- Written by Sensei Paul
Two different people came up to our martial arts class to observe training. One person sat on the wooden floor in seiza, proper sitting posture. The other person sprawled on a rolled-up mat and leaned against an elbow. Can you guess which one was asked if he was interested in joining the class?
Seiza is still a posture of respect, and formality, especially for anyone in a traditional Japanese art, be it budo or arts and crafts. But what is seiza?
Seiza is one of the most commonly used sitting postures in Japanese budo (martial arts) and in various other crafts and arts of Japanese origin, but even modern Japanese nowadays sometimes forget the reason why their own traditional culture utilized this posture.
Budoka (those who practice a form of Japanese martial arts) in judo, karatedo, aikido, kendo, and so on, will inevitably sink into this posture at the beginning and end of class for meditation, bowing, and other formalities. When creating an elaborate flower arrangement on tatami mats, or when performing chanoyu (the art of tea), seiza is also used, and in the traditional fue (flute), shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute), koto (stringed harp), seiza is utilized, and when chanting Noh drama music, the chorus all sit in seiza. Aikido, in particular, makes use of seiza to teach basic movements, and many iai schools use seiza in its beginners' forms.
Why then seiza, and why is it so important in traditional budo?
In a nutshell, seiza was and is a posture used in formal occasions in traditional Japanese culture. It arose out of that culture and colored everything else that came from that tradition, including classical budo and fine and applied arts. True, the Japanese can be just as slothful and lazy as anybody else, and they could sprawl about on a tatami mat with the best of us, especially if you lubricate Japanese businessmen with generous amounts of liquor. However, when performing something significant in an official capacity, the Japanese of old used seiza as a form of social propriety and etiquette.
Seiza is written with two Chinese characters. The character pronounced sei- means "proper, right, true," and by itself can be pronounced tadashii, meaning "just right" or "proper." The character -za means "sitting posture," and is written with an ideograph depicting people sitting on a raised platform under a roof. To the Japanese, sitting in seiza, with one's shins folded under, is the most efficient, beautiful, and "proper" posture while engaged in a formal activity sitting on tatami mats indoors.
Of course, picture scrolls depict samurai and nobility sitting cross-legged indoors as well, but especially during the Edo Period (1600-1868), seiza evolved through the consolidation and coalescence of Japanese culture, to become the preeminent formal sitting posture on tatami mats.
The Ogasawara-ryu, which was the preeminent school of etiquette among the samurai class of the Edo period, continues its tradition to this day. From the book by Ogasawara Kiyonobu, Nihon No Reiho, we can glean some understanding of the meaning and method of seiza. Kiyonobu notes how many people complain that seiza makes their feet "go to sleep" (shibireru), but he says that it is from lack of proper exercise, weak leg muscles, and poor circulation, and not necessarily due to the contortions of sitting in seiza. If practiced properly, one should be able to do seiza for several minutes to an hour or so a day with no discomfiture. Proper seiza, Kiyonobu says, helps to naturally align your body and spinal column, and leads to an alert mind and body (1):
. . .Even if you sit in seiza only to eat your meal, that's fine. . . By doing so, you will create a peaceful feeling and your body posture will become properly aligned. (2)
While the basic form of seiza is standard, different schools of martial arts will have different variations of seiza, and you should pay heed to what your particular teacher tells you about sitting. In any case, in polite society, seiza can be generally described thusly:
Sit with shins folded under you, with the big toe of one foot sitting on the other (in some iai schools, the big toes are side by side, not one on top of the other). The knees are about one fist apart for men, and close together for women. Again, different schools may advise differently. One kendo teacher writes that the knees should be two fists apart. (3) In iai, I was taught that they should be a fist-and-a-half. The variation in space apparently is dependent on martial arts styles, teacher preferences, and one's own body dimensions, but something between close together to about two fists' distance is probably appropriate.
A front view of seiza. Note how the elbows are rounded.
The back is straight, but not over-straightened so as to bow the belly outward unnaturally. Nor should you be hunched over. The chin is very slightly tucked in so that, if seen from the side, the top of the head is in a plumb line with the ear lobes, the shoulder, and the center of the body. Seen from the front, the centerline should run straight down the top of the head through the nose, Adam's apple, navel, to the seika tanden, or lower center point (of ki, or spiritual energy; a point a few inches below the navel and a few inches in).
The hands hang naturally at the side, with the palms placed on the upper thigh. The fingers are close together. The arms are slightly rounded. The armpits are slightly bowed, as if holding an egg under them. Too open, and the egg falls out. Too tight, and your arms crush the eggshells.
This is a calming posture, but not one of complete rest. Seiza was used, after all, in formal activities, so it is described by Ogasawara Kiyonobu as a posture of "potential movement within stillness" (sei-chuu-do) as opposed to the Buddhist sitting posture of full lotus or half-lotus ("stillness within stillness", sei-chuu-sei), which is used purely and simply for meditation. (4)
Seiza, therefore, was a perfect posture for the active attitude of the samurai class. While allowing for proper body alignment, it was a posture that had the potential to quickly change and shift, to allow you to do something, whether it be to serve the needs of a lord, to make a bowl of tea, or to quickly rise up and draw out one's sword.
Three examples of sitting in seiza. The center drawing shows proper seiza. The drawing on the left shows bad posture from a bent back. The drawing on the right shows an equally bad posture when one tries to overcompensate.
Again, it is emphasized that the eyes are naturally facing forward. In such a position, the eyes are described by one of my instructors as being in happo enzan (eight-ways, distant gaze). That is, the eyes are able to take in every angle without fixating and being stuck on any single object. This trait is supposed to arise from proper posture and continuous practice of the martial arts, and is the epitome of zanshin ("lingering spirit"; watchfulness, attention).
You should be alert, but also maintain a calm and collected spirit, balancing your ability to see (ken) with your developed ability to "sense" (kan). Kan-ken niyoo no metsuke is a term used to describe the martial artist's ability to see the visible and what is behind the visible, i.e., to have a heightened innate "sense" of one's surroundings. (5) (In the Gorin Sho, Miyamoto Musashi calls this kanken futatsu no koto, "see-sense, two-in-one thing.")
Kiyonobu says that seiza probably arose naturally, out of human experience, and that it is naturally a beautiful yet inherently active posture, which is why Japanese traditional culture used it in budo and geido (the way of the arts). He goes further, however, making comments that we as budo students should heed:
If we are to look at the example of budo, seiza is not to conquer or defeat others, but a technique of spiritual cleansing. If you have this spirit, and if you use this posture as a method of unifying your mind and body. . . You will quell your ego-spirit and discover the "Way of Heaven" and the "Way of Humanity". . . (6)
Ins and Outs of Seiza
Seiza itself is therefore well-defined, and there are also codified ways of stepping in and out of it. (However, again it must be forewarned that different classical traditions have added slight variations, and when unsure, it is best to follow the dictates of your own teacher.)
Basically, if you are wearing pants, you go into seiza from a standing position first by slightly bending both knees. The left foot then goes down as the right knee bends further, with the toes curled so as to provide a stable balance. The right foot then follows. It is important to keep both toes curled so as to keep the top of your foot off the ground and in order to keep your balance and aid in suddenly moving back up to a standing position.
Slowly sink your weight down, lowering your trunk until the back of your thighs meet the back of the shin. This position is called kiza, and one's balance is very much like seiza except for the toes being raised up and folded over.
Not only is kiza a transitionary position, it was also a position in an of itself, when sitting and waiting upon one's superiors. The bent toes help to balance oneself in case you have to rise up suddenly, and the use of your toes are so important that if you rise or sink down without keeping the toes so inclined, you stance is called "dead." This "deadness" is both literal and figuratively speaking, because being unable to rise up quickly could, indeed, spell the end of you if you were a samurai suddenly under attack. The toes curled in proper position signifies that your body and mind are alert (karada ga ikite iru; "your body is living") (7). Rising back up is the opposite of sitting down.
Now, of course, the Japanese had to go and complicate things because they didn't wear Western-style pants in Yee
Olden Times, and so how do you get into and out of seiza in hakama?
Almost the same procedure applies, except that if you sink right into seiza without taking into account the loose folds of the hakama, you end up in a jumbled mess that looks rather messy (and, of course, is un-martial artsy in that a messy hakama means that if you are suddenly attacked and try to rise up quickly, you might end up stepping your toes on the folds of your disheveled hakama and falling over yourself just as the enemy is bringing his sword down over you!). Kendo and iai schools, especially, have added one little twist to deal with the hakama. To splay out the hakama folds so you don't sit on them with your feet, you place your right hand in between your shins just as you bend over slightly to sink down into kiza. Your left hand, of course, is never used because you are holding the handle of your sword in your belt. The right open palm quickly slaps the inside folds of the hakama to the left, just as the left leg is sinking down to the ground. Then the palm slaps the right inner folds to the right. This "slap" should be sharp and only as vigorous as necessary. Making a very loud slapping sound is a bit too much to the ears of the ancients.
(A humorous aside: the whole method of slapping and sitting was recently discussed to the point of nausea recently on the iaido-L Internet forum. It's a minor point, indeed, but one that can apparently raise a lot of arguments among slap-happy martial artists who wear hakama.)
When you sit, you then must be sure that the folds of the hakama are not splayed too far outward. While pretty, this is called a "butterfly's wings" effect and is considered, again, not very wise for a samurai.
However, all you budo folks should realize that slapping the hakama is proper and accepted only in the domain of budo (martial arts)! Outside of budo, the subtlest way to sit with hakama is usually to simply place both palms in the back of your knees as you sink down quickly into seiza. This pulls on the hakama and draws it close to your knees, taking the hem away from the soles of your feet.
While we have discussed how to sink into seiza while in pants and hakama, the samurai wore kimono most of the time, especially during the Edo Period. Sitting down by sliding one foot way back and then the other would splay out the kimono and expose your underwear, certainly not a very genteel approach to sitting for the dignified samurai. In fact, if you wore a formal kimono, you would figure out that a lot of what we are discussing about seiza comes from dealing with living in a tatami-mat room wearing kimono. Wearing the kimono or uwagi ("practice outfit," discussed in issue #2 of Furyu) is an article in and of itself, and we won't go into this related subject at this point.
Thus, when sitting down in a kimono, you should keep upper body balance but bend both knees. The left knee bends down slightly ahead of the right, therefore your left knee touches the ground, and your toes are curled under. The right knee then touches the ground, and you are in kiza again, with the inside edges of your feet touching each other. Keeping the feet close together helps to keep the kimono from splaying open. It also avoids displaying your underwear to anyone who is sitting behind you.
From kiza, you sink slowly down, using your thigh muscles, into seiza. You will find that if you are a "normal" body build wearing a kimono appropriate for your size, and if your legs are spaced just far apart (a fist to a fist-and-a-half span for men, close together for women) then the lower edge of the kimono will describe a straight line down the side of your right thigh, making your clothing and posture very composed, neat and well-arranged.
Rising up in kimono and/or hakama is basically the same as in sitting down into seiza, except that you do not need to slap the hakama, obviously. If in hakama, you first rise up into kiza, then the right foot comes up only to the side of the sitting left knee, with both feet's toes up and curled over. From this position, you use your thigh muscles to rise your trunk up, then bring the left foot up to match up with the right foot.
If in kimono, the moves are almost similar but not as exaggerated. You move into kiza, then the right knee rises up, followed by the left, and then you rise straight up and align your feet together.
It is important to maintain a relaxed but balanced posture, whether sitting in seiza or rising or sinking down. Breaking one's balance was considered not only bad form, but was considered a weakness in a samurai's zanshin. Such an opening, or suki, would be a point of attack for any opponent who was secretly wishing to destroy you. Proper form, therefore, sprung from battlefield necessity, and later became a function of aesthetic beauty.
Thus, when rising or sinking down into seiza, you should do so quietly, in balance, and with elegance. Rising up should not be jerky or awkward. The Art of Tea says that rising up out of seiza should be "like the quiet rising of a pillar of smoke." (8)
There are also some other minor points to sitting in seiza, all of which, upon investigation, had some logical origins in the tatami-mat/kimono lifestyle of the traditional Japanese. When sitting in seiza in a tatami mat room, you should try to avoid sitting on top of the joint between two tatami mats. It was "bad luck," one teacher informed me. I must have made a funny face, because he then huffed and said that in truth, this rule of etiquette was probably devised to keep the edges of the tatami from fraying too fast, since the edges are the first to show signs of wear and tear. In addition, sitting on top of the edges is not aesthetically pleasing. It's chuuto hanpa; half-and-half, not quite sitting in one mat or the other, a situation that irritates formal traditional Japanese sensibilities.
In addition, formal situations such as tea or ritual ceremonies had very specific seating arrangements. The construction of tea rooms and other important ritual rooms took into consideration the superstitious spatial arrangements called feng shui in Chinese. The alignment of the room also factored in the seating arrangements of the hosts and guests, and in order to carry out rites properly the assembled people had to sit in their proper location and direction, deduced through feng shui. The allocation of seating positions decided the placement of the tatami mats, such that two or three Japanese could sit in seiza on the length of one mat, and thus if you sat inside of a mat, you were probably sitting where you should be sitting. Straddling two mats meant, in all probability, that you weren't in a proper position in a formal situation. Of course, this rule was adjusted if you happen to be crammed into a tiny room, during a funeral rite, for example, and you and everybody's uncles and brothers are close enough to smell each other's brand of after-shave lotion. In addition, the Japanese are finding that old ways of delineating space and sitting may need to be rethought. The younger Japanese, exposed to a new diet and a Western lifestyle, are growing taller and wider than their Edo-period ancestors.
Beginning and Ending in Seiza
Because of the heavy influence of the Ogasawara-ryu on many iai schools, seiza is taught as a primary position for beginning students. There are reasons for this, some of which have been described in this introductory essay. It is clear, therefore, that seiza is quite important in all martial arts schools as a form of respect. And far from being a necessary evil in order to perform bowing and meditation at the beginning and end of classes, it is also a learning position, a position that extends and accentuates your martial arts training, giving it zanshin and beauty.