Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Learning How to Pray: Further Reflections

About a year ago, I signed up for a yoga class in my neighborhood. Several friends had recommended yoga as a way to help me feel more calm, centered, and connected to my body. But after just a few sessions, it became clear to me that yoga was in fact a lot like davening. As I have always wanted to learn how to be a better davener, I decided that my time was probably better spent in shul rather than in the yoga studio, and promptly dropped out of the class.

How is prayer like yoga? Well, for one, it is a very embodied practice. There are specific motions that need to be followed at particular moments in the service – there are times to stand and times to sit, and like the synchronized movements of the yoga class, everyone gets up and down at more or less the same time. While davening is not quite as physically taxing as yoga, it does require specific poses and positions – bowing, taking three steps back, lifting our bodies up on our tiptoes three times, resting our head in our hands. When I’m davening, I am always aware of my body. If I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, I find it difficult to sit through shul. On days when I wake up hating my body, I know that praying to God is going to be a particular challenge. Likewise, if I feel pain anywhere, that pain is magnified during shul, suggesting that my attention is more focused on my body than at other times. For the past few years, I have davened in a minyan with uncomfortable plastic chairs lined up in rows. Only when I found myself in a proper shul over Sukkot did I realize how valuable it is to have cushioned seats and a shtender, so I could sit comfortably with my hands at my sides and my Siddur at eye level before me. This, I thought, is the right position for davening!

Assuming the proper position is necessary because davening, like yoga, is a spiritual practice achieved through physical movement. In davening we connect with God through repetitive activity – each day we daven more or less the same service in the same order, with the same body motions. In order to be effective, this must be done with tremendous attention and concentration, which is known as Kavana. Prayer requires focus – we must identify what is truly important to us, and articulate those wishes in the context of the liturgy. I know people who swear by prayer’s efficacy; Sara Ivreinu loves to say, “אין כמו כחה של תורה.” My friend Rimona tells the story of how she decided on her 34th birthday that she was determined to get married before she turned 35. Each morning she would walk to the Kotel and pray to God that she would meet the right man. Sure enough, by her 35th birthday, she was married. Is this a testament to the power of prayer? Perhaps. I suspect, though, that it was by clarifying her deepest dream that Rimona was motivated to concentrate all her energies on realizing it. All too often we move passively and blindly through life, without taking the time to question whether we are spending our time and energy properly, and whether we are moving closer to fulfilling our goals. Davening challenges us to think about where we wish to be heading, which in turn makes it easier to get there. In this sense, yes, prayer has tremendous power and efficacy.

And finally, davening, like yoga, is a discipline. I’m sure it is not easy to attend a yoga class several times a week; nor is it easy to get up for minyan every morning. Yet davening must be practiced regularly. A person cannot expect to come to shul once a year and have an all-time spiritual high – at least I don’t think so. Rather, it is the accumulation of many early mornings, afternoons, and evenings spent in prayer that ultimately results in a moment of transcendence.

Is this where the similarities end? I recall that my friends who encouraged me to take yoga insisted that this was something I should do for myself. “You owe it to yourself,” they told me, and “you deserve it!” Davening, on the other hand, is not something I view as being primarily “for myself.” What makes davening most challenging for me is the fact that it requires time that I would generally prefer to spend on other activities. That is, it requires a sacrifice of time, which I consider to be my most valuable and limited resource at this point in my life. In this sense, it makes sense that prayer was historically a replacement for sacrifice in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. Instead of the morning offering, we offer God a part of our morning. We sacrifice several minutes of our day, including the time just after we wake up. I like to think that people who daven every morning are more humble, or at least more sensitive to the needs of other people, because they understand what it means to put someOne else first.

Ironically, it was signing up for a yoga class that helped me to realize the value of prayer. It remains a deeply challenging religious obligation, and one that I am sure I will wrestle with my whole life. At present I think about davening far more than I actually daven, but perhaps this is the first step. I take comfort in the fact that our infinitely rich liturgy offers us even a prayer for prayer, setting us off on our journey as we take those small steps forwards: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall sing your praises.

See also November 16, 2007:


Anonymous Salome said...

Your experience is the opposite of mine. I struggle mightily with kavanah when I pray -- mostly, I guess, b/c I don't even know where my "prayer muscle" is, so I don't really know what I'm trying to "flex," let alone ultimately achieve. But regularly attempting the same poses in yoga is fulfilling for me, b/c I know what the endpoint is, so every little bit of progress is recognizable and rewarding. More than that, though, somehow everything around prayer -- the people, the tunes, the words, the room -- distract me from prayer itself; whereas, everything around yoga forces me to focus.

That said, even after a couple years I am still a very average yogi...

3:23 AM  

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