Because of habits of bad posture, sitting in zazen, especially for longer periods of time, can be difficult in the beginning. A program of yoga or stretching that helps open the hips and builds core strength will make a big difference.
Illustrations of the exercises
1 – Place a chair with its back against the wall, so that it won’t move. Place a hand on either side of the front edge of the seat. Keeping the arms straight, walk back with the feet, until you begin to feel a good stretch in the back of the legs. Have the feet parallel. If possible, keep the legs straight. Distributing your weight between the hands and feet, lengthen the torso so that buttocks move away from hands. Lift up with buttocks and ground the heels. Front of the rib cage lifts toward the seat. Crown of head lengthens toward the chair. Be aware of the breathing, keeping it free from belly to neck.
2 – Sit on the front of a chair. This helps put most of the weight on the two “sit bones” so the spine doesn’t become rounded. Sit tall and adjust the spine by leaning the trunk forward, lengthening through the crown of the head. Stay tall as you come back to the erect position. Take the right leg and place it across the left thigh. Take ankle and heel with the left hand, and put the right hand over the knee. Lift the bent leg and gently rock it to right and left, releasing in the hip jo Keep the trunk erect and breath flowing freely. If this becomes easy, place the right foot into the crook of the left elbow, and rock from that position. Repeat the same with the left leg.
3 – Sit on the front of a chair. Lengthen through the crown of the head. Tip forward, rolling forward on the sit bones, then come back to an erect position. Ground the feet and have them parallel. Now bending the right knee upward, place a belt under the sole of the right foot. Holding the belt with two hands, slowly begin to straighten the right leg forward, while maintaining a tall spine and even breathing. Keep both buttocks grounded, without tipping to right or left. You’ll feel a stretch behind the right leg. Eventually, the leg becomes straight. If comfortable, shorten the length of belt. Then the leg will have to be raised higher. Keep the shoulders back, and the spine long, not rounded. If this is easy, you can raise the foot higher. Hold this pose for a few breaths, while comfortable, up to a minute or so. Do the same exercise for the left leg.
4 – Lie down on your back, on a nonskid mat (such as a yoga mat). Bend the knees and place feet near the buttocks. Raise the right leg off the ground and place its ankle on the left thigh. Gently rock the legs side to side. If this is easy, keep the right ankle where it is while raising the left leg off the ground, and grasp behind the left knee with both hands. (The right hand will be threading its way between left and right thighs.) Contact of your right elbow with right thigh helps to gently stretch the groin. Go slowly and carefully, ensuring that abdominal breathing is not restricted. Do this for about 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
5 – Lie on your back, on a non-skid surface. Bend both legs, so feet are near buttocks, about hip-width apart. Be sure feet are parallel rather than with toes pointing out. Have the arms at the sides, palms facing down, elbows straight. Gently pushing feet into the ground, raise the tailbone off the ground and then raise the spine off the ground, from the lowest vertebra on up to the shoulder area. When you reach the area under the shoulder blades, think of raising the chest to the ceiling, as though someone had placed a belt behind you and pulled upward. Shoulders are firmly grounded. Similarly lift the pelvis toward the ceiling. Hold for several seconds without letting the knees spread apart. Keep the neck relaxed and the breath even. Exhaling, gently lower the spine back to the floor
6 – Lie on the back, on a non-skid surface. Bend the knees, so that feet are near the buttocks. Stretch the arms out to the sides with the palms facing up. Exhaling, let the knees drop to the right, releasing in the left shoulder blade. As much as you can, keep left shoulder near the floor. Breath evenly for several breaths, then with an exhalation, draw the knees back up to center. Repeat this exercise, dropping knees to the left.
7 – Come onto all fours, with a pad protecting the knees. Knees are under the hips; hands are just ahead of shoulders. Exhaling, let the spine round upward in a C-curve, while head drops and tailbone drops. Inhaling, the spine curves downward as the tailbone lifts up and the belly opens and chest expands. Continue exhaling and inhaling, curving the spine up and down, at your own rate, for a minute or two.
8 – Sit tall on the floor, with legs stretched in front of you. Bend the knees out to the side and bring the soles of the feet together. Reaching between the legs, grasp the ankles and tip forward with the trunk, keeping the breath even. Do not strain. Maintain for about 30 seconds, and tip back up with an inhalation.
9 – Sit sideways on a chair, with the chair’s back to your right. (Chair seats are often sloped downward, so you may have to put a blanket at the rear of the seat, to even it out.) Take the right arm back, and grasp the back of the chair. Take the left arm forward and grasp the other side of the chair’s back. Sit tall. Exhaling, begin turning your trunk to the right as much as is comfortable, with gentle assistance from the arms. Hold for a few breaths and then with an exhalation release the twist. Pause and take a breath. Then turn around in the chair so that its back is near the left side of your body, and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.
10 – Sit near the front of a chair. Have the legs separated a foot or so, and the feet firmly grounded. Roll forward on the sit bones and lengthen through the crown of the head. Place hands on the knees, and with an exhalation tip forward, while lengthening throughout the spine. Using hands for support as needed, let the trunk tip until it reaches the thighs. Hold for a few breaths. If this is comfortable, place hands on the floor, in between the legs, and let the body tip forward until the head can hang down. Hold this position for a few breaths. Inhaling, come up slowly, using hands for support, as needed. Pause, and take a few breaths, afterward.
11 – Come onto all fours on a non-skid surface, with a pad protecting the knees. Knees are under the hips; hands are just ahead of shoulders. Walk both hands forward a foot or so. Keep them there, and keep the arms straight as you lower the forehead toward the floor. The buttocks remain elevated, and the chest is stretched. Breathe deeply in this final position. Then inhale, push the hands into the ground, and lift the trunk up. Walk the hands back to you. Take a few breaths before coming out of this position
12 – Relaxation posture. Lie on the floor, near a bed or a chair. Swing the legs up onto the bed (or chair), so that hips are at right angles to the trunk and lower legs are supported by the bed. Have a small cushion or rolled towel under the head. The arms are out at the sides, palms up. If this is uncomfortable, rest the hands on the belly. Dig the heels into the bed (chair) to raise the tailbone. Then gently lower it. Let the buttocks, back, shoulders and head sink into the ground, and focus on the breath. Stay here 5 or 10 minutes. Then bend the legs one at a time, and bring them down, turning over to the right side. Rest on the side for a few breaths, and sit up very slowly.