Seiza “proper sitting”
Throughout the early history of Japan various ways of sitting were regarded as ‘proper’, such as sitting cross-legged, sitting with one knee raised, or sitting to the side. People’s social circumstances, clothing styles, and the places where they sat naturally brought about their manners of sitting. The development in the Muromachi period of Japanese architecture in which the floors were completely covered with tatami (thick straw mats), combined with the strict formalities of the ruling warrior class for which this style of architecture was principally designed, heralded the adoption of the sitting posture known today as seiza as the respectful way to sit. However, it probably was not until circa the turn of the 18th century (the Genroku to Kyōhō eras in Japanese history) that the Japanese generally adopted this manner of sitting in their everyday lives. By the end of the 20th century the traditional tatami-floored rooms and the circumstances where one should sit ‘properly’ on a tatami had become uncommon in Japan. Consequently many modern day Japanese are unaccustomed to sitting seiza.
Japanese online Encyclopedia of Japanese Culture
Performing seiza is an integral and required part of several traditional Japanese arts, such as certain martial arts and the tea ceremony (a table-style version of the tea ceremony known as ryūrei was invented in the 19th century). Seiza is also the traditional way of sitting while doing arts such as shodo (calligraphy) and ikebana (flower arranging), though with the increasing use of western-style furniture it is not always necessary nowadays.
Many theatres for traditional performing arts such as kabuki and sumo still have audience seating sections where the spectators sit in seiza.
Use in the Karate Dojo
Seiza sitting is a posture used in the dojo for zazen (seated meditation). The body weight is distributed over the knees and buttocks whilst the spine is in a neutral position. In Shin ai do Karate we keep our hands open on the thighs. Open hands symbolise non aggressiveness. Elbows are placed close to the body. The right instep is crossed over the left instep. The shoulders are held slightly back and relaxed. The chin is tucked in with the body elongated.
Spine in Seiza
The major points to note in sitting in this position are weight distribution and alignment of the body. The most stable position is created by three points of support in seiza. These points are our knees and buttocks resting on our feet. Once we have found a stable position we need to find the optimal alignment for the spine.
Many Sensei teach that students should sit with the back straight, but this action causes tension and quick tiredness. It is nearly impossible to hold yourself like this for long periods of time.
To maximise the benefits of performing seiza our spine should strive to be relaxed and elongated, avoiding compression. The spine will be naturally curved and the pelvis should be tilted slightly forward. These two actions help the vertebra align in a proper position (assuming the practitioner has no health issues). The stomach will not become compressed and we can breathe freely. The chin should be tucked in and pushed back imaging that we have a balloon attached to the head stretching us up. (Want to know more about healthy sitting? Read here.)
Problems with Seiza
Some beginners might have problems with this position as it demands good flexibility in the knees and hips. Some might experience tiredness in the back as they are not used to sitting straight (as a result of long periods of slouching). Many people hold tension in the neck and shoulders, they might find it difficult to relax in seiza. Others with weak back muscles might experience slumping in the hips and an arching back. Students with hip mobility restrictions may prefer one hip to the other, which can cause instability. Many students have mobility problems in the knees and ankles. (Want to know more? Please read here.)
With all the techniques in Karate you need patience. It is the same with seiza. Give yourself time to master it. Be aware of the problems every time you sit and try to use the correct form. We are looking for a balanced posture. Our European bad habits of sitting may make the task of perfecting seiza take a bit longer, but with practice comes mastery.