In July I wrote about the sitting posture: "If possible we should raise our feet so high and close to the trunk that the knees and the base of the spine form an equilateral triangle and the toes are in line with the outside of the thighs. Of course not everyone is flexible enough to put this into practice right from the start. If you can not sit in the full or half lotus position with your toes touching the outer side of the thighs, you simply can't. You will have to experiment with different ways of sitting, and maybe try to get more flexible over time, using strechting excercises etc. But I think that it should be at least our aim to eventually get as close as possible to this way of crossing the legs as we can, because it gives our body the highest grade of stability, and when our body is stable, our minds will become stable too."
From the feedback that I got, it seems that most people seem to agree about the importance of the posture, but many asked me what stretching exercises could be done to improve at crossing the legs full or half lotus style. One person send me a link to a site http://zenmontpellier.site.voila.fr/eng/lotus/lotuseng.html that explains about "how to grow a lotus", with illustrations of Yoga postures. Some of these (figures 3, 5 & 9) resemble the so-called Makko-ho exercises, that can be found in a Zen context on the homepage of the Zen Center of Denver for example (with photographs). These are a set of four exercises that were discovered by Nagai Wataru in 1933. According to the Japanese homepage of the Makko-ho organization, Nagai suffered from a severe illness and took refuge in Buddhism, hoping to be saved if not in his body then at least in his mind. He read about the prostrations of Buddhas's disciples in the sutras and imitated them. After a while, Nagai discovered that he had been cured. He called the set of exercises, into which his prostrations had developed "Makko-ho", which means "the way of facing (things/life/oneself) directly". After the war he propagated these exercises, practicing on a rice straw mat that he spread on the streets in front of Tokyo or Osaka stations. Today the exercises are usually understood as a way to achieve more flexibility in the hips and cure pain in the back or shoulders. They can be found here, with animated illustrations.
Interestingly, on many English homepages Makko-ho is introduced as a routine of not four but five to seven exercises that are brought into connection with the meridians of Chinese medicine, which originally had nothing to do with it. In the West, the technique promises not only to relieve pain in the back but each of the five to seven exercises is supposed to help the activity of one or two inner organs, according to Chinese metaphysics. See for example these German sites with illustrations: http://members.chello.at/reni/uebungen/default.htm or http://www.shiatsu-austria.at/einfuehrung/einfuehrung_49.htm. The American who demonstrates some of the exercises next to a swimming pool in Hawaii in the video below also doesn't seem to be clear about the roots of the exercises, he first thinks that it is a combination of Yoga and Chinese medicine, thus first tracing it to Vietnam, then later - "after a little bit of research" - crediting it to Masunaga Shizuto, a shiatsu teacher who is maybe responsible for adding the extra two or three exercises and making the connection to Chinese medicine.
Another reader send me the illustration below, which depicts three exercises that were recommended to him by his physiotherapist to help him with his pelvis and back during zazen. The first and second one resemble Makko-ho very much.
Some people who saw me stand on my head with crossed legs at the end of the German documentary on the video page ask me if that was just another form of strenious Zen practice, or maybe rather an exercise that we do here at Antaiji to keep flexible? The answer is neither, it was only to take a "levitation photograph" to demonstrate my special spiritual accomplishments - apart from that there is no deeper meaning.
Stretching exercises are not a part of our every day schedule, but some of the residents here practice them either individually or together as a group on free days. Below you'll find some shots of Eli from Canada demonstarting a number of exercises to the rest of us.
The first couple of these exercises aren't related to the sitting posture so much. They are more general hip exercises, strechting by bending the upper body.
The following exercises stretch the legs, while still in a standing position.
Later we would go down on the floor to stretch in a sitting position. Many of these exercises are either identical with or somehow related to the four (or more) Makko-ho exercises.
Below are two Yoga exercises (right) and the "butterfly", another of the Makko-ho exercises (left).
Stretching by bending the upper body forwards while slowly breathing out (left), and the "butterfly upside down" (right and below).
These two exercises below are done in the half lotus position.
These photographs are just to give you an idea of what can be done to help crossing the legs properly. Just as with taking the sitting posture in general, it is important that you have some "live" teacher when you practice these exercises, because you won't find out about all the details by looking at the pictures alone, or you will end up like Jikishin in the picture below.
In two months we will have a look at some Buddha statues and their postures.