If karate becomes part of your life, you will do a lot of seiza in your lifetime so it’s important to learn how to do it right and that is what we are going to look at in this article.
What is seiza?
Seiza is written as 正座 in Japanese. ‘Sei’ means correct and ‘za’ means seat, so seiza means to sit correctly.
Seiza is the Japanese formal and polite way of sitting on the tatami floor.
Seiza has not always been the formal sitting posture for the Japanese, however.
Prior to the Edo period, the correct sitting postures comprised sitting cross-legged, sitting with one knee raised or sitting to the side as well as sitting on your feet like seiza today.
The social and architectural development during the Muromachi period (1338 to 1573) made seiza become more popular. During this period, tea ceremonies became more popular and people were required to practice seiza as a part of tea ceremonies and other formal gatherings. The development of Japanese architecture during this period in which the floors were completely covered with straw mats (tatami) and the introduction of strict formalities by the ruling warrior class together led to the adoption of seiza as the formal sitting posture.
During the Edo period (1600 to 1868), it became a convention for samurai to sit in seiza when meeting authority figures such as the Shogun (head of the samurai). It also became a standard sitting position for common people to adopt in presence of persons of great importance, superiors, and elders and at tea ceremonies, places of worship, and other formal gatherings.
Seiza gradually became a part of everyday life for the Japanese during the Meiji era (1868 to 1912).
Seiza also brought about two features of the Japanese culture: removing one’s shoes prior to entering any room and the popularity of the low table.
Seiza required the legs and feet to be folded properly and footwear, therefore, had to be removed. It is now a custom for the Japanese to remove shoes and leave them at the door.
Sitting in seiza also requires a table of appropriate height and the low table Chabudai became popular.
When do you sit in seiza in karate?
There are many occasions where you are required to sit in seiza in your karate practice. They include:
- At the class opening ceremony where you will sit in the seiza position for bowing and meditating
- At the class closing ceremony where you will sit in the seiza position for meditating, reciting dojo kun and bowing out
- During instructions. Generally, this is not a must but it is a polite way of sitting and showing respect to your instructor. If you can’t sit in seiza for long, you can adopt a more comfortable position like sitting to the side, but please don’t sit with your feet pointing forward which is considered rude
- During demonstrations. The same rule applies as when listening to instructions from your sensei
- During gradings. If you are waiting for your turn to be graded or just participating in the training, sit in seiza if you can to watch others respectfully.
However, if your physical conditions do not allow you to sit in seiza at all, for example, injuries or surgeries, or if seiza causes great discomfort due to age, please inform your instructor. It is totally fine to adopt a less formal and more comfortable posture such as sitting with one knee raised, sitting to the side, or kneeling.
How to do seiza properly in karate?
To do a seiza properly in karate, follow the steps listed below:
- From the formal stance (musubi dachi), take a small step back with your left leg
- Drop the left knee and place it on the floor
- Place the right knee on the floor
- Sit down on your feet with the left big toe overlapping the right big toe or the toes touching each other
- Women can keep the knees together and men can maintain a gap of one to two fists width between the knees
- Rest the left hand on the left thigh, right hand on the right thigh, hands open, fingers close together, palms down
- Keep your back and neck straight, relax your shoulders and draw your chin in lightly. Imagine there is a string pulling you up from the top of your head.
During instructions, demonstrations, and grading, stay in the seiza position and pay attention. If these are too long, you can of course switch to a more comfortable position.
During meditation (mokuso), you can either close or half-close your eyes, relax and take a few deep and gentle breaths and empty your mind.
When bowing, slide the left hand down from the thigh to the floor, followed by the right hand. Palms should touch the floor and hands should make a right angle. Bow from the waist. Pause for a moment before sliding the right hand back first, followed by the left hand.
How to be more comfortable sitting in seiza?
If you don’t feel comfortable sitting on the floor or squatting, you are likely to find seiza uncomfortable at first. But you will definitely get better with practice.
Stretching, especially your quad muscles, ankles, and knees, will help before sitting down in the seiza position.
Start small and be gentle to yourself.
First sitting down in seiza on a small cushion or a folded towel for a short period of time like 15 to 30 seconds. Stop and start again later for the same amount of time. This is a good exercise to do while you are watching TV.
Do this daily for a week or so or until you feel comfortable with this amount of time and then add another 10-15 seconds and so on.
When you feel comfortable doing seiza on a cushion or a soft mat at home, move on to a hard floor like a wooden floor which is where you would normally do seiza during karate practice.
Japanese people can comfortably sit in seiza for 30 minutes and some can do up to 40 minutes. However, in karate, you are mainly required to sit in seiza at the class opening and closing ceremonies. These ceremonies can last from 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how long the meditation is or whether you need to cite the dojo kun at the end. Other times like demonstrations and lengthy instructions, it is not as necessary. Adhere to it only if you are physically comfortable with it. Therefore, if you can practice sitting in seiza for up to 3 to 5 minutes, you’ve done very well.
If you have a medical condition, knee injury, or foot injury, please talk to your doctor to make sure it is okay to practice it.
If you can’t for whatever reasons, it is perfectly fine, don’t feel bad or let it hold you back with your karate practice. You just need to inform your instructors.
Why you should learn to do seiza properly?
If you physically can, you should learn to do seiza properly so that you can blend in easily if and when you have the opportunity to train in Japan. It doesn’t take much effort and practice. All you need are a willingness to learn and a bit of patience.
It is also a way to show your respect. The Japanese people have given us a great art, it is appropriate to put in some effort to learn about their culture and their expectation of appropriate behaviors.
One time at my old dojo, we had the opportunity to train with a group of Japanese university students who came from Japan on a study trip. At the end of the training session, there were demonstrations by the Japanese students and senior students and sensei from our club.
While watching our club’s demonstrations, I noticed that all the Japanese students were sitting in seiza neatly in a straight row. Sitting across the training floor, opposite them were a messy group of students from our club including kids, teens, juniors, and seniors. We were all over the place: kneeling, sitting, squatting, with some kids half-lying on the floor. I’m sure we didn’t create a very good impression then.
Is seiza good for your health?
It is as good as you make it to be.
If you put in the effort to be able to sit in seiza comfortably, for example doing stretching, you will become more flexible.
If you do what you are supposed to do during seiza, for example, engaging in slow and deep breathing and clearing your mind before and after each class, your mental health will benefit and your training will benefit.
If you have an open mind while sitting in seiza, listening to your instructors, or watching demonstrations, you will gain insights that can improve your karate.
Sitting in seiza can also have health benefits such as calming one’s mind, strengthening core muscles, and improving blood circulation.
However, sitting in seiza for too long is unlikely to be good for your health. The blood circulation of the upper body might benefit, but the lower body as well as your knees might suffer because it is an unnatural position after all.
I hope you find this post useful. Please check out my library of other karate articles which is regularly updated.
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