As Muslims, we all understand how important salat is for our faith. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and is performed five times a day during the specified times for each prayer. We see it as a mandatory form of worship and a way to connect to Allah (SWT.) However, many people are not aware of the physical and psychological benefits of salat.
It is now common knowledge that yoga, which is originally a form of prayer associated with the Hindu religion, has many physical and mental benefits. This is why yoga is now considered a common form of exercise, and yoga classes are now commonplace globally, no longer seen primarily as a religious practice but rather as fitness.
If you have taken a typical yoga class, you will notice a few of the yoga positions are very similar to salat. Yoga practices vary vastly, however, a yoga practice called “sun salutations” usually starts with a position called tadasana/mountain pose, which is a simple standing position, qiyaam, and is also how many Muslims begin and continue their salat.
A few steps later, there is ardha uttanasana/half forward fold, comparable to ruku/bowing, if you were to “exaggerate” the pose. Another common yoga pose is balasana/child’s pose, also an “exaggerated” pose comparable to our sujda/prostration. The fourth comparable pose is varjasana/diamond pose, which is almost identical to the pose of julus/specific sitting position after rising from prostration, which many stay in after completion of salat to recite other prayers.
Not as much research has been done yet on the physical benefits of salat when compared to the research that’s been done on yoga. However, aside from what has been observed in studies, particularly of salat, which we will get into later, we can also take the research done on these similar poses mentioned above and apply those same benefits to salat.
Further benefiting us, unlike the vast majority who practice yoga only a few times weekly or once daily at best, we may perform these poses for longer durations in each salat while also performing salat multiple times daily. There is no argument that the more you partake in healthy physical activity, the better you become.
The Mountain Pose
Studies show that the mountain pose, proportional to qiyaam, is known to establish good alignment by improving your posture and increasing your bodily awareness, as well as aiding in strengthening your legs. It seems like a very basic and natural pose that people do all the time, but this simple standing position is often done improperly, and it takes effort (notice how our legs tend to get tired while standing for long periods of time as opposed to sitting or laying down for the same length of time).
It is also known to help correct muscle imbalances, promote mental clarity, boost circulation, and tone your core. Due to the benefits, it is considered to be especially useful for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s, Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), and COPD.
The Half-Forward Fold
Half-forward fold strengthens the lower back, builds core body strength, and lengthens the spine. It also stretches and lengthens your hamstrings, calves, and front and back torso. Strengthening the back and spine improves posture. Being in this pose helps stimulate the abdominal organs and belly, resulting in improved digestion.
The Child’s Pose
Child’s pose aids in releasing back, shoulder, and chest tension. It is recommended for those experiencing dizziness or fatigue and helps with stress and anxiety. This pose flexes internal organs, while also lengthening and stretching the spine. When performed correctly (supporting head and torso), it can relieve neck and lower back pain. It also acts as a gentle stretch for your hips, thighs, and ankles, and stretches muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the knee. More benefits include normalizing blood circulation (which can help prevent issues such as strokes and heart attacks, especially when done at the start of our day), and the encouragement of strong, steady breaths.
The Diamond Pose
The diamond pose is known to have extensive benefits. This includes improving our digestive system by obstructing blood flow to our legs, thereby increasing it in our stomach area, which improves bowel movement, relieves constipation, and reduces belly fat. Strengthening our lower back muscles, it relieves lower back pain and pain caused by sciatica. It helps keep blood sugar levels in control by stimulating the pancreas and liver, which improves the ability to optimally produce insulin.
This pose increases the flexibility of the muscles in the thigh, foot, hip, knee, and ankle. This can help relieve rheumatic pain in these areas caused by stiffness, as well as heel pain caused by calcaneal spurs, and pain from gout. It increases blood circulation in the pelvis and strengthens our pelvic floor muscles, which would help women experiencing urinary incontinence, as well as ease labor pains and menstrual cramps.
So far, we have discussed the physical benefits of these poses which relate to our daily salat. What’s left to get into, but also more difficult to measure are the mental and spiritual benefits of salat. This is a more complex matter because in comparison to the science of the body, the science of the mind, and the science of spirituality and metaphysics, they are much more vague and mysterious to us.
Most information available in these matters are labeled as reasonable theory, assumption, and speculation, rather than a consistent hypothesis that can be studied and measured alone without the interference of other influences. This is why it can be much more difficult to pinpoint the causes of disorders such as depression, for example, which can be unique to an individual’s personal circumstances, lifestyle, etc. Finding a cause for it might always result in only a theoretical explanation.
the Spiritual Effects
Measuring the spiritual effects of practices is even more of a guessing game; where our assumptions and beliefs of what is true can be based on religious beliefs and our beliefs in the validity of certain theories. Nonetheless, we’ll attempt to go into what studies have found on the mental and spiritual effects of Islamic salat.
Ideally, when we do any kind of prayer, we want to be focusing on the communication and relationship between ourselves and Allah (SWT.)
Two studies used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain waves of individuals while praying and performing the postures of qiyaam, ruku, sujda, and julus.
Alpha waves, which are brain waves that indicate relaxation, appeared to be present in greater magnitudes, with the greatest amount occurring during prostration. This study found that salat, especially prostration (which is believed by many Muslims to be when one is spiritually closest to Allah (SWT)) tends to have significant relaxing effects.
The second similar study also used EEG and ECG on Muslim men while performing salat. It concluded that the alpha wave measurements indicated relaxation, decreased tension, and increased focus and stability between the mind and body.
Another study published by the National Library of Medicine found salat had a notably positive effect on Bosnian war veterans. They discovered that those who prayed had lower levels of depression and paranoia compared to those who didn’t. The results also indicated that those who prayed were significantly more incorporating and self-protecting. Their counterparts instead showed higher levels of uncontrollability, opposition, and aggressiveness. The researchers stated, “Those who prayed were more sociable, affectionate, obedient, cautious, and shy.”
This supports the general notion that religious principles can act as a coping mechanism when faced with emotional pain, as religion forbids acting in ways that can cause harm. Another assumption in relation is that those soldiers who prayed regularly were more likely to be resilient as they were further inclined to be more religious than their counterparts.
Some medical professionals believe that prayer can be useful practice during psychotherapy (psychological treatment of mental disorders without medication) due to its use of providing intimacy with a Higher Power, inspiration, increased faith, problem-solving, humility, salvation, decrease in stress, etc.
Aside from the aforementioned benefits of the physical practice of salat, a further focus on two other aspects involved, ablution/wudu and meditation, reveal more benefits. Salat, when optimally performed, is a form of meditation.
The primary goal of general meditation is to achieve mental serenity, which is also something we should be getting out of salat as well, so long as we manage to perform salat in a meditative manner. The benefits found in meditation are endless. Some notable benefits of meditation are increased self-awareness, reduced negative emotions, increased imagination, creativity, patience, and tolerance, lowered resting heart rate and blood pressure, and improved sleep quality.
Benefits of ablution/wudu can include eliminating bacteria, dust, allergens, and contaminants, improved sleep quality, increased blood circulation, reduced fatigue, etc. The spiritual benefits of all these acts of true worship, as well as any action done with the true intention of obeying God, is incomprehensible and can manifest in countless different ways, both seen and unseen by us humans.
The only complete statement that can be made about the spiritual benefits of obeying God’s orders is that the more we choose to do so, the more taqwa (God-consciousness) we will have, which is the ultimate goal of life. To have proper God-consciousness is the most beneficial thing for us, and no words will do justice to describe it. While Allah (SWT) can perfectly describe anything that He would like to, this does not mean that we humans will be able to understand it.
For example, in several verses Allah (SWT) describes features of heaven with the use of the word mathal (used in Quranic Arabic not only as an example/such as, but even as allegory/symbolism, as shown in 62:5.) This is an important detail that indicates that something God has described may not be literal; that there is much more to it than this simple description, or that these examples given are an oversimplified concept or idea. It has been described this way because it is beyond our comprehension. After all, one cannot fully understand something from their own perspective until they have experienced it for themselves.
It should go without saying that despite all the physical and mental benefits of these salat practices, it is definitely not the reason we are to perform them, nor can we just assume that these benefits are the main reasons Allah (SWT) has prescribed this specific method for us.
We pray as an act of worship, an obligation to submit to Allah (SWT) and to follow His guidance to us, as He knows best. Even the things that God commands us to do are not always beneficial for everyone, which is why there are exceptions. For example, those with certain physical injuries or frailness are not required to perform the salat in the same manner as those without these issues must.
Conversely, there are prohibitions that are made lawful in cases where not doing so would cause more harm than good. We are expected to always take care of ourselves in a reasonable manner. An example of this would be using intoxicants due to their benefits in treating a medical condition when it is a better choice than other options available under your circumstances.
Overall, everything made lawful/unlawful or mandatory/optional by Allah (SWT) are tests of obedience for us, and its purpose should not be measured essentially by whether it is “good” or “bad” for us, universally speaking.
In 6:146 of the Quran, Allah (SWT) tells us about how in other scriptures for the Jews, He prohibited them from the consumption of all clawed animals, as well as parts of sheep and cows. Yet, we are permitted to eat all these things now, and we see no harm in moderation. In fact, it can be physically beneficial. Therefore, this is an example that highlights how God’s laws are firstly and most significantly a test of obedience and not a matter of physical benefit or harm.
To further demonstrate, the Quran 2:219 talks about the prohibitions of gambling and intoxicants, and He mentions that (generally speaking,) while both can have some benefits, they are both also very bad, and that overall the bad outweighs the good.
Muslims and others who practice yoga have been doing so long before they gained knowledge of these specific benefits. We should bear in mind that we may never understand the full extent of the things that Allah (SWT) has intended for us, and that so much of Allah’s (SWT) knowledge is beyond human comprehension. He only gives us what He wants us to know and or what we deserve to know. Allah (SWT) knows best.