“We know that our minds change our bodies, but is it also true that our bodies change our minds?”
– Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy.
When I first heard Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about the way body language shapes us, I immediately related it to my prayer. In Islam, the prayer is both a physical act and a spiritual experience.
Have you ever seen a Muslim pray?
The english word ‘pray’ can refer to almost everything we Muslims do, but the specific prayer I am referring to is the one where we stand, bow, and prostrate. It’s called Salah.
When I lived in Brooklyn, I lived right next to a building inhabited purely by Hasidic Jews. I remember walking home at night and occasionally seeing one of them near a window rocking rhythmically, his curls whipping back and forth. I assumed it was some sort of prayer ritual.
At that time, when I was still up on my pedestal of intellectual superiority over religious adherents, I found it quite ridiculous.
I wonder sometimes, what people think when they see Muslims performing the salah. Does it look like a vacant ritual?
The salah is one of the most crucial aspects of one’s faith and practice of Islam. Abandoning it literally takes a person out of the fold of Islam.
So how could standing, bowing and prostrating be so important?
When we perform the salah, we are indeed communicating with our Maker. How well we are attentive to what we are saying decides how beneficial the prayer will be.
Internally, it is a meditation, but what about the physical movements?
What benefit are they?
According to recent studies, holding particular body positions can impact our psyche and attitude. The positions of the body actually influence the person performing them – subconsciously.
Holding a position of strength and power, such as standing tall with your fists on your hips for about 90 seconds, will actually make you feel more powerful and confident, perhaps capable of achievements you might otherwise shy away from.
The research and explanation which Amy Cuddy presented at TED (find the link to her talk below) really is the best way to explain what Muslims are doing physically, when we perform our prayers, in a way that helps bring the salah into the realm of the familiar – at least at the superficial level.
It makes perfect sense that we would be standing solidly, our feet shoulder width apart, in unity with other Muslims and at times alone; while we affirm that we are devoted to God alone and seek only His help;
It makes sense that we would bow down when we acknowledge God’s absolute greatness and Might (far above our own),
and that we would put the uppermost part of our bodies, the most honored part – our heads – on the ground; as low as possible, when we glorify God and acknowledge His total Supremacy.
Sometimes our minds wander, the positions also help bring our consciousness back to our words.
Fortitude and humility are qualities critical for every Muslim. We have to be firm and grounded, focussed. We have to be humble, in relation to other people, but especially in regard to our Maker.
One of the greatest pitfalls of life, according to Islam, is arrogance; feeling self sufficient and greater than we really are.
Islam has many levels, from the superficial to the very deep, from the physical, to the spiritual. Some parts are followed by others. Some aspects are like foundations, upon which the rest is built, without which, the structure is weak.
Others are there, almost like reinforcements and safety nets. The physical aspect of the salah ensures that the worshipper walks away with at least a little bit of humility, even if only induced by deliberately physically humbling themselves.
So do the positions of salah influence our state of mind?
The answer is yes.
Watch Amy Cuddy’s talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en