Pray perseveringly, four: choreography

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We don’t usually think of prayer and choreography as compatible. Choreography doesn’t immediately sound spontaneous, or humble, or particularly God-centered. Most people think of choreography as related to dancing, planned steps forming a routine to music, for the purpose of entertaining other people and putting on a show. Well, for better and for worse, prayer and choreography are intertwined closely, once you think about it, just as we know the mind and body are intertwined.

I’ve already talked on here about how the mind and body have a weirdly close and connected relationship. Yes, both are part of us, but each one can lead and affect the other. Patterns form in the brain based on choice as well as experience and chemistry, which then become reinforced synapse connections, giving the mind a predilection for leading the body in certain ways. Positive thinking is more than merely in the moment; it has lasting effect on future patterns. We can calm rapid breathing and panic by practicing positivity and stillness in our minds.

It’s not just the mind leading the body, however. This mind-body relationship has influence in both ways. Most world religions recognise this truth, but Christianity has shied away from pagan practices of meditation, yoga, breath control, and physical discipline, in favor of increasingly more erratic and emotion-led responses in worship and prayer.

This was not always the way. The Catholic church (which was simply Christian before the Protestant movement made a distinction between Catholic and Protestant) over centuries developed ritual, habit, physical location, and choreography. Most simply defined, choreography is the practice or habit of movement and position. Attitudes of kneeling, standing, clasping hands, even crossing one’s chest in the Catholic tradition of drawing a crucifix, all constitute choreography. As is the danger with any habit, mindfulness and the purpose of these habits slipped into mindlessness in the Catholic church, and the Protestant movement quite rightly challenged that the focus had become placed on man saving himself by works, rather than on salvation by Jesus God himself and all that entails.

Today, the Christian church worldwide is more charismatic than anything else. We focus on spontaneity, Spirit movement, leading in the moment, trending music, and mountaintop mission experiences for all ages. While there is good in all these things, there is also good in the set-aside and forgotten practices of ritual and habit, of routine demonstration, where the body is used to lead the mind, not only the mind leading the body.

Two particular attitudes are most commonly adopted during prayer — prayer of any religion. Funnily enough, they don’t seem to have changed much from culture to culture or time to time. I think this is because they are an innate expression of humanity. One is of self-abasement. It is inward-turning, self-minimising, closing, withdrawing from one’s surroundings. Kneeling, sitting, or lying down with one’s face to the ground. The other attitude is the opposite movement. It is of opening up, growing bigger, arms outstretched, hands flattened and fingers spread, face raised, most often a standing pose. We connect the closing expression with ignoring surroundings and companions, and with humility or confession. We connect the opening expression with inclusiveness of surroundings and companions, and with joy, peace, and supplication (literally: olive branch), where one’s arms are acting as the olive branch.

Linette Martin, in Practical Praying (1997, pp. 35-37), describes:

“Choreography in prayer is not an exotic extra to be indulged in only by charismatics, dancers, or other enthusiasts, but is an essential part of everyone’s life. When we use it to help us pray, we are behaving towards God as the physical people that we have been created to be… Words and position go together, and there is a logic in that dance…

“Some people who have accepted that there is a close link between thought and body in worship will try to get their thoughts in order first. They say that when they feel sufficiently humble or prayerful, then they will kneel, or when they have enough faiththen they will go to church. Somewhere in their minds there is an unreasonable fear of hypocrisy: they want their thoughts to lead the body.

“‘That’s right,’ says the Father of Lies, ‘Don’t be a hypocrite. God hates hypocrites. Don’t pray or go to church until you believe everything.’

“What people have not allowed themselves to experience is that the influence can flow in the other direction, with the body leading the thoughts. The associations between body language and mental attitude are so strong that if one is changed, the other will eventually change, too.”

Yoga practice is fully aware of the mind-body influence. The teaching and practice of asana is very akin to the tradition of Christian choreography. The main difference is in the focus: we Christians focus on Christ Jesus God, not on man-made gods or a vague ‘life force’.

But why go through all this? What is the point, if we’re already doing these things? The point here, specifically here on this blog dealing with mental illness as a Christian, is that God has given us powerful tools. Prayer and praise are more than connection with Him. They are for our own health. New information is available now through medical science that unlocks the why of these things more than we’ve known for thousands of years.

In 2012, Amy Cuddy gave a talk for TEDGlobal titled, “Your body language shapes who you are”. She explained, it is not merely that we can alter how other people see us based on our non-verbals — our body language and stance. We can physically alter the chemistry of our brains, particularly cortisol (stress) and testosterone hormones, based on our choreography. And once again, the two basic physical attitudes described are of closure, and openness.

Power posing was particularly stressed by Amy Cuddy as a beneficial tool we should all use. A power pose is an open pose. Chest opened and lifted, shoulders back, face up, arms out or even up. She described standing on two feet with both arms raised towards the sky for just two minutes as one of the best methods for significantly reducing cortisol in the brain. We don’t have to feel powerful in order to positively use a power pose to improve others’ perceptions of ourselves. We don’t have to feel better before we can improve our brain chemistry. Just as Linette Martin knew, feelings are not where we start the change. Doing is where we start.

I have seen power poses adopted by countless Christian worshippers at countless times and places in my life. Yes, the focus is and should be on Jesus. Yes, we do owe Him our worship. And yes, that opened-up choreography is a wonderful tool we have in our belts for leading our minds to praise. As it turns out, though, these attitudes bring a reduction in stress hormones, bringing greater mental health. As it turns out, God probably knew what he was doing when he created us to have relationship with him.

So when we pray, as we are seeking to build the habit of glancing prayer, of turning our eyes to Jesus God and smiling, we can use the choreography of our bodies to help our minds focus and connect. More importantly, we don’t have to rely on good mental health in order to do this. Times even of wordlessness and mental pain can still be choreographed, and in such a way as to power pose one’s way both to lower stress and a moment with God our maker.

Psalm 139 verse 14, AMP:

“I will give thanks and praise to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.”

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