“Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath exhale fully, rock your body right and left and settle into steady immovable sitting.” Eihei Dogen- Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen
This provocative photograph creates an image of the lower extremities extending from the torso like roots of a tree. Notice how they swirl and intertwine as they reach outward and beyond. Here I’ll focus on how the legs are in relationship to the torso in particular to the activity of zazen, seated meditation. For now, can you sense where the legs begin? This is really a practice in sensory awareness, an attention to this body. Sitting becomes an experiment in sensing! Sitting as this body is. So what exactly is the torso? How does it articulate with the legs? I think this photograph displays an utterly beautiful interplay between the flow of gravity down through the legs while simultaneously surging upward, outward through the upper torso and arms. This is the perfect dance expression of “down to go up”. The downward flow of gravity meets the upward life force. Hence, a perfectly balanced body+mind.
In zazen, we sit either on the floor, a bench or on a chair. In activity, the femur, upper bone of the lower limb, supports the weight of the body and has a tremendous range of movement; it’s also the longest and strongest bone in the body. The lower limb consists of the femur, tibia, patella, fibula and a series of small bones that comprise the foot/ankle. There are twenty-two muscles that support the femoral joint i.e hip joint. Interestingly, twenty-one of twenty-two originate from the pelvis.
In this conversation, the pelvis, hip joints, the entire length of the spine, all the way to the top of the spine (i.e atlanto-occipital joint) make up the torso. In sitting, we can open and relax, allowing the legs to rest completely into the earth. Yet many of us have lost flexibility, elasticity in the lower limbs, because we have spent so much time sitting “in” chairs. When we sit on the floor, the legs can begin to ache, ankles hurt from being pressed against the mat, not to mention the upper and mid-back. When sitting can we relate to the surface? What does it feel like? What do you notice when the surface is hard? When it’s soft, can we sense downward through to the supporting surface?
Preparing the body for sitting, allow the torso to fold over the legs, sense the movement occurring at the hip joints Breathing one full breath, we come forward and up, let the head lead the movement. Finding the sitting bones, ischial tuberosities, allow them to sink into the surface. Then sense an energetic flow extending outward to the thighs, down through to the knees, to the ankles and out through the feet. Allow the feet to lengthen simultaneously in two directions out through the toes and back through the heels. Here we are developing intuitive awareness in action. The sitting bones are part of the torso and are approximately 1″ in width, depth, height. That’s it, 1 inch and here we can balance on pointe. Notice too, that the sitting bones are located directly under the hip joints. Your newly found feet! Okay, so you now have two anatomical references for coming to balance. Note both are part of the torso.
By this time, the legs are soaring away from the torso into the earth’s core. When the legs are part of the attention, they open, relax and naturally come down to the floor. Allow gravity to assist releasing tension in the legs. Gravity is the downward pull into the earth. In fact, it is pulling us down and in. Hence, the natural response is to go UP. And up means up. You are the planets, moons and stars. The interplay between gravity and life force is depicted so well in this photograph. See how they intersect at the base of the torso. In fact, we could say they are originating from the spine. And the twenty-second muscle, iliopsoas, connects the lumbar spine to the femur. Well, that’s for another conversation. For now, see how “just sitting” can become effortless and begin dancing on the surface and falling into the earth’s depths.
With warm regards, Jisen
(Photograph by Eric Vasquez)