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A student asked the Aikido master the reason behind keeping the left toe over the right toe when sitting, and he told her "I honestly don't know". He later said that one reason might be because of how the sword is drawn and placed back in the sheath on the left side of the person. He says the origin of the left toe would have something to do with weaponry. He also mentioned how Hindu people in India, when bowing down to a deity, cover the base of their right foot with their left foot. Another student said the reason the Indian worshippers do this is to prevent dissipation of energy from the body.

I've seen similar questions asked here about the dogi and belt. So is there a reason to the left toe tradition or is it just for the sake of uniformity? I don't really see the point of stressing so much on a seating posture though.

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    If you are asking about seiza, this is a point unique to aikido. In Judo Formal Techniques by Donn F. Draeger and Tadao Otaki, the authors are quite explicit that the toes should not be crossed. – mattm Apr 2 '17 at 12:39
  • Ok that's interesting. So the obvious question is "did they mention why the toes should not be crossed"? And yes, I'm referring to seiza. – Nav Apr 2 '17 at 15:02
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    (sigh) I wonder why martial arts and religion even need to have silly unexplained practices. It's even more silly when people continue following it without knowing why, instead of pausing and saying "hey; I don't know why we do this crap. Let's stop doing it" : martialarts.stackexchange.com/questions/7006/… – Nav Apr 2 '17 at 18:30
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    If you are interested in an answer for why the toes should not be crossed, I think that is a different question than you have asked. – mattm Apr 2 '17 at 22:04
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    Could be due to which leg goes down first from standing to seiza (in some dôjô the right leg should go down first) – Ring Ø Sep 8 '18 at 15:15
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Kōichi Tōhei in his Book of Ki: Co-Ordinating Mind and Body in Daily Life (1976) states only:

"rest one big toe on top of the other"

when describing exercises from seiza position.

Historically in Japan, there was a formal prescription that if big toes overlapped, men sat with the left over the right, and women vice versa, but this is not followed nowadays, and those who sit with one toe over the other in seiza do so arbitrarily.

So it seems that any schools' preferences for left-over-right are either later arbitrary traditions, or stem from a codification of the historical 'male' position.

Note that some martial arts schools (e.g. iaidō) specifically practise seiza without toes overlapping since this is a more expedient position to return to one-knee-up position from.

  • The wikipedia article is interesting, it also gives an explanation for crossing the toes "また、正座する際、足の親指はしびれを防ぐために時々重ねる場合がある", i.e. "cross them to prevent numbness." Actually, the natural position for the big toes is pointing away from the other toes (visible with barefoot walkers). So if your toe is not realigned due to shoes, you might actually have to overlap your big toes. Illustration of what I mean here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barefoot#/media/… – tobi_s Jul 6 at 7:37
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Answer to a previous question:

"Some schools cross the big toes, some don't."

Then there is this discussion on a kendo forum.

And the Wikipedia page on seiza:

"...big toes sometimes are overlapped..."

In any case, in my Aikido dojo (where I am the chief instructor), there are no rules regarding crossing the toes.

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I don't know from personal experience, but I did have the opportunity to ask several high-ranking Aikido-ka. Two admitted never having heard of the practice, three others are aware of the practice but do not ask their students to perform it. Of them all, they offered several guesses for explanation, and this is what they offered:

  1. It is purely a pedagogical tool: keeps the student focused about their entire self and surroundings. Giving the student yet another thing to do forces them to become self aware.

  2. Discipline. They admit this reason is a cop-out, but it is a reason for some, they suppose: Do it so that everyone is doing it, so you should too. Just because.

  3. Uniformity. This, to me, is another useless example, as many modern students, particularly westerners who are not used to kneeling, cannot perform this position well, and so, crossing legs is about all some can do. Once one student is allowed an alternate way to sit in seiza, there goes the uniformity.

  4. When in seiza, you are supposed to be relaxed and focused on your inner self and thoughts - a spiritual moment of sorts. Toes crossing (he did not say which over the other) touches a healing meridian which enables one to ignore pain and injury that might have been sustained during practice, or before coming to the dojo. This sensei is well-versed in accupuncture, accupressure, and tuite, and so I take him at his word. But having found this explanation the most interesting to me, I researched and could find no example of a meridian anywhere near the vicinity of toes crossing that has any healing or relaxing effects. Maybe others can offer more detail here?

  5. One offered what I thought a humorous guess, although his demeanor suggested he was dead serious: Children are often like Gumby, and when sitting, can sit between their knees and feet. Such is dangerous, as someone could kick or trip over their feet, thus injuring either the sitting or tripping person. I looked at his students, and none sat in this manner, but none sat with toes crossed, either. I guess such are like stories we teach children, like registering the hands as weapons, belts touching the floor, and the meanings of the colors of the belt. As children grow into adults, these stories never leave them, and so as they grow into martial artists with influence over others these stories grow to become legend, and legend becomes myth, and finally myth becomes the law of the dojo.

I am a lefty. I tried to SiS crossing left-over-right, and then right-over-left. I found it painful - even momentarily - to sit left over right; the feeling was a charlie horse in the left foot and calf. When I shifted to the other way, it was similarly uncomfortable - although tolerable. For me, this lends to the idea that there may be a meridian point in the foot. However, any thoughts of spiritualism got completely tossed away while dealing with the charlie horse. lol

It should be noted that the practice of SiS has both spiritual and physical beneficial properties. Sitting with legs crossed, for example, can cause the back to slouch - injuring posture. SiS allows one to get up out of position much faster than sitting in other fashions. It also allows the dantien to remain compact and humble in spirit. Of course there is the religious aspect - subservience to deity (Buddha) and/or to the dojo. As such, like a tea ceremony, there are a myriad symbolisms to every part of the act of SiS, and you are likely to get different reasonable reasons from different people about any aspect of it, including the toes crossing, and all depending on their spiritual influences.

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I just went through my bookshelf and the first book I found which talks about this is Chino Susumu's はじめての合気道, which says:

Point! 両足裏は親指が軽く触れる程度にして座る

"Important: place the front of your feet such that the big toes can touch each other lightly" (my translation). The photo this goes with shows the toes next to each other. This matches the instruction I received. We are also instructed to keep our feet close together and aligned when moving in shikko ho, additionally in some techniques we put the heels together before we raise to our toes. Both seem to work better if the feet aren't overlapping.

Edit: skipping through Gozo Shioda's Dynamic Aikido I found mention of this when he comes to suwari waza, where he says without further explanation "the big toes overlap." No mention of left or right toes.

It's maybe worth pointing out that when we talk about traditional rules, we are talking about people who wore very different shoes, if any at all. Traditional Japanese shoes have a string crossing between the big toe and the next toe. Therefore it might well be that the Japanese of yore had their big toes in the natural alignment that modern shoes make us lose early in life, i.e, the big toe continues along the line of the bones in the foot, pointing away from the other toes as on the left side of this picture. This might be the simplest explanation why old texts refer to how to overlap the toes — there simply was no way to sit in seiza with toes not crossed.

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    We were trying to understand the reason for it. – Nav Jul 3 at 4:37
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    Thanks. I added a few words how this relates to technique. Your question assumed that everybody sits with the left big toe on top, so I think it's pertinent that this assumption just expresses your teacher's (or their teacher's) preference. – tobi_s Jul 3 at 6:55
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I tried a couple of things today:
When you want to 'stand at ease' with your hands behind you or with your hands crossed in front of you, you'll notice that it's always your left hand that goes over your right hand and that's what feels comfortable. If you keep your right hand over the left, it just does not feel comfortable.

Same feeling when crossing the legs over each other in Seiza. When crossing your legs if you make contact with a large portion of your left foot over the right, it feels more comfortable than right over left, but it's tougher to distribute the weight of the upper body onto the legs and you'll end up crushing your feet a bit when sitting.
On the other hand, if you don't cross your toes while sitting, what it feels like, is similar to your upper body being like a wedge that is driven between the two feet (and the feet are driven away from each other sideways) and it feels loose and a bit uncomfortable to sit after a while (although it is reasonably comfortable once you get used to it).

When seated with a toe over the other toe, the feet get placed in a position that offers a kind of a locking mechanism that supports the weight of the upper body comfortably and since having the left toe over the right feels more comfortable, it is just a matter of positioning and comfort.

How this concept might have started:
Perhaps people in ancient times observed the phenomenon of feeling more comfortable having left over right, and tried to offer an explanation to the feeling by saying "left side is calmer than the right" etc. A Ukrainian who studies Hinduism in India heard the "calmer" philosophy and mentioned he's heard of a similar concept in India, where the left hand is considered to be like the moon (calm) and the right hand is like the sun (more vigour).

Lefties:
Now that we've fleshed out the details and heard some opinions from across the world, I believe that if a left handed person feels comfortable keeping their right toe over the left toe, they should be allowed to do so. The reason is that I believe we shouldn't follow tradition just because it is tradition, but we should follow it with an understanding of what it is meant for. That's the way we gain respect for our tradition. There are far too many cultures where people thrust ideas down the throats of people and use fear as a means of making people stick to tradition. It ruins the good intentions the tradition was started with, and leads to an eventual lack of knowledge and loss of the capability for scientific inquiry. The martial arts are applied, grown and adapted better when we understand it.

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    My hand positioning preference is completely opposite to yours despite being right-handed, so I'm not certain that your theory holds true. :-D – Sean Duggan Dec 4 '17 at 20:57
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At my dojo, I have yet to be instructed as to toe overlap, I would assume you would want to sit on both feet besides each other, not overlapped, with your buttocks tucked in behind your heels.

I would assume that you would shift slowly to some toes over lapping because peoples feet can get sore. but I imagine not having the extra stimulus from your feet being over top of you and you being balanced level on a symmetrical position would help you focus more on the instructor who is trying to teach you.

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    Please see the help center to see how we work. We are not a forum but a Q&A site. As such, this answer does not answer the question but is just suppositions. This is something that is generally frowned upon and attracts down votes. – Sardathrion Dec 6 '17 at 8:38

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