Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Prayer Hands

I remember when directing actors or teaching public speaking I would scramble to figure out what to do when performers’ hands were too active, distracting from what they had to say or from some essential dramatic transaction. Perhaps they just couldn’t get the words out without stammering with their hands. Or perhaps they felt that excited gesturing would improve their portrayal of an emotional moment in a scene. Almost always, asking a performer to hold his hands behind his back and to try to find other ways to get his message out improved his expressiveness a hundredfold. Yes, he’d first plead, anything but that!, but something transformational virtually always happened. The essence of the necessary communication emerged, free of expressive detritus. The stilling of the hands allowed the essential relational posture, whether verbal or physical, to clarify and make its appearance. The sinking of the actor’s chest as he engaged in a scene with the departing girlfriend was so much more expressive and evocative than any amount of gesticulating could have been. A speaker, who had jabbed his index finger at his audience with every point, used his eyes and the modulation of his voice to express a deeper caring at key moments in his delivery. In many of the world’s postures of prayer and meditation as, for example, Indian mudras or “seals,” the hands are brought to stillness, perhaps allowing the mind to distill and collect itself. In what ways might particular hand positions, as used in prayer or meditation, affect the brain or the subjective experience of prayer or meditation? Kevin Ladd, of Indiana University, has a novel approach to exploring prayer positions.

In one of his experiments, Ladd positions eight male and eight female mannequins (shown above in mirror images of each other) in common prayer postures. Many of these postures are characteristic of more than one religious tradition. In the first of two standing postures, arms, hands, and fingers are held upstretched, as one often sees in Christian liturgical dances; in the other, the arms are crossed gently over the chest, hands relaxed.

One “chair” posture folds one hand over the other, as one might adopt in private prayer.
The remaining five postures hug the earth closely. In a series of three floor positions, the mannequins sit in the familiar “lotus” position, the palms held facing upward, or kneel as they either hold the hands similarly, as if in welcome, or close them into a folded position, much like the one that might be performed in a chair or a pew.

The last two postures surrender the head: in one, the mannequin is on hands and knees, as may be seen in Muslim prayer; the other is a prone position with the arms outstretched and the face melted toward the ground, as one may see in many cultures’ monastic or clerical practices.
Subjects encounter the full set of eight mannequins that correspond to their gender. They share their impressions about the “pray-er” represented by a particular mannequin: about her health, personality, and spiritual leanings. They then put on some of the accessories (a hat and two wristbands) worn by the mannequin(!), as if to take on something of her “self,” and they attempt to pray in the same position they’ve witnessed. Afterward, they share their prayer experience in writing.

While the experiment has to do with how prayer behaviors are socially learned, as well as with religious prejudice and stereotyping, the postures themselves are notable.
Recognizable from a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western, they have distinctive features in common.

•    The postures are all symmetrical with respect to the spine (right to left).
•    They are generally easy to maintain for long periods of time; that is, none of the postures requires extraordinary balance or is likely to bring on particular discomfort.
•    Some of them favor opening the body–and particularly the heart region–through spreading of the hands up or out or shining the palms upward.
•    The others seem to expel personal identity and self-importance from the body as, in one, the chest softly collapses and as the hands join together; in another, as they support the upper body in an all-fours position or as the chest rests into the ground in a prostration.

So these poses may appear to cover all possible bases, but–

•    Where are the positions of prayer that are asymmetrical, that involve the hands in slicing or pounding, or intentionally muscular activity?
•    Where are positions that twist the torso?
•    Where are postures in which the location of the eyes or hips is more important than how the hands and legs, instruments of action and intention, are arrayed?
•    Where are the postures that require balancing on one leg, or reclining to one side?

In Ladd’s collection of archetypal prayer poses, there are none of what James L. and Melissa Elliott Griffith have called “emotional postures of mobilization.” They are much closer to what might be called “emotional postures of tranquility.” All of these postures involve a disarming of the body on some level, a dropping down into vulnerability–in large part, perhaps, because of the stilling and discharging of the power of the hands.

As the ancient Indian classical dance text, the Natya Shastra, says, “Where the hands go, the eyes follow. Where the spirit rests, a state of being manifests itself. Where a state of being intensifies, supreme joy is awakened.”

All, as the hands lead and still.

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January 31, 2010 - Posted by | Physical Culture, Spiritual Practice

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post, I had never heard of Ladd and his work.

    Comment by Ma | April 26, 2010 | Reply


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