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Monday, June 05, 2006

The "Yoga" of Islamic Prayer

By Karima Burns, MH, ND

Called "one of the oldest systems of personal development encompassing
body, mind and spirit" by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,
yoga has become one of the fastest growing health trends today. It has
been renowned for centuries for its curative powers of movement.

Yoga consists of a number of "asnas," or body positions, which one
retains for a desired length of time while either reciting "mantras" or
breathing in a rhythmic manner. Its benefits have been researched by many
doctors who now recommend it to their patients, by many medical schools
such as Harvard, and by many foundations such as the Menninger
Foundation.

In fact, yoga has become so popular that secretaries have developed a
simplified sitting version that they can do at their desks. The elderly,
pregnant women and athletes also have their own versions.

Interestingly, for the millions of people enrolled in yoga classes, the
Islamic form of prayer has provided Muslims for fourteen centuries with
some of yoga's same (and even superior) benefits. This simple form of
"yoga" offers physical, mental, and spiritual benefits five times a day
as Muslims assume certain positions while reciting Qur'an and athkar
(remembrances).

Of course, not all the yoga positions are found in the Islamic prayer.
However, hospital researchers have concluded that patients benefit from
even a simplified version of yoga, and most hospital yoga programs,
such as those at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Massachusetts,
consist of only five to seven positions.

The Muslim prayer has five positions, and they all (as well as the
recitations we make while performing the prayer) have a corresponding
relationship with our spiritual and mental well being, according to modern
scientific research. The benefits of performing specific movements and
recitations each day come from the correct rendition of the position or
action itself, the length of time the position is held, and from
careful and correct recitation techniques.
Each of the five prayer positions has a corresponding yoga position,
and the positions together "activate" all seven "chakras" (energy fields)
in the body. The idea of activating a chakra may sound linguistically
strange, but it is easier to understand once one translates that word
into more familiar language.
Eastern healers believe that each of the chakras correlate to major
nerve ganglia that branch forth from the spinal column. Thus, the concept
of activating these nerve centers is akin to getting a chiropractic
adjustment or installing a medical stimulating device on the spine to
correct corresponding bodily malfunctions.
In layman's terms, the idea of chakras can be understood by thinking
about how the sense of "feeling" functions. One notices, when touching
any part of the body, that that part responds by being more "awake" and
aware. Another part of the body that was not touched, but is along the
same nerve pathway, may also respond.
When a person is sitting, for instance, they may not be thinking about
their legs, which are momentarily at rest; however, if someone touches
them, they will again be "aware" of them. Chakras work in much the same
way.
Studies have found that varying areas of the body, when activated by
touch, movement or thought, evoke specific emotional and physical
responses in much the same way that a smile can evoke the feeling of
happiness, and actually increase circulation - even if one was feeling sluggish
and unhappy before smiling. This is one of the reasons that it is so
important to perfectly perform all of the movements of the Islamic
prayer, rather than haphazardly rushing through them.
The Takbir and Al Qiyyam together are very similar to the Mountain Pose
in yoga, which has been found to improve posture, balance, and
self-awareness. This position also normalizes blood pressure and breathing,
thus providing many benefits to asthma and heart patients.
The placement of the hands on the chest during the Qiyyam position are
said to activate the solar plexus "chakra," or nerve pathway, which
directs our awareness of self in the world and controls the health of the
muscular system, skin, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder and
eyes. When the hands are held open for du'a, they activate the heart
"chakra," said to be the center of the feelings of love, harmony, and peace,
and to control love and compassion. It also governs the health of the
heart, lungs, thymus, immune system, and circulatory system.
Muslim researchers have shown that when Muslims recite the Qur'an, old
thoughts, feelings, fears and guilt are released or healed, and blood
pressure and stress levels are reduced. Virtually all of the sounds of
the Arabic language are uttered while reciting Qur'an, creating a
balance in all affected areas of the body.
Some specific sounds, in fact, correspond to major organs in the body.
In his research and creation of eurhythmy, Rudolph Steiner (founder of
the Waldorf Schools), , found that vibrations made when pronouncing the
long vowels, 'A', 'E' and 'U,' stimulated the heart, lungs, and the
thyroid, pineal, pituitary, and adrenal glands during laboratory tests.
The position of Ruku is very similar to the Forward Bend Position in
yoga. Ruku stretches the muscles of the lower back, thighs, legs and
calves, and allows blood to be pumped down into the upper torso. It tones
the muscles of the stomach, abdomen, and kidneys. Forming a right angle
allows the stomach muscles to develop, and prevents flabbiness in the
mid-section.

This position also promotes a greater flow of blood into the upper
regions of body - particularly to the head, eyes, ears, nose, brain, and
lungs - allowing mental toxins to be released. Over time, this improves
brain function and ones personality, and is an excellent stance to
maintain the proper position of the fetus in pregnant women.
The Sujud is said to activate the "crown chakra," which is related to a
person's spiritual connection with the universe around them and their
enthusiasm for spiritual pursuits. This nerve pathway is also correlated
to the health of the brain, nervous system, and pineal gland. Its
healthy function balances ones interior and exterior energies.
In Sujud, we also bend; thus activating the "base chakra," which
controls basic human survival instincts and provides essential grounding.
This helps to develop levelheaded and positive thinking along with a
highly motivated view of life, and maintains the health of the lymph and
skeletal systems, the prostate, bladder, and the adrenal glands. We also
bend the "sacral chakra" during Sujud, thus benefiting and toning the
reproductive organs.
The position of Al Qaadah, (or Julus) is similar to the Thunderbolt
Pose in yoga, which firms the toes, knees, thighs, and legs. It is said to
be good for those prone to excessive sleep, and those who like to keep
long hours. Furthermore, this position assists in speedy digestion,
aids the detoxification of the liver, and stimulates peristaltic action in
the large intestine.
Last, but not least, the "throat chakra" is activated by turning the
head towards first the right and then the left shoulder in the closing of
the prayer. This nerve path is linked to the throat, neck, arms, hands,
bronchials, and hearing - effecting individual creativity and
communication.

It is believed that a person who activates all seven nerve pathways at
least once a day can remain well balanced emotionally, physically and
spiritually. Since this is the goal of all sincere Muslims, we all
should strive to attain the perfection of stance, recitation, and breathing
recommended in the Hadith while performing our prayers - the very same
techniques of perfection taught in popular yoga, Tai Chi, and many
other exercise classes.

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