Seiza is the traditional method of sitting in Japan and a central posture in Yoga; vajrasana. In Aikido and many other Japanese martial arts, it is the preferred method of sitting during formal practice and the start position for seated techniques. Seiza is central to many other Japanese practices including zazen (zen meditation) and chado (the way of tea). Regular seiza results in tangible benefits by conditioning the legs, strengthening the back and contributing to one’s general health. It also provides insight into the basic principles of centrality in Aikido techniques and sword based arts. Yet there are many more layers to this intriguing seating position that can offer insight, guidance and even transformative potential for the sincere seeker.
Where are you?
Take a moment to identify where you feel yourself most intimately in your body. Where are you centred? Educated adults will often report feeling like they are a located behind the eyes, somewhere in the skull. This persistent feeling is a consequence of the emphasis modern education places on thought. We can attribute almost all of our modern comforts and technology to the power of thinking. Yet we often speak of getting more physical exercise, connecting to our emotions and reducing stress in an attempt to curtail our chronic mental activity. Could our modern lives and runaway thinking be responsible for feeling ourselves “located” in the head?
In fact the head is not the only place people identify as the core of their experience. Those who consider themselves as excessively emotional tend to identify with the heart or chest region, owing to their experience of life mediated predominately through their emotional centre. Head or heart? Where does the self reside? This question marks the beginning of a journey that can yield many fruitful questions and realisations.
The Japanese word “Hara” 腹 plays a pivotal role in traditional Japanese culture. It is arguably the pillar form which Japanese society derives much of its expression and identity. Literally meaning “Belly”, hara can be more profoundly understood as the centre of one’s true nature. Hara is referred to in many uniquely Japanese phrases and is often used to describe the degree of maturation or evolution in a person.
Hara no okii hito: “The one who has finished his belly”
Is a phrase used to describe a fully mature person.
Hara de kangaenasai: “Think with your belly”
To harness your essential/intuitive wisdom
Haragaei: “A belly art”
Is an activity that is accomplished perfectly without effort.
Hara no naka wo watte misemasu: “A person who shows what is inside their belly”
Refers to one who is honest and sincere.
Hara ga kirei: “A clean belly”
Refers to an honest and genuine person with a clear conscience.
Hara ga dekite iru; “The stomach is complete”
This phrase refers to being completely calm in any situation, including when faced with death.
* To a western mind, such phrases can be difficult to unravel. A good starting point is ones personal recollection of gut feelings and intuitions.
Science itself refers to the stomach as a second brain, and acknowledges its role in our mood and well-being.
Unfortunately, the use of such phrases is in decline in Japan, most likely a result of the influence of western popular culture and education. For the Aikido ka, no significant progress on the path can be made without the experience of Hara and its development through practice. The central role of the hara is self-evident in the following depiction of O’ Sensei by artist Eiji Tamura.
Now gravity, or the attracting force of the cosmos, creates a concentrated point of weight in your body referred to as the “centre of gravity” or COG. This point moves corresponding to your posture and position relative to the earth.
In seiza, the COG sits aligned with the hara resulting in the natural resonance of the cosmos and human energetic system. The Hara, or Tanden, resides two inches beneath the naval in the lower abdomen, closer to the spine. From the wisdom of yoga and the ancient Asian healing arts, we learn that the hara or “kanda” is the origin of all 72,000 nadis or energy channels that comprise the human energetic system. The hara stores the life energy you were born with and accumulates the energy you derive from breath and food for distribution throughout the system.
When one keeps their awareness on hara while harmonising and adjusting to the gentle hand of gravity (the cosmic force), one naturally experiences the wisdom of seiza. You will feel this as the physical sensations of relaxation, stillness and stability. Your mind will be clear of excessive thought – experienced as a subtle openness and ease. Your emotional energies will be settled and yet receptive. One does not feel their identity resting in the head nor the chest. Instead, stability and expansiveness are simultaneously perceived – Earth and Heaven are now harmonised. Unification of the human has occurred by way of aligning the micro and macrocosm. It is useful to remind oneself that hara is not an intellectual concept, it is an actual experience. One is always in danger of confusing the map for the territory in such matters. The power of hara lies in the direct experience of it and its balancing and vitalising effects. The intelligence of living and moving from hara are beyond the faculties of the memory based conscious mind – An entirely different form of intelligence is accessible if ones attention is keen enough.
The point SU of creation, is none other than one’s own spiritual and physical center located in the area around the navel. This is the golden cauldron where the “blood boils” and where kototama spiral forth. One should always be centered there during the practice of Aikido.
– Morihei Ueshiba
A person who has touched this experience a number of times will naturally desire to extend this feeling of wellbeing and balance to one’s entire life. Seiza can therefore act as a doorway through which one can retune to the universal intelligence that is ever present in the field, and a starting point for renewed and revitalised life. The hara is of supreme importance in the practice of Aikido for it enables the individual to tune into the resonance of the universe from which harmonic action is spontaneously and naturally born – or Takemusu Aiki; as the founder of Aikido so beautifully named his art.