Physical Training Feb 2013
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The Psychological Practice of Seiza

copyright © 2013 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved.

Seiza Bench

Seiza is a method of sitting which, in Japan, is used as psychotherapy. It is a way of sitting on the knees that is used extensively in the martial arts. Practice of seiza can involve these arts or can be done simply as a sitting exercise.

Quiet sitting using the seiza posture is a way to overcome the generalized fears of life and the underlying fear of death. It is an excellent way to regulate the body functions. It can bring the mind closer to the world "as it is" rather than its usual residence in "things as they should be". In other words, seiza is a method of breaking through the illusion of everyday life. When sitting, the endless cycles of thought which are so crippling to mental health are broken and the clean freshness of simply living in the world is allowed to come forth.

To sit in seiza bend your legs and place the left knee on the floor. Place the right knee down about two fist widths from the left. Now flip down the toes and place the feet onto the floor so that the big toes just touch each other. Lower the buttocks down so that they rest on or between the heels.

Straighten up and let the lower back move forward so that there is an S shaped curve to the spine. Rounding out the lower back to the rear or trying to sit back too far will cause muscle fatigue. The weight should be centred somewhere between the top of the feet and the knees, more toward the feet.

The head is carried in balance on top of the spine. The ears should be in line with the shoulders and the nose in line with the belly button. Pull the chin in slightly and stretch the back of the neck. This should feel as if someone is pulling straight up on the hair to stretch the spine. To find the centreline rock in circles from the hips, slowly reducing the swings until coming to rest in a stable position. This centring is important to prevent muscle cramps or fatigue while sitting.

Relax the shoulders and let the arms fall downward naturally. The right hand is placed palm upward on the lap with the little finger edge lightly touching the lower abdomen. The left hand is placed on top of the right, palm upward as well. The fingers should be together without strain. Place the tips of the thumbs together so that they are just touching with no pressure. The thumbs and fingers should make an oval shape around a point about 2 to 3 inches below the navel. This point is called the tanden and corresponds roughly to the centre of balance. The left hand over the right represents the calm ("Sei" or "In" in Japanese) aspects covering the active ("Do" or "Yo") aspects. The thumbs unify the two. The tanden is seen as the centre of being around which the Hara or hip girdle is organized. The centre is the point from which the life is lived.

Variations of this form are sometimes used but this is usually the most balanced and relaxed method of sitting for the martial artist.

Without tipping the head forward lower the eyes and look at a spot centred about one metre in front of the knees. The nose should be in the field of vision or the head has dropped forward. This serves to half close the eyes cutting out most of the visual input without providing the conditions to fall asleep.

Place the tongue on the roof of the mouth and place the teeth lightly together. Draw the air out of the space between the tongue and the palate. This will cut down on saliva production and the need to swallow.

Breathing is done in a very specific fashion and is the most important aspect of the practice. The ancient Taoists believed that breath was life and that each person was only allotted so many. Deep slow breathing was thus seen as life prolonging.

Inhale easily and quietly through the nose using the diaphragm. The belly should expand forward while the chest should expand without any muscular assistance at all. Keep all tension and muscular effort out of the upper body. The shoulders should not move upward at all but don't hold them down, simply let gravity do the work.

Breathe in until the lungs are full and no further, let the breath dictate the turnover to exhalation. Don't hold the breath or do anything special, simply begin to exhale. The exhalation is even more gentle than the inhalation. There should be no noise or fuss, simply breathe out softly, letting the belly collapse. Breathe out until the need to breathe in is felt, then change over to inhalation.

Never force the breath at any time. With practice the rhythm will slow down to perhaps two breaths a minute but don't try to reach any goals, just breathe quietly.

Following the breath, count both inhalations and exhalations or, later, exhalations only. Count from one to ten and then start over. If the count is lost, start at one again, don't try to remember the last number, it's not important. Getting to ten should not be a contest or a goal, just count.

Any thoughts that arise should be noted but then ignored. Just look at them and then let them go, don't chase them or follow any line of reasoning. Go back to the counting. All thoughts have the same worth, nothing, when sitting. When sitting ... sit. Return to the counting. The same goes for any light displays, hallucinations, panic, fear or other illusions. Simply sitting ... sit. Eventually, try to sit in seiza for about 30 minutes early in the morning and again at night. When starting the practice shorter times are advised until the legs are flexible and the circulation adjusts. If the legs begin to fall asleep, rise up off of the knees to allow circulation. Alternatively, roll up a blanket or something similar and place it between the lower legs to raise the hips up off of the heels. A seiza bench such as can be found at may be useful. A small amount of pain is to be expected but don't make it a test of willpower to sit as long as possible.

Ideally the sitting should be done in a quiet room with soft illumination and few visual or other distractions. Music is inappropriate since the idea is not to be distracted. Eventually the practice can be done anywhere with any amount of activity nearby.

When the sitting is finished or when the legs must be relieved, bend forward from the waist and place the forehead on the floor while keeping the hips on the heels. Place the hands palm upward on the floor beside the head. This symbolizes being open (and accepting) to anything that the world cares to offer. Breathing in this position for a short time before sitting up again will allow longer practice times.

There is a vast literature of self-help and meditation and there are many who are willing to teach secret methods of healing the soul for a price. All that is really necessary is a place to be alone and a few breaths. If some support is helpful then seiza can be done in a group but this is not necessary.

Just sit ... simply sit.

Kim Taylor has taught martial arts and meditation practice since 1983

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