For more than 40 years, Bill Tenny-Brittian, D. Min., has been in the spirit-fortifying business of ministry. He’s pastored congregations and planted churches across the country. He’s helped ministers and leaders best serve and transform the lives of their members. He’s written a dozen books that help people experience deeper, more substantive spirituality and taught graduate courses for students establishing their own ministerial footprints. Just don’t ask him to pray on demand. He doesn’t love to do it.
That might seem anomalous for a man of faith whose life’s work has literally been extolling divine connection. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as an adult, Tenny-Brittian has a mind that’s always lit up and busy, a switchboard of extemporaneous ideas, thoughts, memories, and questions. Although he’s generally eager to help people, the request to pray becomes a war within to stay present in the moment.
“The minute someone says, ‘Let us pray,’ my mind goes, Oh, there’s an airplane. Oh, wait a minute, was that car speeding? Is it too hot in here? No, no, it’s too cold. No, wait a minute, I’m not sure. And it’s like, okay, this isn’t working. There’s got to be a way around this,” explains Tenny-Brittian, who retired from ministry in 2022 and is now managing partner at The Effective Church Group, which provides training, coaching, and support to church leaders in more than 60 denominations.
“My wife can sit still and meditate literally for hours without moving,” he says, “but I can’t do that for five minutes.” Something’s wrong. Does that make me a bad person? he wondered. Does that mean I can’t be a religious person or a faith-filled person? Can I not be a Christian because I can’t do this? So he started looking at what he needed to do to figure out a way to pray that worked
He found the answer the first time he walked a labyrinth. Tenny-Brittian was able to pray for a half an hour, the longest he’d ever prayed without a distraction—real or manufactured—interrupting his focus. The experience introduced him to kinesthetic prayer, also called “body prayers,” which uses more than just your mouth or your mind to communicate with God. Kinesthetics is the study of movement, and the added element of prayer can involve your hands, feet, and sometimes your entire body to perform some type of physical or tactile activity.
“The very act of doing something physically allows your mind to focus,” Tenny-Brittian says. “The two sides of your brain begin to light up equally. They’re working together and you’re better able to give your whole being to prayer. It allows you to be well-balanced, and prayer is a natural outflowing of that.”
If you’re looking for mention of “kinesthetic prayer” in the Bible or any other religious text, don’t. It’s a relatively new term not expressly referenced in scriptures, Tenny-Brittian explains, but it’s represented in dances of worship, anointing, and laying of hands, and it’s at least inferred in Psalms. The type of kinesthetic prayer that resonates most with the individual attempting it is largely connected to the way they best learn. The concept of learning styles may be arguably and increasingly archaic, particularly as we understand more about how they overlap and intersect.
Still, an estimated 15 percent of students are identified as kinesthetic learners—meaning they retain information best when they’re able to physically participate in activity, exploration, and discovery. Prayer exercises that involve motion work well for these people who are naturally wired to be doing something. Pop culture mythology claims humans only use 10 percent of our brain, but researchers now believe that during an average day of carrying out various thoughts, tasks, and movements, we actually use all 100 percent. That means there’s a clear relationship between how we best receive and process information and how we best receive and process divine interaction.
Language lovers who like to read and write may find that connection when they handwrite or type their prayers or craft them in poetry form. People who enjoy math and spotting numerical patterns—reasoning, analytical, logical people—may like the tactile repetition of using prayer beads or walking a labyrinth. Pull out crayons and color a mandala. Throw rocks into a pit or a body of water. Play an instrument. Jog through the park, hike a nature trail, or tend a home garden. Naturalist or existential, isolated or group-oriented, contemplative or expressive, kinesthetic prayer is an individualized way of coming into active presence and conversation with the Creator.
Dance Ignites the Divinity of Movement
Harrison Blum developed a relationship with what he calls “sacred kinesthetics” when his study of freeform and improvisational dance introduced him to an interest in meditation. As an instructor whose spirituality has thrived primarily at the intersection of Buddhism and dance, he began offering classes that focused on giving participants the open, expressive space to move. Some were more comfortable with improvisational dance than others, but what he really wanted—regardless of their skill level or familiarity with the movements—was to get them to slow down and notice the impulse to move before they actually moved.
“It can be challenging for them to slow down into the form or the stillness, but meditation is really all about being in your body, noticing sensations, whether that’s the breath or another sensation,” says Blum, director of religious and spiritual life at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. “As a meditator, I’ve had experiences of sitting still and not moving, but other experiences dancing. There was a lot of body awareness. There was a lot of breath awareness. There was a lot of attunement and emotional availability and spiritual experience happening while dancing, so I was curious about the different, intersecting formats—and offering that intersection to other people.”
In his most recent class, he created a format he calls a “dance mandala” that starts with a seated meditation ring. Inside of that, a circle of people walk in a slow-paced meditation and then inside of that, in the third sphere, other people engage in free movement and dance. Some are open to any level of experience; some are trying to conjure whatever they need. If one of them has the intention to heal, for example, they could say the word healing with each step or in some way walk with the spirit of healing.
“It’s one thing to sit in a pew or a synagogue or a mosque to say the word healing or ask God for healing. Of course, I fully support that,” explains Blum, who has also served as an interfaith chaplain. “But it’s another thing if a person is moving their body as a form of prayer or while they are praying because then we get to be active agents using our own being toward that prayer. People really connect with that and spend most of the time walking in a prayerful way. Or maybe they need to shake out their grief or jump for joy.”
In the middle of the room, an altar is available for others to pray in stillness. When they’re finished, Blum rings a singing bowl to finalize the offering of their silent prayer. He asks participants to spend at least some time in each of the four sections of the dance mandala, and at the end, he says, many have responded strongly to the experience.
“I led this [practice] at a dance center with maybe 50 or 60 people, and there was a small group in a beautiful little circle around the altar, quietly praying,” he remembers. “We didn’t know what they were praying for. We didn’t know what religion they were. But there they were, kneeling in silent prayer and ringing a bell when they were finished. Around them were all these people dancing and jumping and sliding on the floor and expressing, and around that, people were walking, and outside of that, people were sitting.
“There’s no shared reading or shared prayer, there’s no shared agreement of faith. There’s probably people who believe in God and people who don’t. But everyone, in some way, is respecting each other’s journey and committing to this format together in which we can create ritual through the moving body. It connects to kinesthetic learning or kinesthetic spiritual practice.”
Hope for the Attention-Challenged Believer
When Tenny-Brittian discovered the focus he could maintain by journaling his personal prayers—in addition to the gratification of walking out his prayer time in a labyrinth—he knew he was connecting to his Source. It alleviated the guilt he’d long experienced for not being able to lock into a marathon prostrate prayer or an hours-long kneeling supplication. He wrote a book, Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still (Chalice Press, 2005), to help others who may be experiencing ongoing distractions and attention deficits in their attempts to meditate or connect to God.
“I think I wrote about 10 physical prayer acts in my book,” he says. “Everything doesn’t work the same for everyone. You’ve got to find what works for you. As I tried different ways, I knew that I was connecting with God. I’m not Mother Teresa, but I can figure out when I’m sitting in the presence of the Divine. I can tell when I’m there and when I’m not. And for the record, I don’t always get there. What may work today may not work tomorrow. But whether it’s painting or jogging or using a finger labyrinth or walking a big labyrinth or throwing rocks, you can make prayer work.”
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.