It has been known for centuries that certain practices form the basis of good health and happiness. Yogis do Yoga, Taoist do TaiChi, Sufis Spin. Whether it is defined as a philosophy or a religion or a set of rules, every practice has a commonality, that is, to delve deep into understanding how to accept ourselves without judgement, learn and grow from our acceptance and ultimately achieve inner peace. Through this we can understand our greater purpose and live meaningfully, whatever form that may take.
But here, in the modern world we demand evidence, data, statistics and happily Science has proven that activities like
do indeed have profound postitive and measurable effects on both body and mind.
Interestingly, the Islamic Prayer, also known as Salat, brings all these activities together into a daily mindful movement practice.
Perhaps that fact that these therapeutic practices are packaged into a quick bite-sized activity is what makes the Muslim prayer such a powerful tool in our emotional and mental wellbeing.
In this blog, I’d like to focus on the physical benefits as the mental effects are very similar to meditation ; removal from worldly desires, time out from daily stresses, increased self-awareness, quieting the mind, deeper slower breathing, switching on the relaxation response , entering a state of flow.
The Muslim prays 5 times a day, each prayer having a number of repetitive cycles involving a fixed sequence of 7-9 postures. Like a daily yoga practice or a warm up mobilty routine that is gentle and acheivable for most. Here are some benefits:
MOVEMENT throughout the day
If only the obligatory prayers are read a Muslim will perform 17 cycles and if all the optional prayers are included that number increases to 48 cycles throught the day from dawn till night. So a maximum number of 119 postures are completed daily. Thats a lot of movement!
The most common advice we hear at the moment is MOVE MORE . We know that lack of physical activity is a major contributor to global mortality and chronic disease. In fact sitting still for prolonged periods is what increases our risk significantly. We hear advice from experts to “set an alarm to remind you to get up and move” “stretch often”. Magazines are full of ideas about taking exercise snacks throughout the day to counteract the culture of sitting. The prayer is basically that alarm or snack.
MOVEMENT throughout the lifetime
Many holistic therapists advise a daily movement practice for health and wellbeing. Salat is exactly that. Practiced throughout life it keeps joints supple and flexible, tones and strengthens muscles, keeps us getting down and up from the floor regularly, stimulates and tones muscles and improves balance.
Regular daily movement as opposed to structured exercise has a much greater impact on metabolism. The direct thermic effect of exercise is relatively small when placed in the context of total daily energy demands only contributing to around 10% of the metabolism. A separate expenditure “budget” is from the thermic effect of NON-EXERCISE ASSOSIATED THERMOGENISIS(NEAT) which is basically all movement thats not exercise and contributes a 15-20% and has a greater effect on metabolism.
Salat could be described as light cardio almost like a warm-up session. Its certainly better than just sitting or standing and takes the body through a nice and highly achievable mobility routine.Along with a daily walk this is a very achievable and gentle therapy for mind-body fitness, and especially good intervention for anyone stuggling to cope with harsh exercise.
It has beneficial effects on heart rate and blood pressure, similar to exercise. The light intensity and effortlessness of salat means there is little stress on the body making it a cortisol-reducing activity, like walking. Chronic levels of stress hormones antagonise insulin and can lead to Insulin resisitance. Hence salat could be described as promoting insulin sensitivity.
But please note: you cant out-pray a bad diet!
POSTURES (detailed look at biomechamics)
Similar to yoga asana, the postures have many benefits for the body. Unlike yoga though, there is less focus on body awareness and conciously stretching the muscles but a more relaxed flow of the body with focus on the duty to Allah.
Qiyam (Standing/Mountain/Prayer pose)
- Weight of the body is evenly distubuted through the feet, easing pressure on joints
- Stimulate the visual, vestibular and somatosensory systems improving balance
- Chin slightly tucked elongating and aligning the spine
- Relaxed shoulders, easing tension
- Deepening elongated breath, stimulating pelvic floors
- Improves posture
- Reduces risk of flat feet
- Increased awareness/mindfulness
Ruku (half forward bend)
- Stretches gently the hamstrings, calves and hips, improving flexibilty
- Stretches the front torso as gentle push of hands against the legs activates pectoral muscles
- Gentle loading of the knees improves bone health reducing risk of osteoarthritis
- Strengthens the back and improves trunk stabilty by activating core muscles
- Stimulates liver and kidneys
- Improves posture
- Activates digestion
- Forward flexion poses calm the mind
Julus (sitting /vajrasana)
- Full and deep stretch of front of thighs, shins, ankles and feet improving flexibilty
- Knee joint attains maximum flexion, which reduces restricted movement and risk of degenerative disease
- Improves stability and tone of knee joint, skeletal muscles of thigh,leg,back.Its regular practice strengthens Iliopsoas, erector spinae, quadrates lumborum and adductors and calf muscles of leg.
- Stimulates and strengthens the articulations of feet, ankle and knees
- Increases blood flow to the mid-body and pelvic regions, also heart and brain
- Improves constipation and aids digestion, relieves gas
- A relaxed pose which facilitates calm mind and meditation
Sujud ( balasana)
- Gentle stretch on lower back, hips, thighs,knees, ankles
- Relaxes spine, shoulders, neck
- The space made in the spine allows neural glides and nerve lengthening
- Opens the lower lumbar facet joints which may help to reduce lower back pain, sciatica and risk of other degenerative disc diseases
- Increases blood circulation to the head,stimulating brains frontal cortex and reducing headaches and increasing mental fuction and focus
- Massages internal organs, eases tension in digestive tract
- Increases parasympathetic activity inducing a calming and relaxing feeling
- Grounding/Earthing claims to reduce pain and inflammation
Transition to and from sitting to standing
- Deep squat achieved, strengthening the glutes and thighs
- Activation of the posterior chain
- Toes curled under during pushing up to standing strengthens the feet/toes
Salam ( Neck rotations at the end of prayer)
- Improves the range of motion of the cervical spine/neck
- Gently stretches the trapezius
- Mobilises the upper back
- Strengthens the neck muscles, reducing pain and risk of arthrits or degenerative conditions
There are so many benefits to the movements of the prayer but the greatest benefit is that it is done little and often throughout the day. Its like a lifetimes physio! The benefits amplify over time and translate into easing other daily activities. Done regularly and in proper posture, with awareness this practice may prevent, treat and rehabilitate a number of muscular-skeletal diseases, heart disease, anxiety and depression, and even improve impotence for men.
There are very few studies done examining the biomechamics of salat and the measureable benefits. To be fair, Muslims who pray will do so with or without a scientific stamp of approval. And yet, it is always interesting to find out more about the effects of movement on the body and its functions and certainly makes us value the blessing of prayer and movement even more.We become acutely aware that we often look in the wrong places (doctors and drugs) for the answers to our problems and pain.
As the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) said ” Verily, there is cure in salat “