The Meaning and Value of Sitting in Seiza
Sitting in seiza is part of Japanese martial arts tradition, by sitting in seiza during Budo classes we demonstrate that we are participating in this tradition, however, for me that is not enough. I have been practicing Japanese martial arts since the age of 12 andat the age of 17 was uchideshi to Chiba Sensei, then Director of The British Aikido Federation. Budo is very much part of my personal culture, sitting seiza is a way I demonstrate my embodiment of this culture. For those who argue that seiza is something which suits Japanese bodies I recall Inaba Sensei lamenting that this generation of Japanese cannot sustain a conversation, in the polite sitting position of seiza for an hour, without losing concentration. Saito Sensei recounted that, during lectures given by Ueyshiba Sensei the junior grades were made to sit (in seiza) in the front row, the seniors sitting behind would thump them if they moved! I encourage my students to sit in seiza frequently, both in and out of the dojo, with an expectation that, by the time they achieve Shodan, they can sit for one hour.
Why is it so important? My understanding is that, in Budo culture, sitting seiza is a simple demonstration of respect. If you respect your teacher then, you sit seiza in front of him/her. If you respect your fellow Budo practitioners then, you sit seiza with them. If your teacher continues to sit seiza following the initial reiho at the beginning of the lesson then you continue to sit with them. This then becomes a kind of communing, a demonstration of mutual respect and of shared values. In seiza we can sit upright, with our spine erect, our rib cage open giving our internal organs space to function. We can balance our head and see clearly into the space about us without constriction to the neck – we are alert. So, we demonstrate what we feel – we are awake and receptive. We demonstrate to our teachers and our colleagues that we are in a state of balanced readiness.
Perhaps there is also something of Shinto in sitting in seiza, alone or with others, in the dojo – it could be thought of as a small act of dedication. As seiza is rarely comfortable for anyone over long periods of time, there is an element of self-sacrifice to it; it costs us something to continue and raises the question of whether it is worth doing. Not all aspects of Budo are easy to digest, but we must taste everything Budo has to offer if we are to develop our pallet. Inaba Sensei stated (more than once) that, for him, Budo is not about what you can do to others but what you can endure yourself – through Budo we should aim to build physical and psychological resilience. For me seiza is the foundation stone from which to build this perspective on Budo.
In seiza we can breathe into and expand our tanden and build a tangible sense of centre or centeredness. With our pelvis virtually on the ground we cannot help but feel the gravitational connection with the earth. With weight settled and breathing low in the abdomen we can also sense and build a dynamic stretch away from the ground, through the spine and up into the head. Through maintaining consistent pressure from our breath in the tanden, energy builds. We can also have an image of the spine as an energetic pathway with energy flowing in both directions. In this stationary but dynamic state we can begin to understand Doseiittai: movement in stillness/stillness in movement.
The tanden can be imaged as a receptacle – gathering breath, gathering energy. It can also be imaged as a place to absorb discomfort so, any discomfort in knees, feet or back can be drained, if you like, into the tanden. The thing is to concentrate in the tanden so that the dominant sensation remains focused in the centre and not in disparate parts – centring is a process then, which requires effort and attention. The challenges that arise through sitting in seiza, are part of the process of distillation of a centre, and achieving a tangible sense of Tanden. If we cannot absorb discomforts which occur within us, how are we to cope with discomfiture or challenges that come from outside, created by circumstance or presented by others. From the perspective of seiza we can see Budo practice as a process of absorption at least equal and in balance with expression or technique, in fact here is the root of technique. When we have absorbed a grip or strike from an opponent into our tanden then, out of that concentrated or condensed energy, springs a response, a technique.
It is useful to sit in seiza and breath if one has been under stress or are about to face a challenge. It is also worth sitting for some time, in a meditative state, simply as part of one’s research and development. Seiza is a good place to reflect on one’s state and redress energetic and emotional/psychological balance. It does, however, require some perseverance before the body adapts to this posture. For those people who find seiza difficult, I recommend sitting for short periods of time to begin with, perhaps while reading a few pages of a book or while eating breakfast then, gradually increase the time span. I have had many students who initially struggled with seiza, with discomfort in knees, ankles or feet, but who gradually built a capacity and taste for sitting (I do not advocate or encourage people with leg or lower back injuries to sit in seiza if it might exacerbate those injuries). If you continue to investigate the values of seiza, eventually you begin to tap into the benefits. This becomes a generative process – the more you sit, the more you notice the transformative potential.
Tradition, manner, process and purpose become unified in seiza when we not only recognise the cultural tradition but sense and value the subjective process. Respect, or appreciation, then arises and grows naturally between people who embody the same values.