AIK Coach's Corner: Courtesy

Coach’s Corner Blog - Courtesy #1

Some traditions of martial arts in general, and Kenpo in particular, can be hard to understand. Most date back to a utilitarian concept that was true hundreds of years ago, but are less immediate today. Some exist because a particular master instructor in our lineage wanted to underline a particular part of training. Today, we’re chatting with Sigung Steve LaBounty about an example of that second kind, coming from him: the spirit towel.

AIK: Welcome, Sigung.

Sigung Stephen LaBounty: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

AIK: So...I have to ask. Karate has belts, uniforms, weapons, creeds and bows...but a towel? Did Douglas Adams take kenpo and nobody told me?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Ha! Not that I know of. He did read the I Ching pretty extensively though. Ancient warriors, including but not limited to the Samurai, used small towels for all kinds of things. They used them to clean tools and utensils, to wipe oil and blood off their weapons, to clean their faces.

AIK: Like Mr. Adams said, towels are useful. 

Sigung Stephen LaBounty: Yes. But the Samurai would also carry a special towel just for their battles. They would wrap it through the obi in their battle dress. They would use it to bind wounds, protect injuries, wipe sweat or gore from the face, or wear it as a headband to keep hair and sweat out of the eyes. A warrior would use only one towel for this purpose, and it was held in high esteem. Sometimes they would write kanji on it, or draw a picture of particular meaning.

AIK: I’ve seen something like that in old photos of the kamikaze pilots from World War Two

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:They come from the same tradition, in fact. Spirit towels are still a big part of many professions in Japan. These days you’ll see them used by sports teams, sushi chefs, school spirit events, all manner of people, places and things.

AIK: And that’s what led you to adopt it for your own lineage?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Exactly. Bruce Lee says to take what’s useful and discard the rest, and the Sprit Towel concept struck me as useful. For over 40 years our motto has been “Spirit, Honor, Discipline.” The Kanji for those three words are printed on our spirit towels, to help the concepts remain ever present in the minds of our students, teachers and other practitioners.

AIK: Am I right to assume there’s a right way and a wrong way to use the towel?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:In fact, you are? The proper way to fold the towel is to first have the Kanji face away from you so the word “Spirit” is displayed to all present. Then take your left hand and fold one-third of the towel to the inner center. This is known as the “Honor” side because of the kanji there. After that, fold the right one-third -- the “Discipline” side -- into the inner center. Once this is done, the towel is folded in half representing the physical and spiritual aspects of the art?

AIK: Kind of like the “Tiger and Dragon” symbol?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Exactly. Just like that.

AIK: Something tells me I’m not the first person to draw that conclusion.

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Ha! Nope. And you won’t be the last. It’s a good insight.

AIK: Aw, shucks.

Sigung Stephen LaBounty: You then place the towel under and then over your belt so the “Spirit” kanji is visible from the front. Keep it there while you train so you’ll always know where your towel is, and you’ll always have a reminder about one of the reasons we train. For a long time, the custom was for men to wear the towel on the left side of their belt, and for women to wear the towel to the right of the knot.

AIK: But not anymore?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Now, just make sure you never cover your belt knot with the towel. Use it freely as it was meant to be, but any blood you get on the towel should be washed out immediately.

AIK: Why is that?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty: Its an old custom, symbolizing that the battle which brought the blood forth is to be forgotten and you can train anew unencumbered by that. In modern training, it’s a way to help you “wash away” any temporary anger or hard feelings you might have from getting “dinged” by a classmate before you return to the deck.

AIK: That’s a good thought. I like that.

Sigung Stephen LaBounty: Me too.

AIK: Anything else?

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:Just let the cloth remind you that details matter, and should be done with as much spirit as possible, and in honor to self, teacher, system with the discipline of the strong -- not the lazy or the weak.

AIK: Wise words, Sigung. Thank you again for taking the time.

Sigung Stephen LaBounty:No problem. It was my pleasure.

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