The Meaning of Prostrations
Question: What is the meaning or significance of prostrations?
Answer: Prostrations are a practice in Bhakti Yoga. The practice is called vandana, which means “prostration.” Vandana is a physical expression of self-surrender to God, or self-surrender to your guru. Those of you who know something about yoga asanas will know that each yoga asana is accompanied by a mental state. For example, in meditation, you have the meditative postures. Just sitting in a meditative posture without moving, in a relaxed state, in silence, for a period of time will bring the mind into a meditative state. Similarly, you have what are called devotional postures. Prostration as a posture is a very important devotional posture. It puts your mind into a state from which you can enter that sublime state of self-surrender — self-surrender to the Supreme Being or self-surrender to your spiritual master.
Vandana also helps us develop humility. Humility is not an intellectual thing. Humility is of the heart. And things of the heart have more to do with feeling than with intellectual understanding. When you prostrate, that feeling eventually comes. Prostration is so important that within Bhakti Yoga, it became one of the nine modes of practice.
But still, how important is prostration? There are spiritual traditions where there is no belief in God. Take for example, Buddhism. There is no belief in God. Nevertheless, you go to schools of Buddhism, such as Tibetan Buddhism, and they will do something like 100,000 prostrations as a practice. Why? Because whether you believe in God, or you believe in your guru, or just in order to get rid of this ego, or to attain the sublime state of humility and self-surrender, prostration is a very good practice.
When we prostrate with consciousness and awareness, we enhance the potency of the prostration. When we prostrate with love and devotion, we enhance the potency of the prostration. This is the reason why prostration is a profound spiritual practice. I suggest that you try it. I have told people many times that if you are too shy to prostrate in public, lock yourself in your room where nobody will see you — and then prostrate. If you do not want to prostrate before pictures, remove the pictures from your room and prostrate before the God who dwells in the hearts of all beings, and within your own heart; the God that manifests through this wonderful creation, to that infinite Supreme Being, prostrate; or to your own guru. Or to the Divine Self that dwells within your own heart. There are so many ways to do it. Just prostrate—try the practice.
And if you do not want to try the practice, it is up to you. The fundamental principle of yoga is that it is based on choice. Spirituality is based on choice. There is no compulsion in spirituality. Compulsion is something that contradicts spirituality. Even when we go to a guru, there is an agreement. There is a spiritual understanding with the guru: the guru will impart the teachings, and the student will obey the instruction by putting the teachings into practice. There is no compulsion. Out of his free will, the student comes to the teacher and asks to be taught. Out of his free will, the teacher accepts the student. The teacher has total commitment toward the student, and the student has great love, devotion, and sincere commitment to his or her teacher. The moment there is compulsion, it stops being spiritual. Everything is done from free choice. We need to understand this very, very well.
Swami Swaroopananda is a senior disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda. A practicing yogi from a very young age, Swami Swaroopananda has dedicated his life to the practice and teaching of yoga. He taught in Yoga Teacher Training Courses around the world and is currently teaching advanced yoga philosophy courses and lectures internationally. He is Director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat and acharya (spiritual director) for the Sivananda centers and ashrams in the Bahamas and the Middle East. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres.