What’s your body got to do with prayer? Isn’t it the soul that prays, anyway??
Over the years – and in different traditions – the way we stand or sit or kneel to pray has changed and some would say it doesn’t much matter what our bodies are doing when we pray. But perhaps it does matter and perhaps thinking about how we stand or sit or kneel might even deepen and enrich our prayer lives.
The bible has a lot to say about bodies. In the Old Testament, when the people of God ignored God’s law it says, ‘They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their necks’ (Nehemiah 9. 29). The psalmist exhorts ‘Do not harden your hearts’ (Ps 95) and tells us to ‘Stand in awe’ (Psalm 4) and ‘Lift up your hands in the holy places and praise the Lord’ (Psalm 134).
The Alexander technique also has a lot to say about bodies. Many people, myself included, first encounter it because it can help to ease or prevent bad backs. And happily, after a few lessons, my bad back got a lot better, But what made me carry ON having lessons was noticing in myself psychological and emotional changes – I felt calmer, less likely to over-react to situations. I decided to train as a TEACHER of the Alexander technique – which is a 3 year full time training – at least partly because of the psychological – and spiritual – depths it seemed to offer. And also because it is undoubtedly a good way of helping other people with bad backs!
The Alexander technique, which has been around for over 100 years, was first seen as a voice or breathing technique and only later became associated with the relief of chronic back and neck pain. Really, it is about the WHOLE of you – body, mind, emotions, spirit – and how you do the things you do every day – how you ARE in the world. As you become more aware of how you do the things you do, you also become more able to keep calm and think and notice and choose how to respond to the things life throws at you.
Which brings me to the body and prayer. Prayer is sometimes called ‘paying attention’ (Simone Weil) – paying attention to God, to what is really there. In the Alexander technique you learn to pay attention to your usual patterns of thought, movement and behaviour – and gradually to notice what is really happening. And you can learn to press the pause button, to quieten down and choose not to move carelessly, not to react without thought, not to get drawn into endless rumination.
All of these are skills we can use in prayer. In prayer we are choosing to open our eyes rather than to close them, to open or soften our hearts rather than to harden them. We can choose to give ourselves permission to let go – of unwanted thoughts, of unnecessary tension. And we can choose to pay more attention to ourselves and our bodies, which God has created and which God delights in. When I teach the Alexander technique, either in 1:1 lessons or in groups, my underlying aim is always for people to enjoy their bodies – and their lives –their whole selves, a little bit more.
Learning the Alexander technique has certainly changed how I pray. I now tend to keep my eyes open, rather than to close them, as it helps me stay alert and tuned into the world and myself. St Francis prayed that way too so I am in good company! I vary the position I pray in. When I notice tension creeping in I allow myself to let it go.
So, is there a right way to pray, physically speaking? In terms of position, no. We can pray in any position at all – lying, standing, sitting or kneeling. If you are tense or uncomfortable, however, then it matters because YOU matter.
Here are some ideas to play with to deepen your awareness of your body while you pray:
- Consider whether your posture suits the kind of prayer you want to practice. If you are engaged in confession, a position with bowed head might be suitable. But is it as suitable for praise? Or for thanks giving?
- Play with different positions for prayer and consider introducing more variety into how you pray.
- Pray while moving, walking, bread making or dancing even! I have learned some prayers to say by heart so that I can say them while running in the hills in the morning.
- Notice tension in your body as you pray and just give yourself permission to let it go.
- Ask God for a soft, open heart. What might that actually feel like physically?
- Smile when praying – it lifts the spirits and softens the heart
- Try praying with your eyes open – like St Francis – so that you can enjoy God’s creation
Fundamentally, consider how you treat yourself, in body, mind and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. So that means treating our neighbour – AND ourselves, ALL of ourselves – with consideration and respect.
As well as being an Alexander Technique teacher, Jenny is also a member of the Third Order of St Francis and part of a lay leadership team in in the Church of England.