Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Let’s start with full disclosure: I pray for parking spaces. Maybe it’s the kid in me, or maybe it’s about believing in magic, but when I need something, when I want something, when I’m starting any kind of project, I pray. Some of my prayers could be called spiritually correct. I often pray for deeper love. I pray for enlightenment; I pray for people in trouble. I pray for my actions to be of benefit to all beings, and I pray for an end to human suffering.
But I’ll also pray for a workshop to go well or for answers to a problem I can’t solve. And, when I’m circling a block in downtown San Francisco or New York City, I pray for a space to open up for me. At least half the time, it works.
Mostly though, I pray because it’s the most direct practice I know for communicating intimately with the Divine. Prayer creates connection, sometimes with almost shocking immediacy, to presence, synchronicity, and, yes, grace.
Moreover, prayer is the great conveyor belt for spiritual development, a ladder that anyone can climb to create a closer relationship with the power of divine nourishment, revelation, and inspiration. That’s why the teachings of the great prayer practitioners, like the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi or the Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila, say that it doesn’t matter what state you’re in, or even what your motive is, when you begin prayer—as long as you’re willing to give it a go. “If you can’t pray sincerely, offer your dry, hypocritical prayer,” Rumi writes, “for God in his mercy accepts bad coin.”
A student of mine, Janice, describes how this works. “I usually start out in a totally rote sort of way. But if I stick with it, there is a moment when I become intensely present in the prayer. It feels like plugging an electric cord into a socket. I can feel the energy change. There is total connectivity.”
That’s exactly Rumi’s point. When it comes to prayer, it’s come as you are. You don’t have to be pious; you don’t have to be “good.” You really don’t even have to believe your prayer will work. You just do it, hang in there with it, and eventually you’ll get connected.
Prayer—especially the kind of prayer in which you ask God for favors—has a mixed reputation among yogis. Maybe that’s because we tend to associate prayer with organized religion, and, as a student of mine said recently, “I love yoga because it isn’t religious.” Some of us also suspect that prayer is useless, at best a sort of spiritual placebo. (A number of scientific studies have proved that prayer has had a positive effect on physical healing, but there have been an equal number of studies that have negated this.)
But even if you’re willing to accept the efficacy of prayer, there’s the issue of whom you’re addressing when you pray. Prayer implies a divine authority, and many of us have issues with authority. Often, we see God as a figure with attributes similar to those of our parents, whether benevolent or uncaring.
In 21st-century America, we’re more likely to have a lot of baggage around the idea of God than to desire a closer connection. I think it’s no accident that Zen and vipassana, with their minimalist style and nontheistic approach to meditation, have been the spiritual paths of choice for so many modern and postmodern Western intellectuals, scientists, and artists.
Prayer as a Practice
So why would a yogi pray? For three reasons: first, because prayer softens the armor around your heart and helps you receive support from the universe. As you get the hang of establishing connection in prayer, you’ll notice more and more how praying can shift your energy from hopelessness to trust, from defensiveness to confidence, from anxiety to calmness. Even a subtle inner shift can make a difference in how you handle external situations, and perhaps can even change the way that they play out.
Second, prayer brings you into a relationship with the sacred. When you pray, you get to show up in sacred space in your most personal, human, down-home way. You don’t have to be sophisticated, advanced, or particularly holy. Above all, you don’t have to act cool. You can speak your confusion, scream for help, express desires, say “Thank you” or “Wow!” or even complain. Yes, you can be needy. Rumi even recommends sheer neediness as the key to opening up a channel between yourself and God. “What is bounty without a beggar?” he writes. “What is generosity without a guest? Be a beggar, for beauty is seeking a mirror, water is crying for a thirsty man!”
The third reason to pray is simply because prayer is a practice, and a deep, multileveled one. It’s something you can do at any stage of spiritual development; you can use it to deepen your contact with Being itself.
Words of Praise
Prayer is one of the great methods for developing bhakti, a form of devotional yoga, because it can directly open you to your own feelings of emotional connection or devotion. In the bhakti tradition, prayer encompasses mantra repetition, the invocations sung at the beginning of a yoga class, and chanting. In fact, the words we sing in kirtan are basically prayers of praise, not so different in content from a Pentecostal cry of “Praise the Lord!” (Try, for example, chanting Om as a prayer, and notice how much more deeply it resonates.) In the Christian contemplative tradition, there’s a form of silent prayer in which you center yourself in the heart and orient yourself toward the Divine. This form of contemplative prayer is actually a practice of meditation.
Traditional prayer practice usually takes at least one of three forms: petition, confession, and praise. You can use them separately or together. Often, prayer begins in a rote way or from a place of separation and duality (where you view yourself as a small “me” addressing a great big God or universe). With dedication over time—and often in a single session of prayer practice—your prayers may change, deepen, and even lead to an awakening, to a moment of communion when you recognize the intimate connection between yourself and the Divine (called darshan in the yoga tradition). Finally, at the deepest level, you can pray with the feeling and conviction that the God you address in prayer is your own Self, and that you are not separate from the universe.
Driving a Hard Bargain
Most of us, let’s face it, pray when we want or need a favor. And notwithstanding The Secret (a recent best-selling New Age book), we often feel guilty about praying for favors, especially mundane ones like a relationship breakthrough or a better job. We shouldn’t. No less a yogic authority than the great Indian mystic Ramakrishna Paramahansa once scolded his disciple Swami Vivekananda for not asking God to help his family. The 17th-century poet-saint Tukaram Maharaj used to say that when we need something, the best person to ask is God.
Admittedly, these sages, being renunciates, probably wouldn’t get the point of the prayers of contemporary consumers asking for newer cars, and serial daters praying to be asked out. Still, petitionary prayer, in some profound way, affirms the dignity of human needs and human desires, which is why ancient cultures—particularly the Vedic culture of India—always interspersed their hymns of praise with requests for food, protection, and prosperity.
The metta, or lovingkindness, prayers that many of us are familiar with, (such as “May all beings be happy”) fall into this category of petitionary prayer—and if you’ve done a metta practice, you probably know that the more genuine feeling that goes into it, the more the prayer seems to bring results, at least in the form of a shift in your own state. I encourage students to pray to recognize the Divine in themselves, to pray for grace and strength, or simply for a deeper opening to love.
At the most basic level, petitionary prayer sometimes comes out as a combination of wheedling, nagging, and bargaining, and it often addresses some version of the parental God figure. In this style, your offering of prayer is part of an implicit deal (“I’ll acknowledge you by praying; you respond by taking care of me”), though we might also offer something more concrete—good behavior, maybe, or some kind of sacrifice, like “If I get into Yale, I”ll tutor inner-city kids all summer.”
In fact, making implicit or explicit deals in prayer is an old tradition, and there’s a kind of wisdom to it. In other words, when you “bargain” in prayer, you are following one of the natural laws of the invisible world. I’m speaking of the law that, in crass language, is called the “No free lunch” rule, meaning that in order to receive and keep on receiving, it’s necessary to make room by giving away or letting go of something else—a recognition that was ignored by the petitioner in one of my favorite Sufi stories. The story goes like this: A man has lost a valuable ring. He’s praying for it to be returned, and he offers to give half the value of the ring to charity if he gets it back. Finishing the prayer, he opens his eyes and sees the ring in front of him. “Never mind, God,” he says, “I found it myself!”
The main difficulty with practicing prayer as bargaining is that if you’re disappointed in the results, you may decide to give up on God. When you ask the universe for favors, it’s important to realize that the universe may say “No.” I have a student who became completely alienated from God when her younger brother died; she’d prayed hard for him, but he died anyway, and to her, that meant God either didn’t exist or didn’t care.
A Divine Relationship
But, in fact, if you’re serious about maintaining a prayer practice, a cosmic turndown can be a signal to take prayer to a deeper level. A serious petitionary-prayer practitioner brings everything into his prayers, because he views the connection with the Divine as a real relationship. “You never did me any good,” sang Tukaram, a saint of India. “You rob everyone of his last strip of clothing. O hoodlum, you are nobody’s chum.” Teresa of Avila, after a series of mishaps, sicknesses, and —accidents, prayed, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s a wonder you have any left!”
Prayers like Teresa’s—or ones like the even-more-radical “prayer” of the Hassidic rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev, who once declared that he was bringing God to trial for allowing injustice and suffering—come out of a profound sense of relationship. They are addressed to a higher power whom the practitioners feel they know. You don’t scream at God if you don’t feel that God is real, or unless you have a genuine emotional connection.
There’s a sweet story about a devotee of Krishna who used to worship and pray in front of a statue every day, waving incense and offering flowers. But whatever she was praying for never materialized, and one day she got fed up. She took Krishna down, put him in the corner, and replaced him with a statue of Rama.
The next day, as she was offering incense to her Rama statue, she noticed smoke drifting toward the corner where she’d stashed Krishna. Furious, she ran to the corner and stuffed the nostrils of the statue with cotton. “Not one whiff of incense do you get from me!” she cried.
At that moment, the statue seemed to come alive. “My dear,” said a voice, “what can I do for you?”
The woman gaped. “But I’ve been praying to you for years! Why are you granting boons now?”
She heard a chuckle. “When you stuffed cotton in the nose of the statue, that was the first time in all these years that you treated me as real. So of course I had to answer your prayer.” This deeper level of prayer signals an intimate relationship, not just with a specific god but with a sense of sacredness that can be found anywhere you tune in to it. At this level, prayer stops being petitionary and becomes a conversation, a way of holding oneself in the presence of a beloved deity or simply in sacred spaciousness. Prayer at this level often becomes appreciative.
Thanks to the Highest
Appreciative prayer includes every moment when you say “Thank you” for the beauty in nature, or for the blessings in your life. It also includes formal traditional prayer, from the Book of Psalms to the thousand names of Allah to the Rig Veda to the highly creative practice of the monk Brother Lawrence, who simply spent the whole day talking to God. Prayers of praise, appreciation, and gratitude feel good. They invite you into sacred feeling states and can inject something ecstatic into even a downer moment.
Try walking around with the prayer that a Bengali saint used: “Thank you, Mother, for becoming all this!” Or say “Thank you” when you see something beautiful, when you’re able to be of service, or just because you woke up healthy this morning.
As your appreciation prayer becomes habitual, you will begin to feel more and more intimate with your life and the people in it. Your friends and loved ones will open up when they feel appreciated. So will the universe, in ways you can’t know until you see it happening.
Less joyful, but equally profound as a means of connecting to the sacred, is the prayer of remorse and confession. Of course, every religious tradition has a formula for saying, “I blew it. I’m sorry. Please forgive me and help me make amends.”
Formal confessional prayers like these can sometimes be a mere ritual, and a distracted one at that. Yet again, it’s a matter of connection. If you can fully enter into it, a moment of confession and contrition can be deeply life changing.
Currently, yoga culture tends to overlook the spiritual power that remorse can have, perhaps because it’s a reminder of the sin-and-repentance, self-castigating mold of our Puritan ancestors. For a contemporary Westerner with self-esteem issues, even the word “confession” tends to bring up emotions like shame and guilt, which can feel anything but prayerful. Yet praying about your remorse remains one of the great sacred technologies available for dissolving the shadows that can keep you from feeling that you deserve your spiritual gifts.
Admitting a mistake—when it comes from a place of real feeling—is a kind of purificatory fire that melts obstructions, known and unknown, so that even when you start off feeling small and stuck and uncomfortable with yourself, you emerge feeling expansive, renewed, and reunited with your best self.
Confession doesn’t have to be about what you’ve done wrong. You can confess your feelings of separation, or even practice what I call petitionary confession, as in “Please take away this fear, this cruelty, this feeling of unworthiness!” Confessional prayer can be a form of housecleaning—a way of freeing up our inner space by letting go of the tendrils of regret and negative thinking.
In fact, in Hebrew, the word vidoy means “to confess and reveal your state or condition.” So a confessional prayer might start out with your saying, “Here I am! I think I’ve been pretty loving today. I’ve done my best, and I’m opening my heart to grace.”
Love of Your Life
Through any of these forms of prayer, you can move from feeling the divine as separate to feeling communion with it, to the experience of merging into the object of prayer. This is when prayer becomes a form of worshipful meditation.
In the deepest states of prayer, the prayer states that the mystics describe, the sense of separation melts away altogether, and you find yourself immersed in the heart. Any prayer can lead you to that state. The key is to allow the prayer to unfold, to let extraneous thoughts go as soon as you realize you’re being distracted, and to cultivate a feeling state that is hard to describe but that we begin to recognize as open and prayerful.
Prayer is, in the deepest sense, a practice of relationship. More than getting what you “want,” more than improving your emotional state, the practice of prayer can show you how deeply and fully you are being taken care of, protected, and loved. At its best, prayer can reveal love as the ground of your life.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy and the author of The Heart of Meditation.