Body Positions for Prayer
People pray in many physical positions. For instance:
- laying flat on the floor, face down, with hands stretched out (also known as 'prostrate');
- standing, hands raised and spread, palms up, looking upward;
- standing, head bowed, eyes closed;
- sitting, head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded (the most common position today);
- kneeling, head bowed, hands folded;
- kneeling, head to the ground, hands face down on ground next to head;
- standing, eyes forward, facing the altar;
- sitting eyes closed, hands in front, palms up;
- laying flat on the floor, face up, palms up;
- slow leisurely walking (or sitting), eyes open, in a place where one can safely pay very little attention to where one is going.
Each of these body positions (and others) can be done for any kind of praying, but each has special meaning for different kinds of prayer. Standing with hands raised is typical of praise, celebrative prayer, and thanks-giving. Kneeling and prostration show humility and recognition of a superior, and thus are especially well-suited to prayers of confession, repentance, or awe. (If you're someone who bows to no one, please consider praying while laying prostrate. In public. With everyone watching. If you're too proud to do that, you're too proud to speak to God.) Slow wandering/meandering and lotus-sitting are especially good for meditational prayer and for quieting yourself so you can listen. Standing facing the altar is part of an act of worship with other people who are also worshipping. Other positions have been used, too; for example, Elijah crouched low to the ground and put his face between his knees. (He must've been a prayer contortionist.)
The Bible doesn't mention arm gestures in prayer except the raising of hands; however, starting as early as 800 AD and maybe earlier, some devout Jews have been known to sway while studying the Torah, chanting Psalms, or praying. Christians praying together often link hands, raise them together, and form circles. Mainstream Islam has many of the same personal postures for prayer, treasuring prostration (sujood) above the others as being when God's servant is closest to God. They pray together by all doing the same prayer and posture together. Islam discourages most forms of movement, but most sources teach that women can carry a baby during prayer, with the shifting that requires. And most Abrahamic and Asian traditions of prayer allow such things as scratching itches. Nearly all traditions of the Christian faith have no ban on ordinary natural behaviors or motions during prayer. Christians can walk, sway, dance, chant, or be quiet and still.
These positions can help you pray right, by getting your body into (or, sometimes, out of the way of) your prayers, and as a way to use the body to express what the prayer is for. Prayer is done with your whole self, and the body is part of that. But the body positions themselves are unimportant to God, who has seen them all before and has seen liars and fools use them all. They are useful to know for your own benefit. The key is that you are having a living response with God, speaking and listening, thinking and receiving. Whatever prayer position your body is in, God is still paying attention. And that is ultimately what counts.
(This fact should be of special comfort to those who can't get into those positions due to handicap. You can pray from the position you're in, and it's just as good as any other so long as you're fully behind your prayers.)
A Spirithome dare: try each of these positions out in prayer, if you can do so safely. When done, then take a pad and a pen, and quickly jot down what you were sensing, what came to mind, and how fully you were able to immerse yourself in prayer.
In our own times, many people are devising new ways of bringing the body (or parts of it) into their prayer life. Some are fairly humorous, others are more of a meditation than a prayer, and sometimes a bit too trendy for their own good. (Today's fuzzy spiritualists are prone to label almost any body movement "body prayer"; they're not always wrong.) These prayers are not just 'experiential', they're 'experimental', and they're a good example of faithful risk-taking and discovery. These experiences can carry forward a true sense of prayer. In several of them, ritual and symbol are well-used for what they are meant to do, something that's usually lost in pop-ritual and by ritualists. One of my favorite body prayers is below; it's in the spirit of early Celtic Christian prayers, but acted out with the body and with open hands faced out and placed together in a triangular (Trinity) shape. As the old Embody UK site of 2000 described it:
"Stand up with your arms straight out to your side and your palms pointing to the ceiling and pray: "Creator God". Bring your hands together in front of you, forming a triangle with your thumbs and forefingers, and pray: "The three in one". Keeping the triangle shape, move your hands down to touch the ground and pray: "Be in this place". Stand up again and place the triangle over your chest praying, "Be in my heart", and over your forehead praying, "Be in my mind". Take the triangle above your head and pray: "I love you and adore you". Bring your hands down to the starting point and you can start to pray again."
An experience in praying while in motion
Back some 20 years ago, I started praying during bike rides. (This, at the suggestion of a Third Order Franciscan.) The trick is to stop before you pray, then start riding again as you finish one prayer, stopping and starting in a controlled, regular fashion. It takes discipline to keep the functions separated. The first few days, it worked well and felt great. Then, it started becoming more dangerous, because my mind would keep wandering back to God at unexpected, unplanned times so I wasn't paying attention to where I was going, even with my eyes open. With each close call I would tell myself to pay more attention and exert more discipline. I stopped biking my prayers after jumping a curb, crossing someone's driveway while they were backing up, and landing in thorn bushes on the other side. Fool that I am, I then decided to try something less hazardous: I'd pray while taking a walk, or more accurately, meandering. Same discipline, less risk. But I live in a suburb. I'd have to go a mile or so to get to a good place to walk around at a normal pace. So (duh...) I chose to walk to a nearby school's track area. Once again, once I started thinking toward God, I would not keep my mind off God, even on my way there. I stopped that when I walked into the school's perimeter fence one day, and into a parked car the next. I discovered that prayer shtick doesn't work. I still occasionally use my current landlord's ample back yard woods, where I can meander aimlessly, slowly, and safely -- though I did walk into a tree once and another time stepped on a squirrel. But mostly, I stay stationary when praying. I don't want to put God to the test by essentially demanding a miracle healing each time I move about.
Three preachers were discussing the best body positions for prayer, while a utility repairman was working close by. One of the preachers said, "I find kneeling gets the best feeling".
"No", another jumped up. "I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven."
"Both of you miss the mark", the third shot back. "Prayer's most effective when lying prostrate, face down on the floor."
The repairman had heard enough of this. "Hey, y'all," he stepped in, "the best prayin' I ever did was hangin' upside down from a telephone pole."
Here's a cartoon about the drawbacks of one prayer position, at least to walrus Christians...