Prostration: A Simple Way to a Better Life
Prostration: A Simple Way to a Better Life
Prostration is a spiritual practice unfamiliar to many Westerners, but one that has a long and significant global history. In both religious and secular contexts around the world, prostration has held an important place for its ability to foster wisdom and physical health, and demonstrate respect and openheartedness – qualities that are the fundament of bridges between people.
Major faiths including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and Baha’i have all incorporated prostration into their repertoire of spiritual practices at some point. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches utilize prostration during the Imposition of Holy Orders, Religious Profession and the Consecration of Virgins. The Islamic tradition considers it “the most supreme state and spiritual position for a human being.” Many Hindus believe that prostration provides sufficient exercise in addition to serving as a valve through which the vital force of the Universe can be received and passed into the reservoir of the body.
The practice can also be found in multiple non-religious settings as a means of spiritual advancement, a pathway to physical health and as a show of deep respect. In ancient Hawaii and Imperial China and Japan prostration was commonplace, and in a contemporary context it appears in some forms of martial arts and in yoga as “sun salutations.” In the modern world, many people are rediscovering this primordial practice as a means to enrich their spiritual and physical experience. Poet and prostration advocate John Omniadeo’s pithy verse encapsulates its power:
Stand up straight into Heaven
Throw yourself upon Earth
Give ‘em everything you got
Myriad Bodhi Meditation practitioners place high value on prostration because of its transformative effects. In addition to promoting weight loss, the practice is revered for healing constipation, encouraging blood circulation, strengthening the immune system, alleviating allergies, optimizing organ function, improving mental focus, vitalizing meditation, balancing subtle energy currents, freeing energy locked in addictive patterns, developing compassion for the self and others, and facilitating virtue, patience and wisdom. Many Westerners are initially skeptical, perceiving it solely as a ritual of religious worship. Those who have tried it, however, become enthusiastic advocates. Dedicated Bodhi practitioner Sima Abelev is one such advocate. “I’ve always seen Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion. And what we take as religious expression perhaps is simply a show of respect to the teacher, which is an integral part of Eastern culture and a great exercise that helps to conquer your own ego. All the Buddhas started as actual human beings who became enlightened. So we simply show respect. I chose to accept that and I’m very happy with my understanding of this practice,” she said. When Sima saw Grandmaster JinBodhi himself prostrating to Buddha, she found his vulnerability inspiring, and decided, “If such a great man can do it, why can’t I?”
Similarly, committed Bodhi practitioner Joseph Ferguson cherishes prostration. Like many Westerners, he was initially taken aback. “Prostrating is an everyday part of Master’s teachings. To me it was quite exotic, quite foreign. To my Western mind, it was quite alien. I guess I reacted in the way that probably many Westerners do…my sense of democracy was a little irritated and I thought that if you bow or prostrate to a person you’re showing defeat or even humiliation. So it was jarring for me to observe this, and it was something that I wasn’t sure that I could ever get into. I had heard Master and I wanted to hear more of his teachings, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to prostrate myself. And it was only by continuing to listen to Master’s teachings and observe Master, by being around him and listening to what he was actually saying, by seeing his own sense of humility about who he is, his own willingness to bow to other people…his life is dedicated to other people. That was a very significant part of me opening up to what he was telling me. And of course what he was telling me was that it’s quite appropriate to bow to each other, to acknowledge and recognize the Divinity in one another.”
Gradually, Joseph began to embrace the practice, thereby uncovering his true nature.
“It didn’t happen right away, but I became more comfortable with the idea of bowing. I think I started off by doing short little bows to people, and it actually felt good. It felt natural. Acknowledging someone else is a wonderful thing to do. In Tibet and Nepal, people say ‘Namaste’ and bow to each other. What Master said about prostrating, about having respect for all sentient beings, was what opened that willingness in me. It’s a difficult thing to explain intellectually, and I don’t even think it matters because it’s really a matter of the heart. Prostration works on the ego in a very direct way, sometimes very suddenly and sometimes incrementally. It does transform one…it reduces self-centeredness, it reduces separation between myself and Divinity, between myself and all sentient beings. My heart really opens when I prostrate. I really feel the connectivity to…all of Creation. Sometimes tears will flow during prostration and I think that’s because of gratitude for the experience.”
It is critical for people to realize that spiritual prostration is not about institutional power, but rather about freeing the self from the prison of the ego and harmonizing mental and physical energies with all of Creation. According to Grandmaster JinBodhi, it is acceptable to begin a regular prostration practice with one’s focus exclusively trained on the physical benefits it offers, such as weight loss and fitness. Everyone must start where they’re at, and if a person has reservations there is no need to add pressure by insisting on large spiritual goals. Moreover, although it is important to prostrate toward something, it need not be a spiritual symbol. Obviously, Buddhists typically prostrate before an image of the Buddha and those of other spiritual persuasions, religious or otherwise, choose images accordingly, but it is entirely acceptable to use a natural object, which is an expression of Divine life-force. Prostration can be done either indoors or out, as long as the environment is quiet, clean and pleasant. Use a cotton mat to protect hands and body – synthetic materials and wool can create static electricity when rubbed, which is detrimental to health.
Most everyone is suited to the practice. Even people with health challenges such as heart disease and cancer can prostrate, provided their condition is stable. Those with high blood pressure should rest first. Post-surgery patients must wait until their incision heals.
A focused, tranquil state of mind is essential, as is using an even rhythm. Refrain from rushing. The emphasis should not be on achieving a particular number of repetitions, but rather on committing to continuous prostration for a certain length of time – for example, half an hour. People who are suffering from bodily weakness should begin with five minutes of practice followed by a rest period, and then resume prostrating for another five minutes if able. Senior citizens in good physical condition are advised to begin with ten minutes of practice, increasing duration as stamina improves. Prostration can be done in the morning, afternoon or evening, and dividing total practice time into three or four sessions can be a good way to achieve one-hour daily. Don’t practice when exhausted or right after a meal.
Prior to beginning, perform a few warm-up exercises to ensure the body is limber. After practice, rub your hands together and run them over your face. Practitioners often sweat, and if that is true for you, avoid drafts, cold drinks, cold water hand- or face-washing and the use of air-conditioning or a fan immediately following the session.
Countless prostration practitioners have been astonished at the benefits wrought by regular practice. Many have been delighted by significant weight loss and markedly improved fitness generated by this seemingly simple technique. People suffering from serious illnesses have regained health they had thought permanently lost. Indeed, Grandmaster JinBodhi knew a Tibetan woman who survived the liver cancer death sentence pronounced by her doctors and went on to thrive physically and mentally because of her dedication to prostration.
An easy practice that has the power to create physical, mental, emotional and spiritual empowerment is a true gift. Consider exploring the possibility of greater wellness through adding a few minutes of focused, daily prostration to your life. The profound perks may surprise you.