On Posture — by Sandy Gentei Stewart
When I first began to sit with Joshu Roshi in Gardena, he lectured twice a week, Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. For my first two months, every lecture was about the posture of sitting. He did talk about other things, such as subject and object being one, but in the beginning that made no sense to me. The tool I could immediately grasp was the posture, and since he described it over and over and over again, it seemed very important. So I’d like to share it with you.
When traveling, the Roshi once commented, “Americans are amazing! You can sit in a chair for hours! For me, sitting like that is very painful!” Whenever there was space, he would sit cross-legged in the car or plane. Most of us are in the opposite situation. Our furniture does not encourage sitting cross-legged for hours. I encourage people not to be a victim of Zen practice. Sit as comfortably as you can. If it becomes uncomfortable during a sitting and you don’t want to move, your tool for that time might be “When I am uncomfortable, how do I manifest my True Nature?”
Starting with the legs: whether you use the zero, half, or full lotus, I recommend alternating. If you have one foot up for one sitting, then put the other foot up for the next. This way you keep changing the asymmetry and foster more balance. Seiza, the kneeling posture, is a symmetrical position. That’s a benefit. There is also the option of a sitting bench, for sitting cross-legged or kneeling.
If you use a chair or sit on the edge of a tan (the benches along the wall in the zendo), sit with a cushion under your butt, so that the thighs slope downward from the hips to the knees, just as when sitting cross-legged on cushions. In seiza or on a chair, sitting with the knees spread apart creates more space in the lower abdomen. Remember that over time, your body will change, and you will probably have to adjust your cushions accordingly.
Next, consider your spine. When we stand erect, the spine naturally curves. You can see these curves in a standard anatomical picture of a spine. When you sit, maintain these spinal curves. Sitting with cushions under the butt helps achieve this alignment. If you have a tendency to slouch, tilting the sacrum forward will create a more supportive spinal curvature. The sacrum is that part of the spine just below the waist and just above the tailbone. It is composed of several vertebrae fused together and joins the hipbones at the sacro-ileac joint. The whole lower torso gravitates towards the earth.
Next, stretch up the back of the neck. This pulls the chin slightly down and in and positions the head level with the floor.
We sit with the eyes open, looking downwards at about a 45-degree angle. We generally keep a broad focus so that we will notice movement anywhere in the room.
Preferably, breathe through the nose with your lips closed and your nostrils flared. Besides being an exercise in concentration, flaring the nostrils allows everything else in the face to relax. The tongue lightly touches the roof of the mouth.
There are many mudras, or hand postures. We sit with the left hand resting in the right hand with the right fingertips at the left knuckles. Hold the palms level with the floor, so that if you’re sitting in the rain you will catch the water as in a dish. Hold the heels of the hands firmly against the abdomen about 2 inches below the navel. The insides of the wrists also touch the belly. The thumb tips touch lightly. As with the nostrils, there is energy in the hands, and it can be expanding or contracting, as if the hands were a full moon or large flower growing larger or smaller
Keep a lively energy in the hands, either pulling apart or pushing together, without exerting pressure on the thumbs. In our practice we don’t rest the hands on the thighs. Often at first, people holding their hands like this experience sore shoulders. One suggestion is to raise their hands up a little higher. Work towards holding your hands alive as the moon rising up over a mountain.
While we maintain energy in the hands, we relax the elbows and shoulders. Someone should be able to grasp your elbows and freely move them back and forth. Also, there’s room for a fist to go between the ribs and the elbows.
That covers the external aspect of the posture. Proceeding to the internal, using your breath raise and hold up your sternum (breastbone). When you inhale, raise up the sternum. Keep it up when you exhale, as if you were exhaling upwards through your sternum. Now as you continue to breathe, the sternum should not move. Rather, stomach moves in and out. You might use the image of a circus tent with a big pole in the middle. Lift up your sternum pole and let everything else hang down. Your shoulders, arms and stomach are relaxed. The sternum stays up and stationary.
Eventually you will be able to hold up the sternum for sitting, chanting and walking. This is not a major effort, but as with the hands, there is liveliness. Again: on the inhale, raise the sternum. Then exhale through the sternum, continuing to hold it up. At first, you may not be able to distinguish your sternum from the rest of your chest. But after awhile, keeping your attention on the sternum, trying to feel how it can go up and stay up, and continuing to work with the breath to do that, both inhaling and exhaling, you will sooner or later get the feel of it.
The next thing is to hold down your abdominal floor, the cradle of muscles at the very bottom of your abdomen. Imagine this area of your body rooting into the earth. To practice this, inhale as if your breath goes through the diaphragm down to the bottom of the abdominal cavity, where it pushes and holds down the abdominal floor. On the exhalation, exhale down through the abdominal floor into the earth.
When you first try this, your whole abdomen may become tight. But eventually the abdominal floor muscles will learn how to function independently, holding down while everything else in the abdomen can relax. We are taking away all pressure from the solar plexus so that breathing can go unimpeded, and we will experience the self as open as the clear, blue sky.
The Roshi often gave us a simple checklist of three items to remember in our posture: nostrils flared, sternum up, abdominal floor down. And remember to keep your hands awake!
Though this may seem difficult to do, as with most things, perseverance furthers! In this posture, with the sternum up and the abdominal floor down, the breath has a different speed and depth. Because the torso is already stretched, there isn’t as much movement when breathing as when you take a big breath to raise up from a slouched posture. Even though there is the effort of holding up the sternum and holding down the abdominal floor, the area in between is relaxed, and when you become accustomed o it, your breathing can function in an unimpeded, relaxed manner.
Just breathing is a wonderful, simple meditation. It’s easy for anyone; beginners can practice it, and old timers really savor it!
From the hips up, the posture for kinhin (walking) is the same as for sitting except for the hands, which are held in what is called sassho. The right palm presses the abdomen just below the sternum (breastbone) so that the forearm is parallel to the ground. The left hand covers the right hand. The right thumb holds the left thumb. Again, there is the lively energy of pushing together or pulling apart. We put our attention on keeping in step with the person in front of us. You may synchronize your breath with the pace. Once in response to a question about kinhin, the Roshi assumed sasshu and walked across the zendo chanting “Hitch, hike, hitch, hike…”