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 at least as early as 700 AD, some devout Jews took to swaying 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, and treasure prostration (sujood) as when God's servant is closest to God. They pray together by all doing the same prayer and posture together. Islam discourages many movements, but most sources teach that women can carry a baby during prayer, with the shifting that requires. Sufi traditions have a wider array of body use, including devotional dance. And most Abrahamic and Asian traditions of prayer allow such things as scratching itches. The Christian faith traditions allow 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. It becomes 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 liars and fools use them all. They are useful to know for your own benefit. The key to all prayer positions and postures is that you are having a living response with God, speaking and listening, thinking and receiving. Whatever 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.
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.
I can recommend walking a labyrinth, which is pre-designed for devotional use. No obstacles there; it is a controlled pathway to follow. But it is not really something you just walk, and it's not for recreation or physical fitness. You pay close attention to the relatively small course, and learn to stop and contemplate or meditate or pray at various points, either as planned or as led from inside.
Read here for more common ways of praying wrongly.
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...