A few months ago I was a teaching a children's class when a comment was made to me. The context for the comment was regarding the expediency of getting the children dressed quickly to maximize their training time. The comment went something like “They don't really need to dress in their uniforms, I mean I know it looks cool, but it’s taking long and it’s not about looks." I'm paraphrasing and recalling to the best of my ability. At the time, I didn't lend the statement much weight (I was trying to get a large class in limited time), but the comment stayed with me for some reason. I started to go over why we wear Dogi or Gi for short.
I researched the history of the gi and found that it had originated with judo founder Jigoro Kano, in addition to a multitude of facts. Everything I found still didn't answer the fundamental question as to why we wear these items of clothing. Was it tradition? What about all the arts that now sport many different colored gi? Are they somehow inferior because they have opted to wear a different color? To this day, I have not found the ability of any martial art practitioner to be contained in the gi, white or otherwise.
So why wear it?
Part of it is tradition; I enjoy wearing a simple white gi. Notwithstanding all the symbolism about white being a color of purity, I have always preferred a white gi. In practical terms, it’s not actually the best color if you are engaged in hard training that involves blood and sweat. It requires another level of diligence on the part of the student in terms of your training - hygiene (no one enjoys training next to an unwashed gi for long).
The other part is that it is unpretentious and I really prefer simplicity. It took some time, but I came to an answer that satisfied my question. As I observed classes filled with students wearing their gi, I found that on the dojo floor we are all the same. When we don a gi we are leaving the outside world, outside. In a very real sense, it’s a ritual we perform when we put on our gi. We are preparing to face ourselves, our shortcomings, insecurities, faults and strengths. It is a physical act that prepares us for a mental shift. I have witnessed the transformation that occurs when a beginner dons a uniform. They may feel uncertain and unsure initially, but they are dressed the same way everyone else is with no difference, and over a short time are comfortable with the multitude of techniques they are being exposed to. The actual word dogi means "way clothes" and it’s what we wear on the path to self perfection.
In regards to the variety of colors and hues now available for gi, I have always felt that changing the uniform severs our links to the time and culture in which our arts were founded. From what I have seen and what has been shared with me, the norm in most Japanese dojos is austere and simple. You don’t see walls covered in trophies, flags, posters or other distractions. I personally find the gi with the flash and multitude of patches to be garish and uncalled for. Let your techniques and bearing speak for you, not your gi.
The gi we wear is a symbol of unity. On the dojo floor, there is no status - only rank. We all train together, sweat together and grow together, irrespective of how much or how little we make, what we do or do not own, or what position we may have in our jobs or careers. On the dojo floor we all share the common trait of the pursuit of self perfection. One of my senior students shared a profound insight with me recently - The dojo is one of the only places where you can just be. Much of that freedom is provided by wearing a garment that initially, appears to suppress your individuality. What you discover over time, is that free from the constraints of external expression you are capable of a deeper form of expression that is not dependent on what you are wearing.
Now when I'm asked by a prospective student "Do I have to train in a uniform?" My simple answer is-yes, you do.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body