Seiza is the basic kneeling position used at the beginning and the end of martial arts classes and is associated with bowing in respect for teachers and other students. In this posture the knees are bent 180 degrees with the calves tucked under the thighs so you sit on your heels, insteps flat on the floor with toes pointed inwards.
Few today, however, give it more than a momentary thought, other than the pain so often felt in the ankles and legs, or the growing discomfort felt when sitting this way for long. And when westerners sit this way for very long often their legs go to sleep.
So why do we sit this way and what is its value? After all, in the west most people sit in chairs or lounge across their sofas. There is no history or lifelong adherence to a method of kneeling on the floor. Is seiza anything more than a quaint Asian cultural artifact?
In Japan this method of sitting has always been associated with proper etiquette. In modern karate-do, aikido, kung fu and in many other arts, the role of proper etiquette is a vehicle to show respect, develop discipline and train the mind and body. By being respectful you show appreciation for your art, your study, the teacher and other students. It becomes a triumph of spirit over ego, an acknowledgment of the importance of others and the group over the self. In this form etiquette represents willful discipline of the mind and development of spirit.
Seiza and proper etiquette, however, did not always serve this same purpose. Many elements of etiquette that developed during feudal periods of armed warfare (roughly the 12th through the 17th centuries) — such as where to hold your hands, how to bow, walk, move, or sit, where to sit and the distance expected from others — all at their core were intimately linked to the practice of sword and other weapon arts, as well as to strategies of self-defense and the ability to react instantaneously.
Warriors were almost always armed and even when they slept a weapon was always close by. At any time warriors had to be ready for immediate reaction and mobility — when outside, in town, when visiting others, in the presence of their superiors or lord, when eating and drinking with friends, when escorting others or on campaign or in battle. Necessity dictated constant awareness of everything around them, the position of others, their environment and always their ability to react or defend themselves.
The principles of traditional seiza are simple. Upon sitting, the left leg is bent and moved behind, the toes of the left foot maintaining contact with the floor as the shin in lowered, the right leg being forward and bent. As your buttocks sink the right leg is likewise pulled back — both feet now being supported by the toes. Only then are the toes allowed to move backward so the instep lies flat, the feet pointed in an a angle (they can be kept apart or the big toe of each foot can touch). The hands are then positioned across the thighs.
The toe position is critical. If the leg and instep are placed flat with the toes pointed, mobility and balance are lost if you try to move forward to one leg, or otherwise move. For a warrior, such a technique would be dangerous since stability would be sacrificed, and a foe observing such behavior would be alerted to an interval of advantage.
RISE FROM SEIZA
Try this experiment. Sit in seiza with your toes pointed. Try to move quickly and powerfully forward or quickly rise. Now try the same with the toes turned to the floor. You should feel a dramatic difference.
An alternative exercise is to start to sit, just by collapsing your legs, or by moving one leg back but with the toes pointed. See how you can react to an attack from the front, or a push backwards. Check the stability in this position against that evidenced during traditional kneeling.
It is true that in judo, karate-do, taekwondo and many other arts there is no longer an active link to the sword arts or necessity to practice self-defense from seiza. But the practice of traditional seiza does force a heightened state of mental readiness, and awareness, and attention to position and balance. It also maintains a combative link to self-defense scenarios of our warrior heritage and by doing so creates an atmosphere of seriousness around practice that can be easily forgotten — an integration of attitude with technique.