Prayer is more than meditation. In meditation, the source of strength is one’s self. When one prays, he goes to a source of strength greater than his own – Madame de Stael, Swiss author
A prayer (Sanskrit: prārthanā) can be defined as the act, individual or collective, of communicating with (external) objects of worship – super-beings with a human appearance (deity, god) or scriptures (holy book, god’s words) or the elements of nature.
Often a prayer is a chant of repetitive, rhyming words (mantra or scripture) or a song in praise of the worshipped entity (bhajan or hymn). Usually a prayer aims to offer thanks for good events, ask forgiveness for misdeeds and/or seek support for a desired result. Since one of the most-valued human desires is to have good health, it isn’t surprising that prayers often include a wish for good health (and harmony). Prayers, for now putting aside the purely religious aspect, may influence the state of an individual’s health by reducing mental, emotional and physical stress.They may calm the mind and provide emotional support which may in turn trigger positive or neutralizing physiological stress-reducing responses.
In 1999, a UK-based study, published in British Journal of Health Psychology, reported that praying reduced the risk of developing depression and anxiety. Also, individual prayer had a higher probability of a positive effect than attending a place of worship for socializing. The study investigators stated that people who pray recognize themselves as a part of a wider universe and have a coping mechanism to deal with day-to-day stresses. The non-spiritual explanation is that praying simply offers people some quiet and personal time to focus on themselves and thus reduce mental stress. From either perspective, regular praying appears to result in a more calm, orderly and in-control-of-life personality.
In 2011, Dr. Howard Friedman (psychiatrist at University of California, Riverside) shared some insights from his research that address the main question at hand – does prayer lead to better health and longer life? His answer in a nutshell is – Yes, prayer, individual or in a group, does indeed enhance the health and longevity of a person but not because of their “religiosity” but because of their sense of community. Several studies have found a positive link between praying and physiological responses. Dr. Herbert Benson (cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School) reported a relaxation response during prayer and meditation which lowers metabolism, heart rate and blood pressure. The body in this relaxed state makes a person feel calm, in-control and peaceful. Such a state of mental, emotional and physical well-being is significant as many health disorders are stress-related – for example depression, hypertension, ulcers and migraines. Dr. Benson’s latest research focus is to study the ability of long-term daily spiritual practices to switch off genes that control cellular inflammation and death.
Another study by Dr. Andrew Newberg, Department of Psychiatry at University of Pennsylvania, found that meditating Buddhists and praying nuns displayed a lower activity in the brain areas linked to the ego and higher levels of dopamine – these factors increased their sense of happiness. There are many other studies that link the beneficial effects of regular prayers to lower high blood pressure, higher post-heart surgery recovery rates, reduced asthma symptoms, improved immunity and longer lives. Although, scientific studies evaluating the benefits of praying for other people (Intercessory prayer or IP) such as friends and family has yielded mixed results.
Evidence from modern day scientific methods that people who regularly pray or meditate are healthier with longer lives is welcome, though all the effects of prayers are not quantifiable. Besides, for a religious person, prayer is more than just a method to improve their physical health. In summary, for optimal health, along with healthy food, exercise and sleep, start the day with a few quiet moments of prayer – chant, hymn, omkara or just thank you – it may or may not help you attain your heart’s desire but the feel-good factor will still benefit your body.
One of the most common prayers heard in Hindu households:
Om Bhur Bhuva Svah, Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi, Dhiyo Yo Naha Prachodayat
[On the absolute reality and its planes, On that finest spiritual light,
We meditate, as remover of obstacles, That it may inspire and enlighten us.]
Gayatri mantra, first recorded in the Rig Veda (iii, 62, 10), composed in Sanskrit about 1500b – 2500 years ago.
Learn more about the mind-body connection: