The Japanese Art of Sitting Down

What exactly is “seiza,” also known as the Japanese art of sitting? Is it some special physical position that heals disease, results in clear skin and eternal happiness? Actually, it’s not any of those things but is much more than its simple name would imply.

Can anyone learn to sit in the seiza style, and if so, what might be the benefits? The quick answer to that double-question is yes, and there are plenty of benefits for those who are patient.

Note that there are hundreds of books about seiza and philosophy connected with the practice. Every comprehensive Japan guide has information about seiza sitting.

When I started researching seiza books and products, I found a super-informative book about seiza etiquette, technique, and rules. It’s called “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture.”

The book offers a full examination of Japanese customs, etiquette, cultural heritage, spiritual beliefs, and discusses the origins of seiza sitting. For a mini-course on Japanese culture, the book is a great place to start and is full of interesting stories and essays about what it means to be Japanese.

If you want to learn seiza sitting, it helps to have a little background on the cultural practices of Japanese people and to understand how important the simple act of sitting can be in a life that puts more value on inner qualities than outer forms. The authors, Davies and Ikeno, have covered all the key aspects of daily life and culture in Japan, making this an excellent book for anyone who plans to travel to Japan, or who just wants to know what Japan is all about.

What is Seiza?

In Japan, seiza is a way of sitting that shows up virtually everywhere but most Westerners know it only from the martial arts. It’s the way students in karate and judo classes sit while at rest. Some people who practice meditation use the position as an “at balance” body position and have learned to remain seated, seiza-style, for hours and hours.

What Can Seiza Do?

Many people who sit in the seiza posture report the elimination of fear and anxiety. There have even been a few scientific studies that show seiza as a possible way to regulate things like blood pressure, heart rate, and mental alertness. Meditation practitioners say they can achieve “insight” by sitting in the position. In general, people who advocate sitting seize style say that the posture helps them see the world as it is and accept life on its own terms.

What are the “Rules” for Sitting in Seiza Position?

Is there a technique for sitting the seiza way? And what is the proper etiquette for achieving, and holding, the position? Any thorough Japan guide will show at least a short version of the seiza etiquette, the formal rules, and the proper technique.

Seiza experts in Japan guide millions of students who want to learn the best way to follow seiza etiquette. So, what’s the technique? And what are the seiza “rules” for beginners? Here’s the formal version for those new to seiza, broken down into simple steps:

One: From a standing position, kneel down on the floor with the kneecaps about 6 inches apart. Make sure the big toes of your feet are just barely touching each other. This happens only if you tilt the feet inward, toward each other. Now lower your body and “sit” on your heels, or slightly in between your heels.

Two: Don’t make your spine a straight line! Instead, gently allow the lower back to move forward. This will cause your spine to be in an “S” position, slightly curved. This is one of the “technique” parts of the posture because everyone is shaped differently, so it takes a bit of practice to achieve the S position. There is no official “rule” for seiza sitting, but there is etiquette and there are many techniques that help beginners get the feel of the position.

Three: Put your body weight mostly in between the knees and the tops of your feet. Don’t sit back or forward too far, otherwise, your trunk muscles will get tired very fast.

Four: The position of the head is extremely important. First of all, keep your ears lined up with your shoulders, and try to have your nose directly above the perpendicular (imaginary) line that originates at your navel. Pull in your chin just a bit, so that the rear muscles of the neck are ever-so-slightly stretched. Some practitioners use a technique in which they imagine someone pulling their hair up as if stretching out the spine, upward.

Five: Now, find the “center line.” This technique involves rocking from side to side and front to back, gently, until you feel your body’s new center of gravity in the seiza position. Rock your body from the hips, slowly, in circles.

Eventually, the circles should get smaller and smaller until you discover a stable center point in the position. It takes practice so be patient. Your patience will pay big dividends, however, because sitting in your center point will prevent muscle fatigue later on. It will also keep your muscles from cramping up.

Six: Now bring your attention to your shoulders. Are they completely relaxed? If now, take a few minutes to let them drop down naturally. For many people, the shoulder muscles are the tightest and tensest of all body parts. Now it’s time to position the hands, an all-important part of the seiza position and a key element of seiza etiquette. Here’s the hand positioning technique: Put your right hand in the middle of your lap with the palm facing up. Make sure the rim of the little finger is gently resting against the abdominal trunk. Now put the left hand directly on top of the right with the palm facing up. All the fingers on both hands should be “closed,” in other words, not spread out.

The hands are now cup-shaped, almost like a small bowl that is sitting on your lap. The “rim” of this cup should be situated about three inches below the level of your navel. The tips of your thumbs need to be in contact with each other to form a perfect “bowl” with the hands.

The Japanese have a special word for this fixed point just a few inches below the level of the navel: the tanden. It represents many things, primarily the focal point of a human’s essence or life force. It also marks a balance center for the weight of the body. Ancient Japanese philosophy notes that the tanden is the origination point of our daily, and eternal lives.

What Now? Should We Just Sit and Think of Nothing?

Even though there are several popular variations of the seiza position, the one described in the steps above is by far the most common. For beginners, it’s the easiest to achieve and hold without suffering from sore muscles, distracted thoughts, or falling asleep. Martial arts practitioners use this variation and so do many others. But what to do once the position has been achieved? It’s time for some fine-tuning, primarily with respect to the eyes, mouth, and breath.

Eyes: For starters, don’t move your head at all. Simple open your eyes and focus them on a place about three feet from the kneecaps. To test whether you’re doing this step right, you can try the “nose test.” If you can’t see your nose, then you have probably lowered your head. This is a common problem for beginners. When we lower our eyes to focus on the ground, we typically lower our head too. In seiza, you need to avoid this.

So, make certain that when you lower your eyes to see the spot three feet ahead of the knees, you keep your head motionless. Now you’ll notice that your eyes are approximately “half-open,” as depicted on many Buddha statues. There’s a reason for this. Closed eyes invite sleep. Eyes, when completely open, can invite too many distractions. Half-open eyes are just right for seiza sitting.

Mouth: Now for the mouth and tongue! Seiza sitting means you’ll have to put your tongue, teeth and inner mouth in the position it’s in during sleep. To do that, put your tongue against the mouth’s roof. Gently “close” the teeth; not like chewing but just as if they’re at rest. Get the air out of the tiny space between the roof of the mouth and the tongue. By carefully arranging the tongue and teeth, you’ll be putting the salivary glands into a low production mode. That’s good for seiza because it means you will not be swallowing too often.

Breath: Expert seiza practitioners believe the proper etiquette for seiza breathing is slow and full. There’s an entire section of Taoist philosophy that speaks of the breath as the central part of the life force in our bodies. Use the diaphragm to breathe, inward through the nostrils, not the mouth. It’s closed, remember.

The stomach and chest will expand as you inhale, but they’ll do so naturally, not by force. Try to avoid using any muscle power at all as you breathe, except for the minimal muscle usage that initiates breathing. In fact, your entire upper body should be devoid of tension and muscle use at this point. You might notice that as you breathe, your shoulders aren’t moving all. This is to be expected and means you have done the seiza technique correctly up to this point.

While breathing in, you might be tempted to “over-fill” the lungs. This is a common impulse and is to be avoided. Let your body decide how far to inhale and exhale. Let exhaling ‘happen.” You don’t need or want to force or guide it in any way.

As opposed to inhaling, which does include a certain small amount of muscular initiation, exhaling is a natural bodily reaction for getting rid of air in the lungs. It needs no muscle power and just happens as a result of the lungs’ interior cavities returning to their original shapes.

When your body “decides” to initiate another breath, let it happen. Don’t count or time the breath at this point in the technique. This is about natural breathing and natural processes. Simply get out of the way and let your body do its stuff. Remember, never “force” any of these steps, especially when it comes to breathing. Part of the general seiza etiquette, or social rules, has to do with letting nature take its course. Keep that overriding principle in mind as you begin to practice the seiza technique.

As you progress in the technique, you will begin to notice many things. Your sitting technique will improve slightly each time you sit, as long as you follow the steps above. You’ll also notice that your breath and heart rate will showdown, your mind will become “quieter” each time, more devoid of chattering thoughts.

What is the “Breathing Technique” of Seiza?

Okay, now it’s time to count. It’s your choice whether to count the inhalations, exhalations or both. Experienced seiza enthusiasts tend to count the exhalations. Begin at one and count up to ten, then repeat. If you forget, start all over, don’t try to “catch up” or find your place. Just begin anew.

This counting is vitally important. For those new to seiza, it is impossible to explain how important it is, but consider this: Counting gives just enough structure to your inner state to keep you from falling asleep. It also helps occupy your mind and avoid excessive “running thoughts.”

You’ll need at least a bit of mental attention to count from one to ten and not drift off. For centuries, thousands of years actually, people who have practiced meditation have used simple counting to develop mental discipline, remain awake, and keep distracting thoughts to a minimum.

What to do with random thoughts? The informal “rules” of seiza say that you should accept the fact that your brain is thinking these thoughts. Don’t try to avoid them, but likewise, do not “follow” them by theorizing or using logical analysis to examine them. Simply note an arising thought, watch it pass on, and ignore it from that point onward.

When another thought pops up, do the same thing. Here is where counting can be a big help. When thoughts threaten to interfere with your calm state of mine, you should note the thought, ignore it, and get back to the simple counting. The counting exercise works hand in hand with keeping “thought distractions” to a bare minimum. Counting is your life-saver in the practice of seiza sitting.

Another distraction that happens to people is visual. Sometimes you might begin to see colorful lights, visual displays and other sight-related distractions on the inside of your eyelids. There will be emotional distractions also, some of which can be powerful and occasionally frightening. Don’t worry. You are simply in the seiza position to sit calmly.

When you start out, don’t sit longer than a half-hour, twice per day. It’s okay to do less than that, but don’t do more when you are in the beginning stages of learning the position. Follow this ritual for a few weeks as your body becomes adjusted to the physical and mental situation. Your blood circulation will adjust to the bent legs, and your back will find its way, eventually. Be patient. Be persistent. Practice daily.

Trouble-shooting Tips for Seiza Beginners

If your legs begin to fall asleep or your muscles cramp up, lift your torso slightly to allow for a temporary break from the strict seiza position. There are no rules here, just follow your instinct. Remember that a bit of pain is typical for new seiza practitioners, but if you feel persistent pain then give your legs a break by rising up a bit, putting a small pillow between your buttocks and legs, or standing up for a few seconds. It’s not a contest to see who can endure pain the longest!

Your goal is to get your body accustomed to seiza sitting technique. For some, that might mean two or three months of adjusting and acclimating the body. For others, seiza technique can be accomplished within just a few weeks. We’re all different, so there’s no need to be tough on yourself. The older you are, particularly if you are over 40, it can take a bit longer for your body to adapt to the seiza technique that it does for younger practitioners.

What about Seiza Benches? Is that “Cheating”?

Millions of people all over the world use specialized benches for seiza sitting. Not everyone can adapt to the formal seiza technique described above. If leg or back pain persists, or if you are older than 40 when you begin practicing seiza technique, you might discover that using a seiza bench is the solution to your dilemma.

What are seiza benches and where can you get one? The good news is this: seiza benches are easy to find online, cost little, and can last a lifetime if you take proper care of them. You can even make one yourself if you possess bare minimum carpentry skills.

Online, search for “seiza benches for sale” via your favorite search engine. Find one you like at a price you can afford and order it. Or go here to find out how to make one for yourself. Be careful when ordering online because benches are not “one size fits all.” Shop around, compare prices, and find a seller you can trust.

For the DIY bench, I made one myself from the site linked above, and it works perfectly. The beauty of making your own is that you can adjust the height to your personal ideal level, and then can add permanent cushioning to the bench by nailing or tacking it on.

If you don’t have a bench and don’t want to make one, a short-term solution is to use a small pillow between your buttocks and ankles, or between your ankles and the floor, or both.

In all, I spent less on wood, fabric, screws, and sandpaper than I would have on a meal at a fast-food restaurant. And my carpentry skills are virtually non-existent. So if I can make a seiza bench, probably anyone can. It’s a fun project regardless of the outcome.

Further Seiza Tips for Sitting Success

Find a quiet area where you can sit, and don’t sit in the dark. A few soft lights are okay but try for zero sound. The point being that soft light is a natural thing for us to see and is not a distracting element, while sound can be very distracting.

Even small sounds should be eliminated in your “perfect” seiza room. As your practice advances and you become more adept at ignoring distractions, you’ll be able to sit virtually anywhere, even on a noisy train. But that is something very far away from us now. Our goal today is to learn the technique, the etiquette and the seiza “rules” according to tradition.

At the end of a seiza session, you will want to bend slightly forward for a few seconds. Then, move the forehead all the way down to the floor without taking the hips up from the heels. Put your hands on the floor too, making sure to place them right next to your head and with the palms up. Remain in this position for about 30 seconds or more and then begin to stand up. If you want to remain in this “stretched out” position for a few minutes to simply breathe and allow your body to further adjust, it can help you develop your seiza skills.

Always remember that seiza sitting is a sacred practice. Give it your full attention and respect when learning the technique, and you will learn many things about yourself and the world around you.

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