If you’ve been following Saying Grace lately, you know that us four writers spent the month of May experimenting with the practice of body prayer. Our rules? 1) try to practice some body prayer every day, and 2) tell you all about it.
Body prayer is a new practice for most of us, and our journey was hugely helped along by two really wonderful books. Body Prayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God, by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill, is a pocket-sized guide to praying with your body. Not sure where to start praying with your body? This book is a great place to start! It has prayer suggestions organized by theme, like “a prayer for hope” and “a prayer for guidance.” Each theme comes with a short prose reflection, a little poetic prayer, a description of a physical posture, and an easy to follow drawing. This book makes it so easy to dive right in!
The second book that helped us along is called I Am Here: Six Postures of Prayer by Kalyn Falk. This book is a heartier introduction to body prayer than Pagitt and Prill’s slim volume. Part memoir, part devotional, part guidebook, I Am Here is based around six essential prayer postures, with intimate stories, scriptural reflections, and solo and group body prayer exercises sprinkled throughout. Kalyn’s stories and spiritual insights provide a safe landing pad for those new to body prayer, and help the old hand tunnel deeper into the practice.
How do you explain what body prayer is to someone who is unfamiliar?
Doug: Primarily BodyPrayer is built on the understanding that we are whole people and not only brains. We are not just, nor mostly, cognitive. We are physical beings in all ways and prayer come from all of our being and not only our heads. Most people who pray at all already do BodyPrayer but they often don’t know it. So, I will say “let’s pray” and what ever posture someone takes, that is their most familiar BodyPrayer – eyes closed, head bowed, face turned up, hand clasped or palms up – So what is happening in BodyPrayer is keeping that part of their practice.
Kalyn: Christianity is an incarnational faith – we celebrate a God who was born, who chose to take on human form. There has got to be gift in these bodies for that to be important. There’s been a long and historic separation between spirit and flesh which is false. I’ve been asked to bring my whole self into my relationship with God. I can’t separate my intellect from my emotions from my body from my spirit. They are all necessary parts of me and work together to make sense of my experience of being human.
I usually explain Body Prayer with the analogy of a house. We usually let people in through the front door, where we’ve intentionally organized and thought about receiving guests. Body prayer is like the family members who come and go through the side door, where things may be a bit more messy and “real”. When we invite God into our bodies, God slips through the side door, where we don’t have as many barriers or assumptions about what that will be like. We allow ourselves to be more vulnerable and less in control of how the experience is going to go. At its simplest, body prayer is about locating ourselves and inviting God to meet us where we are.
What first attracted you to the practice of body prayer? How has body prayer been a part of your own spiritual life?
Doug: I am someone for whom words come easily. I’m an extrovert and external processor, so words often feel in abundance and routine. In my desire for prayer to be meaningful to me, and others, I was interested in non-worded prayer or, prayer that was not primarily about words.
It has allowed me to pray in all kinds of situations because I can take a posture no matter where I am. It has also made prayer at times longer and other times quicker. The thing about a posture it that is doesn’t play by the rules of words and sentences with beginnings and ends.
Kalyn: Sometimes it has simply come as gift – the call to life when I started dancing, the feeling in my gut when God is trying to get me to notice something. I tell a story in my book about a very impactive experience when I started my training in spiritual direction. Basically, I felt myself become Lot’s wife, rendered into salt from my tears and stuck looking back. I could feel God tugging my chin and releasing me from that fixation so that I could be healed and move into the present. I didn’t go looking for those experiences; it’s simply that God met me there.
When I practice body prayer intentionally, it’s almost always good and brings me to a new insight or a different way of holding a thought or experience. The times when I don’t practice are usually based on me not wanting to be vulnerable, the desire to not be that crazy lady swinging her arms in her yard, or the preference to watch Netflix and numb out.
It seems to me that body prayer makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Any tips for beginning to get comfortable praying in our own skins?
Kalyn: Our bodies are always calling us to remember that we’re mortal, we’re vulnerable, we fart and we can be messy or complicated. There’s a long and strong tradition of devaluing our bodies and it makes sense that this has included our prayer experiences.
When I lead body prayer exercises at retreats, many people start crying or giggling when we engage the body. It can be awkward for people and nobody enjoys feeling awkward. It can also awaken long repressed emotions, memories, sensations, longings and other baggage. So it’s really important to start with compassion when you begin engaging the body. We don’t need any more judgement about our physicality, our sexuality or our lack of coordination. I think that’s why it’s important to start practicing things like noticing with curiosity rather than judgment, allowing yourself to explore discomfort without feeling overwhelmed and unsafe and above all, a trust that God is good and will meet you in this new and possibly foreign thing.
Sometimes when I’m at my worst and feeling completely out of sorts and hostile or broken, I just imagine that God is charmed by my flailing and try not to panic. That image, and a hardy sense of humour are probably good starting points for people.
Any advice about how to do Body Prayer in a group setting?
Doug: I have found it is a great way to learn to pray. Teenagers in groups really like it. It is also good for when people are sharing requests to a group. After the prayer topic is shared someone can suggest a posture, then when the prayer starts people can do a posture that was suggested. We have made BodyPrayer our normal means of prayer in our church meetings. It works really well in groups because everyone can do it rather than someone doing the praying and other listening.
Doug Pagitt is a pastor, author, speaker, Ultra-Marathoner, goodness conspirator and possibility evangelist. He does that work by being the pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, speaking and writing on spirituality and leadership and giving leadership to the OPEN Network – a collective seeking to bring about a just and generous Christianity.
Kalyn Falk, MA is a spiritual director, retreat guide, workshop facilitator and author. She writes in the areas of both spirituality and autism. Kalyn lives in Winnipeg, Canada with her boys, her husband David, and her service dog dropout, Charlie. You can join Kalyn and a community of folks exploring body prayer at the I Am Here facebook group.