Gestures of Respect in Martial Arts

When they first start a martial art, people often ask: “What is gassho?”, “What is rei?”, “When should I bow?”.

Like all things, the answer is not that simple, and parts of it are different depending on the martial art, but in this article I will give a brief summary of the options and explain the what, when, and how of gestures of respect in Shorinji Kempo.

What gestures of respect are used in martial arts?

All martial arts have a culture of respect, but the way they express that differs for cultural and historical reasons. I won’t get into the reasons too much, but here’s a brief summary.


Perhaps the best known example is from Japanese martial arts. Bowing is common in Japanese society and this has carried over into the martial arts. You can bow while sitting, standing, or kneeling, and it’s often accompanied by words such as “onegaishimasu”, which means “please (teach me)”.

Hand Salute

Another example, familiar to westerners from Kung Fu movies, is the Chinese hand salute. This is where your left hand is open and your right fist touches it.

Wai Khru

In Muay Thai, a pre-fight ritual called “Wai khru ram muay” is performed before tournament fights. It shows respect to the teachers, parents, and ancestors. A wai is a traditional Thai greeting involving pressing the palms together and bowing slightly.

Fist Bump

In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a fist bump is often used as a sign of respect between training partners.

Gasshō Rei

In Shorinji Kempo (and several other Japanese martial arts, especially those with Buddhist roots), gasshō rei is used. We usually say either “onegaishimasu” (please) or “arigatogozaimashita” (thank you) at the same time.

What does “gassho rei” mean?

Let’s start by defining the words, and then we can use them in context.

“Gasshō” (合掌) means “pressing one’s hands together”. It can also be used as a greeting in (usually buddhist) letters.

“Rei” (礼) means “salute or bow”, usually in the polite, thanking people sense of the word.

So, gasshō rei means to salute someone by pressing your hands together. Like this:

Two female martial arts students demonstrate respect before a demonstration.

How to pronounce “gassho rei”

Gassho is pronounced with a long “o” sound – that’s why you’ll sometimes see it written with a bar over the o. “Gash-oh”.

Rei is pronounced like the things that sunshine comes in. “Ray”.

So, together, gasshō rei is pronounced “gash-oh ray”.

How to do gassho rei

Stand with your feet together and your hands folded in front of you. Look at your partner, teacher, or whomever you are supposed to be respecting.

Raise your hands to shoulder height and press them together in front of your face. The tips of the fingers should be level with your eyes, but not obscuring your vision. Keep looking at your partner.

In Shorinji Kempo there is no bowing with gassho rei. Keep upright, because we are all equal and everybody is worthy of respect.

Afterwards, drop your hands back to fold in front of you.

When should I do gassho rei?

This is one of the parts that is different depending on the martial art. Generally speaking gestures of respect are done when entering and leaving the training hall, at the start and end of classes, when training with partners, or some combination of those things.

In Shorinji Kempo, we also use it during sparring – if your partner gets a good shot in, stop and perform gassho rei to thank them for the lesson.

During your first few classes, watch what everyone else does and copy along. Nobody will be upset if you get it wrong at first – we were all beginners once!

Is there more to it?

It is important to note that gassho rei is not just a physical action. Your mental attitude is also important, and should reflect your feelings of gratitude for the teaching you are receiving.

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. [* please note that "ten or more" is still something.]

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