Five Ways My Yoga Practice Improved My Islamic Prayer Practice

I can practically hear my Muslim readers scratching their heads while reading this. Before you get angry, confused, or in doubt about my Islam, keep reading.

I know the origins of yoga and salah are very different. I am not talking about yoga as a religious practice, but yoga as it is universally practiced these days, as exercise with a unique mind-body focus.

People who have witnessed both notice similarities between yoga postures and prayer positions as well as the calm flow between positions and the state of peace and concentration both experienced yogis and Muslims of devotion exhibit.

1) Calm Focus- I found out very quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to master a difficult yoga pose if I didn’t focus and stay calm. Often I needed to focus on my breath rather than what my muscles and mind were telling me- which is generally “This is hard. Let’s stop,” “I’m tired,” or “I can’t do this.”

Often it was necessary to visually focus on a specific spot in order to maintain my balance in challenging poses like tree pose. I had to remain calm and know that I would eventually be able to achieve and hold a balancing pose longer with patience and consistent practice.

Similarly, I can’t achieve any measure of concentration and devotion (kushoo) in my daily prayers if I don’t focus on my physical position, the meaning and power of the words I am saying, and stay as calm as possible, despite internal and external distractions. I may not ever achieve perfection in my prayers, but I know I can inch closer with time and consistency.

In order to improve my prayer and increase my concentration, it is essential to focus on a specific spot — either the place of prostration while standing or in ruku, or on my moving finger while sitting in jalsa. While I’m not physically balancing in these positions, I am often mentally balancing, keeping my mind on Allah & my words, not on my problems or whatever random thoughts come into my mind.

2) Acceptance & Adjustment- In yoga I learned that it is necessary for everyone to just accept where their body (and mind) are at in this moment, on this day, for this practice. It didn’t matter if I was challenged by my range of motion, sore or unused muscles, stress, or mental distractions. The only way forward was to stay calm, accept my current reality, and not give up.

When I was an absolute beginner, I wasn’t about to try an advanced pose- I knew my muscles and mind just weren’t ready and I had to work up to it with beginner poses focusing on the same goals, balance or upper body strength, for example. Even now that I’m not a beginner, there are days when my regular practice is too long or too intense, and I have to opt for a practice where I can either take it slower, like a yin yoga practice or a practice which will not focus on whatever muscle is sore on that day.

Similarly, in my salah, it is necessary to just accept where I am physically and spiritually at a given time. When I was a new Muslim I made sure not to push myself so hard that I burnt out like most of the born-Muslims I knew. I stuck with the obligatory prayers before I started working on doing the non-obligatory sunnah ones. I am still gradually working up to longer prayers and more prayers.

Even with my habit of regular daily prayers, I may be extra tired, especially at the dawn prayer. I may be stressed, sick, have sore muscles, or be dealing with an emergency or with grief. Whatever my physical or emotional limitations, intentionally missing my salah is not an option. I must accept my limitations of the moment and move forward anyway. If I’m physically too sick to get on my prayer mat, I sit down and pray. If I’m too sick to do either, like after surgery, I pray while lying down. I just pray and don’t stress about what isn’t possible. I know Allah understands.

3) Slow & Steady- Especially in yin yoga, the focus is on fluidity and slow steady movement. It took quite a while for me to keep my breath fluid and in harmony with the movement of my body. It took just as long for my movements to begin to flow instead of being choppy and graceless. I learned to linger in a pose to get the full benefit from it, and to just melt into it instead of mentally complaining or being impatient to move to the next pose.

Similarly, my prayer is most beneficial and satisfying when I offer it slowly and steadily with slow focused breathing, with a slow, full recitation of Quran and takbir… and a period of rest in each position. One scholar said that our bones should settle during each position before moving on. My background in yoga helped me understand that.

4) Modify while continuously working to improve- When I first attempt a yoga pose, I know I am not going to look like the instructor, no matter how simple it may look before I actually try it. Over time, with steady practice, my practice of the pose becomes closer to the ideal.

Yes, the positions of our daily prayers are not so difficult generally, but they are new to those of us who didn’t grow up seeing or practicing them. Some are rather difficult for those of us who became Muslim as adults, especially the correct position of the right foot in the sitting position of salah (jalsa). It is frankly very painful for many of us.

Originally, I offered my prayers with my feet to the side, as I had seen some Muslims do. Later, I was determined to overcome my limitations and do it correctly. I would keep my foot up in the correct position as long as I could bear it (to my edge- as we say in yoga). Gradually I was able to increase the time until my muscles were able to bear the strain. Trying this during Ramadan helps immensely.

5) Ending with a sense of gratitude- When a yoga practice is completed, many instructors remind their students to end with a sense of gratitude: gratitude that you completed the practice, gratitude that your body carried you through, gratitude that you were willing to try new poses, gratitude for your progress.

At first, gratitude was not what I naturally felt at the end of a difficult practice. I felt more of a sense of relief that it was over. Like everything else, a sense of gratitude builds gradually with mindful practice. In time, I was grateful that my muscles and mind were pushing through to continuously learn and improve, and not just for the final relaxation pose.

I have been trying to carry this gratitude over to my five daily prayers. Just like in yoga, it is a difficult habit to develop. Maybe the prayer I offered was not my best. Maybe I got distracted or it was not as long or as mindful as I wanted it to be. At these times, I gently remind myself to be grateful that I was able to complete my prayer and that I my intention is on improvement and concentration, not perfection. I am grateful to Allah that I have been able to offer my daily prayers consistently despite everything that has happened in my life. It is truly a blessing. I gratefully rely on Allah’s mercy to cover my shortcomings and know that it is my intentions and consistent efforts that count the most.

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Umm Ismael Muslimah

Umm Ismael Muslimah

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