In redistributing forces around the lower back, the prayer movements have much in common with some Yoga movements.
Praying has potential to heal lower back pain, as well as the soul
The movements of the Islamic prayer ritual or salat are carried out many billions of times around the world every day.
Ideally performed five times a day, they are one of the five pillars of Islam and involve a range of postures and movements that include bowing, sitting and kneeling.
Their key importance is, of course, as acts of faith, but researchers have found that they appear also to offer physical benefits.
A study published earlier this year has indicated that the movements could relieve the symptoms lower back pain, a condition that an estimated 65 per cent of UAE residents have or are at risk of developing.
One of the authors of the study, Professor Mohammad Khasawneh of the department of systems science and industrial engineering at Binghamton University in New York, said the movements can be thought of as “physical therapy for treating lower-back pain”.
“Flexion movements can redistribute the stresses and hence reduce the lower-back pain,” he said.
To better understand the forces involved, the researchers used a computer program and ran simulations based on an average Asian person and an average American person.
“Computer modelling allows us to identify the flexion movement (based on knee and back angle) that will result in the lowest stress on the lower back from a pure biomechanical perspective,” said Prof Khasawneh.
In redistributing forces around the lower back, the prayer movements have much in common with some yoga movements.
Especially beneficial to those with back problems is the kneeling prayer posture, which increases the elasticity of joints. People can alter the normal position to make themselves more comfortable.
“For those with lower-back pain, we found changing the angles of the knees and the back can reduce the forces on the lower back,” said Dr Faisal Aqlan, the first author of the study and an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Penn State University. Dr Aqlan completed his PhD at Binghamton.
“Try to have an angle [of the knee and back] that feels comfortable, and keep doing the movements. You can think of it as physical therapy.”
As a follow-up to this study, which was published in the International Journal of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the scientists are hoping to use cameras and sensors to analyse actual people as they carry out the prayer movements. This should give them a better understanding of the potential real-world benefits.
Their work is one of the latest contributions to a diverse field looking at the potential benefits, both physical and mental, of religion.
Over the decades the subject has attracted the attention of researchers ranging from engineers, as in this prayer-movements study, to psychiatrists.
It appears that interest in the field is growing at an exponential rate. A 2010 review by Professor Harold Koenig of the departments of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina, found that there were 1,200 data-based studies on the subject published between 1872 and 2000. In the decade from 2000 to 2010 alone, 2,100 such papers were released.
About four-fifths of the studies identified by Prof Koenig, who is also an adjunct professor at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, concerned mental health.
Having a religious belief was associated with being better able to cope with adversity, including serious illness, and — when averaged across the many studies published — was linked to higher levels of optimism, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
Some researchers have suggested that religious beliefs, by giving people a way to see their existence as part of an overarching narrative that gives things that happen a purpose, can be helpful in overcoming setbacks such as bereavement or the loss of a job.
Andrew Clark, a professor at the Paris School of Economics who has researched the subject and presented findings at an academic conference, said “there is most certainly a correlation” between mental well-being and religious observance.
Indeed, he said that many of the people he spoke to when looking into the issue in Europe were “convinced” that religion was good for both physical and mental health. However, teasing out cause and effect is not easy.
“Whether religion makes you happy, or happy people get religious — that’s a difficult question … I don’t think we have a particularly good answer to that for the moment,” he said.
Also, it is difficult to determine to what extent it is the religious belief in itself that improves mental well-being, or the shared activities that go with it. Studies have found that people who regularly attend religious services typically report greater life satisfaction and other mental well-being benefits.
“Religion in some sense is like any kind of social capital where you mix with others with a community purpose,” said Prof Clark.
He said there appears to be a return from doing things you enjoy or believe in with others who are keen to do those same things.
Psychological and social benefits were cited by Prof Koenig as a potential reason why being religious offers a dividend in physical health. Other factors, such as the promotion of healthy behaviour and the discouragement of potentially harmful activities, among them using tobacco or consuming alcohol, could also be at play.
On top of potential benefits to the individual, Prof Clark has also identified a possible upside to wider society, although he cautioned that producing actual experimental results to prove or disprove hypotheses in this field was difficult.
While religions can be associated with conflict, he said they tended to promote positive types of behaviour, such as treating others well and not stealing. Even individuals who are not religious may be helped by such “spillover benefits”.
“Even if you don’t believe yourself, you may find it more beneficial to live in a religious society,” he said.