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Goin’ Japanesque!

Sitting Seiza: The Historical Background and How It Can Be Good for You

There are many who find sitting seiza difficult and unpleasant. However, this classic Japanese posture can calm the heart, focus the spirit, and even have positive effects on the health. Today we’re going to explore the history and benefits of seiza together with the backdrop presented by Japanese society throughout the eras. Ref: Photo

 

What is Seiza?

正座

seiza2
Simply put, seiza is sitting (“za”) with a correct (“sei”) posture. In this case, a correct posture means neatly-folded legs and an erect spine with feet tucked under the body. This manner of sitting is a must when performing a wide variety of traditional Japanese cultural activities, including tea ceremony, classical Japanese dance, and many of the martial arts.

 

A History of Seiza

ieyasu-tokugawa
Tokugawa Ieyasu, not sitting seiza

Though the sitting posture itself is quite ancient, seiza was not always called by that name. As strongly as it may be associated with Japan nowadays, in the past seiza was not very common at all. It’s thought that this was owing to a specific and potentially-fatal risk. When sitting seiza, the legs become numb, and warriors of old would not be able to stand up right away from seiza and draw their sword to defend themselves. As a result, it was more common for people to sit cross-legged, a relaxed posture called “agura” in Japanese which allows for sudden movement.

tea-ceremony
『茶の湯日々草 濃茶の図』 水野年方

However, in the world of tea ceremony, seiza was the formal sitting posture by the time of the Muromachi period (1392–1573). By the time of the Edo period (1603–1868), it became established as the appropriate way to sit when before great personages such as the Shogun.

Japanese-style-room
A Japanese room from the early- to mid-20th century with tatami, chabudai, and zabuton, http://blog.livedoor.jp/dobasi3/

From the middle of the Edo period, seiza grew even more common, spreading to the common people as more and more households used straw tatami matting. Seiza became one of the standard sitting postures, and in fact it shares a connection with the Japanese cultural practice of removing shoes while inside to sit directly on top of the tatami floor.

Chabudai: a low table around 30 cm in height, it’s ideal for sitting seiza.
Zabuton: the “za” means “sit” and the “buton” means “cushion.” It helps alleviate foot pain when sitting, especially when sitting seiza.

 

The Significance of Seiza

dogeza-sitting-right-on-the-ground
Prostrate (dogeza土下座) seiza, http://www.cmjapan.com/

Seiza holds two different meanings.

  • As proper courtesy: this is the case when sitting seiza at rituals and ceremonies in sacred places. It probably stems from traditional cultural practices such as tea ceremony.
  • As a symbol of submission or apology: as depicted above, dogeza refers to placing your hands in front of you and lowering your head while sitting seiza. Just as “seiza as courtesy” most likely originates from tea ceremony, “seiza as submission” probably comes from rules regarding sitting seiza before the Shogun.

 

Benefits of Seiza

Outside of seiza, you essentially never bend your knees 180° in the course of your everyday life. It is from this that seiza gains its various benefits.

  • Trains your core muscles (abdominal, back, etc.)
  • Helps fix slouching posture
  • Relieves lower back pain and stiff shoulders
  • Helps with bowed legs
  • Calms the heart and focuses the spirit
  • Improves circulation across the body, promotes wakefulness, and increases concentration
  • Keeps clothing looking nice (prevents wrinkles in kimono, etc.)

 

However, even if seiza has numerous advantages, like all things you shouldn’t overdo it, as it’ll cause knee pain. During a visit to a traditional structure in Japan, if you find yourself seated in a Japanese-style room, as a courtesy to your host try sitting seiza atop a zabuton cushion. It’s the height of politeness and will give a very good impression. If you’re worried about your legs going numb, fold your feet so that your big toes overlap when you sit. It’s said this helps with the numbing that comes with seiza.

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