Lotus seat (jp. Kekka-fuza 結跏趺坐, sk. Padmāsana पद्मासन), half-lotus seat (jp. Hanka-fuza 半跏趺坐, sk. Ardha Padmāsana), the Burmese seat and the heel seat (sk. Vajrāsana) are all popular meditation postures in zazen (jp. 座禅), the seated meditation.
All of the above positions have in common that the legs are bent and thus closer to the center of the body. With the knees close to the floor, these positions allow for a deeper center of gravity and a higher degree of inner centering.
The heel seat is a little bit of an exception here, as it is the only one with closed hips and as such constitutes an alternative for those that experience discomfort in the knees in open seat positions.
Deeply rooted in the Japanese tradition, the heel seat is an important part on formal occasions – e. g. when greeting a higher ranked person. It is also common in ceremonial sequences of martial arts, possibly most well-known as a gesture of respect when entering or leaving the training facility (jp. Dōjō).
That is why Budōka (jp. 武道家) bow (Shōmen ni rei) to the teacher (jp. Sensei, 先生) and their respective training partners. This form of respect (jp. Rei, 礼) is usually shown standing up (jp. Ritsurei, 立礼) or sitting in the heel seat (jp. Zarei, 座礼).
There are even some seated exercises (jp. Suwari Waza, 座り技) executed in the heel seat, such as in Aikidō (jp. 合気道) and Iaidō (jp. 居合道) – the art of drawing the sword.
The heel seat is performed in three variations:
The first variation is called Seiza (jp. 正座), which translates to “sit right”. In seiza posture, feet are with the instep on the ground, the big toes overlap. The right toe is on top of the left. Thus, the right foot is not blocked and can easily be moved if necessary, e. g. in case an emergency occurs and makes a quick movement necessary: In ancient times samurai (jp. 侍) had to always be alert and respond to a potential attack. Bare in mind, that the sword is traditionally attached to the left hip and drawn with the right hand, so drawing the sword requires opening the right hip with a lunge of the right foot – impossible if that foot were stuck underneath the left.
In „Kiza” (jp. 跪座, en. „kneeling sitting”), the second variation, feet are raised with the soles vertical and toes flexed forward, which can be very inconvenient. As the center of gravity is slightly higher compared to seiza posture, pressure on the knees increases, which might provoke discomfort. However, it is easier to raise from this higher position, which is why subordinates were directed to sit in Kiza on formal occasions, in case a superior required their service.
A third form is „Tatehiza” (jp. 立て膝), in which both legs are bent, with the left leg retracted, sitting on the heel and the right leg in a squatted position. Historically, this is an even more alert form of sitting and used by the samurai, as the right hip is already open and it is thus easier to draw the sword.
Transition from standing to kneeling position
Like always in martial arts, there is also a mandatory way to get into the seated position. With the imaginary sword on the left side, any step from standing to kneeling should be performed in such a way that the sword can instantly been drawn, if necessary.
Therefore, while squatting, the left knee should be brought to the ground first, followed by the right knee. This will result in Kiza position. Leaning slightly forward will give room for the feet to cross and rest on the instep. The right big toe will rest on the sole of the left foot and the buttocks rest on the heels.
Adjustments in seated position
Women’s knees are close together. Men leave a little space.
The back is straight with the head upright. The ears remain in line with the shoulders and the chin is slightly retracted.
All in all, there should be a feeling of uprightness and centricity. With the idea of a pendulum hanging from the top of the skull into the inside of the body, the pendulum should stay in the middle of the body, never touching the outer hull of the body.
Shoulders are slightly drawn back with arms hanging loosely and naturally so that the hands fall into the lap. Left hand over right hand (Hokkai-Join).
With palms up, thumbs touch softly and the little fingers rest close to the lower abdomen. As the left and right hand energetically symbolize different poles, they are now connected, forming a bowl in the lap.
Meditation posture, gaze and breath
The gaze is directed at an imaginary point approximately one metre in front of the knees, without the head sliding forward. The eyes are slightly closed, for ease of withdrawing the senses. Nevertheless, motion perception remains vigilant. The tongue lies loosely against the palate and upper row of teeth, so that the jaw is relaxed.
The meditation can best be started with a breathing exercise. In the past, it was believed that every human being had a limited reservoir of individual breaths in life, so slow breathing was the method of choice for a long life. The easiest way to do this is to concentrate on exhalation, which should be quiet and gentle. Inhalation follows naturally. The abdominal muscles should not be completely slack, but instead have a slight muscle tone.
In seated meditation, breath frequency may well fall to four to eight breaths per minute. Emerging thoughts pass by.
If thoughts persist and impede a restful mind, counting might help. Just count on every exhalation. That makes it even easier to calm your breathing rhythm.