Seiza: The Kneeling Posture
By Christopher Caile
Seiza. It 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.
Christopher Caile sitting at head of a karate class (Kyokushinkai) in 1967 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the school headed by Kaicho (then Shihan) Tadashi Nakamura who would later found World Seido Karate.
this posture the knees are bent 180 degrees with the calves tucked under
the thighs so you sit on your heels, toes pointed.
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.
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.
Some samurai took this to the extreme. One story says that legendary
Miyamoto Musashi (1600 era), the Japanese masterless samurai famed for
his many successful challenges of others, was so fearful of being exposed
(without his sword) that he refused to ever take a traditional bath.
In this warrior context, if seiza was incorrectly executed, or the kneeling
person was lax in his positioning, it could have fateful consequences.
Inside a dwelling a razor sharp short sword (often a short knife was also
present) was often positioned at their left side just inches from their
hand. When outdoors, a longer sword was added, also positioned at their
left side (through a sash) or slung across their back.
were taught how to draw a weapon instantly, from seiza and other positions,
to strike or parry an attack. Today, this art of sword drawing is most
often practiced as a specialty known as iaido (the art of drawing the
sword). When formally sitting in seiza, the ability to rise up from a
kneeling position instantaneously with the right leg forward simplified
the sword drawing, positioned the practitioner for further movement and
closed the distance to his antagonist. This was all done with such speed
that the rise from seiza, cut and sword's re-sheathing could be done by
the most accomplished in a blink of an eye. What made all this possible
was proper seiza technique.
from sieza position many warriors learned empty hand defenses against
a sword strike or other attack. A defender could pivot to the side instantaneously
to avoid and control a weapon thrust (careful that the knees were not
too widely spaced to maintain balance while pivoting) or move forward
into a downward weapons strike in order to intercept the striking arm
before the attack was fully generated or control a weapon strike coming
downward at an angle from the side. Today many empty hand self-defenses
are still practiced in diato ryu, aikido, many forms of jujutsu as well
in some other arts.
But these skills no longer receive the same emphasis in many modern "do"
arts, such as karate-do, judo and others. As a result some of the subtleties
of proper kneeling and moving have been lost. In other cases just the
outer form of etiquette has been maintained, while the original intent,
rationale and meaning have been lost to the new ends of "do"
This evolution in itself should not necessarily be considered unfortunate,
or those who practice the new seiza etiquette should not be considered
as "doing it wrong." Westerners aren't used to sitting in seiza,
and the art there practice has a different emphasis.
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.
To stand from seiza the right leg moves first. But first as the buttocks
begin to rise the toes of both feet pull back with the tips of the toes
on the ground,
Thus as the right leg moves forward, the toes of the opposite foot support
a quick, balanced, powerful forward motion -- the movement of the body
forward, supported with the right leg providing momentum and mobility
behind any sword cut, parry, empty hand defense or transition to standing
(in empty hand self-defense situations, however, sometimes the left leg
comes up first).
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.
would like to thank Sensei Robin Brown of New York City's Hakuho Kai Daito
Ryu Aikijujtsu for demonstrating the proper fundamentals of sitting in
About The Author:
Caile holds an MA in International Relations with a specialty in southeast Asia, and has lived and traveled in Japan, Okinawa and south and southeast Asia. He has been a student of the martial arts for over 50 years, and a teacher since 1962. He is also the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com. Caile first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 7th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. In other arts he is a long time student of aikido under Roy Suenaka (Wadokai aikido) and has experience in boxing. muay thai, diato-ryu aikijujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow), Chen style tai chi and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen as well as a long-term student and teacher of (a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine) Qigong. He is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) who heads the DS International Qi Medicine Association. In his business career he has been a newspaper journalist as well as an inventor and entrepreneur (founder of several start up companies) founded on his inventions which including innovative telecommunication and marine products.