don’t do that. I’ve heard that General Choi would correct this mistake by telling people it looked like they were begging for change.
Finally, your eyes should face front, looking just above the (usually imaginary) horizon.
To bow, bend forward from the waist, not the neck or the back. The Encyclopedia says to bow 15 degrees. That’s a really shallow bow, so I don’t think anyone would fault you for bending to about 30 degrees or so.
Keep your head up and your eyes on the person or thing you’re bowing toward.
On that note, if you’re bowing to a thing (like a flag or a photo of General Choi), don’t say “Taekwon.” Only say it if you’re bowing to a person. Inanimate objects can’t say it back.
If you’re bowing to a senior, hold the bow until they bow to you. Once they start to straighten up, you can stand up straight as well.
I could go into more detail on the etiquette of bowing, but I’ll save that for another discussion.
Like the issues with attention stance, the problems I’ve noticed with the bow are often in the arms. Some people let their fists fall inward. This usually happens when their palms are facing forward. Others will flare their arms outward a little bit. Some will even swing their arms behind themselves—although, thankfully, it’s mostly kids who do that.
Remember: you aren’t trying to fly. Don’t flap your arms.
Finally, try to keep your hips as stationary as you can. Try not to move them backward as you bend forward.
So there you go. Chances are, you’ve been bowing properly anyway. But if you’ve realized you’ve been doing something wrong, here’s an opportunity to go back and polish up something you may not have ever thought you’d have to work on again.