Posture Instructions

Since the online publication of Issho Fujita’s marvellous collection of essays, ‘Polishing A Tile’, it seems impertinent for others to give instructions about sitting posture except in one respect, the breath, which Fujita doesn’t seem, to refer to in detail.

Breathing is quite problematic as a topic. We don’t want to get into a mentality of trying to build up power in the dan tien in order to achieve something. So instead, we tend not to talk about it at all, saying only that we should breathe naturally, and that our breath will naturally settle down if we take up the correct posture. However, there’s a difference between awareness and intention. Between awareness and technique.

When we try to breathe abdominally, there’s a tendency to use muscular effort to push our belly out, but not notice that we do. Just as people who try to stretch the back of their neck by tucking their chin in, rather than allowing the natural uncompressing of the spine when the weight is dropping correctly through the sit bones, willing our posture to be a particular way is liable to create tension, tension we’re unlikely to notice.

I think also, if we imagine our breath coming in through our nose, going down through our chest and into our belly, there’s a tendency too to inhibit movement in our chest and back.

For me, it’s very helpful to be able to feel the whole pelvic area, not, as it were, as an object, but from the inside. If we can,we’ll notice the willed-ness of our abdominal breathing, but we’ll also notice what doesn’t move. Our lower back. Our pelvic floor. And once we get that awareness, there’s a number of things we can do. We can, for example, picture a golden ball at the centre of our pelvis. When we breathe in, the ball gets bigger, pushing the belly forward, pushing back against the bones of the spine and pelvis, pushing down to the pelvic floor. When our body moves in accordance with this, it’s different from willed movement. Once you regain your sense of movement, you won’t need the image any more.

An alternative, and one which I prefer, is to breathe from the perineum. This is the first chakra and where our weight drops down, between the genitalia and the anus. That is, you feel the in breathe coming in through your perineum, filling your pelvic bowl, pushing the belly gently forward, the lower back gently back, animating and enlivening the whole area, then passing upwards to the chest, the upper back, the neck, the head and all the while, no tension.


Practice Intructions

It is of paramount importance for our pelvis to be in the correct position, our weight bearing down on our sit bones.

Posturally, this means that our trunk and head can be balanced, light, activated, vibrant and free of tension.

Energetically, the spine can uncompress itself, there can be a clear connection between the base chakra and the crown chakra.

Breathing wise, it is as if the upper body is directly sitting on our abdominal/pelvic breathing. The in breath isn’t pushing the lower belly out. There is no intentional pushing. It is as if there is an energetic ball at the centre of the pelvis. When we breathe in, the ball expands. The lower belly is pushed out. The area around the sacrum is pushed back. The pelvic floor pushes down.


Posture Suggestions

The most important thing, whether we are sitting in a cross legged or a kneeling position, is to have our pelvis in the correct position. Habitually, people tuck their pelvis forward. The effect of that is to collapse the chest and bow out the back, and push the head forward. We then try to correct this with our voluntary muscles, but we can’t maintain it, and so we alternate between muscular effort and collapse.

To remedy this, we need to sit on our sit bones. The best way to achieve this is, as we sit down, to stick out our buttocks, bringing our weight forward onto the knees and creating a curve in the lumbar spine. If we are balanced on our sit bones, we will be able to sit upright without muscular effort. Our weight will drop down through the sit bones into the Earth. Releasing the weight into the ground creates a corresponding push from the Earth, up the spine, allowing the spine to lengthen and relax. Our large postural muscles at the front can become engaged, holding us up without effort, and making the posture more energetic.

If the pelvis is in the correct position, it is far easier to correctly align the head, which is normally pushed a bit forward, like a tortoise. We can simply drop the head back and slowly bring it to vertical. The point of balance is normally a bit further back than we are used to. If the head is balanced, it should not feel heavy. Sometimes, when the head is in the right position, a breathing reflex is set off in the lower abdomen.

The posture is dynamic. The head and the upper body should not feel heavy. If they do, it is indicative of you not being in the right position.

You will sometimes hear that you should tuck your chin in and extend the back of the neck. This is a terrible instruction, as it simply creates tension in the neck. If your head is in a balanced position, your chin will be slightly tucked in, but this is a consequence of your good alignment. It should not be forced.

Rather than try to stretch the back of the neck, you should allow the neck to naturally lengthen. A way to do this is simply to be aware of tension you are holding in your throat, and allow your lower jaw, at the hinges, to go up, without making any muscular effort. You can do the same thing with the top of your hard palate, allowing it to rise and being aware of the connection between it and the crown of your head. The push which enables both of these to rise comes from the pelvis, not from muscular effort. If we use our voluntary muscles to push us into what we imagine to be a good posture, we are practicing Ego, not Zazen.

Don’t try to control the breath. If you are in a balanced position, you will naturally breathe from the abdomen, but don’t artificially restrict your breathing to that area. Remember that the breath flows first into the belly, then into the back, then into the chest.

When we are doing Kinhin, we take a small step forward with one foot. Placing the heel of the foot down, we spread the toes and, breathing out, we roll the weight forward from the heel to the top of the toes. All the weight is then on the front foot. Breathing in, we then push down near the root of the big toe, stimulating the Bubbling Stream acupressure point and allow the push to travel up our front leg, up the front of our spine, up through the top of the hard palate, and out through the crown of the head. Towards the end of the in breath, with all the weight on the front foot, we bring the back foot forward, heel down, and do the same with that foot, in this way walking slowly round the room. Our pace is regulated by the length of our breath. If we are moving slower than the person in front of us, we can take bigger steps. If we are moving faster, we can take smaller steps.