108 Bows

Last weekend, I sat a retreat at my local Zen Center. Part of the practice is performing 108 bows the first thing in the morning – full-prostration bows. I knew I wasn’t in shape for this, and I also knew better than to attempt to keep up with the man who was setting the pace. (He’s 10 years my junior and an athlete.) So I set my intention to complete the first 9, the last 9, and a set of 9 somewhere in the middle if I felt up to it. The remaining bows would be full standing bows, rather than prostrations to the floor.

Our teacher explained to us how to use the breath when bowing. The standing bows were slow and easy, the deep breaths helping me to still my already-racing mind. My breath and body moved as one. The prostrations weren’t too bad, though I’d have done them much slower had I been on my own. It reminded me of the days when I used to be a runner. It turned out to be a wonderful meditation.

Monday, however, I was sore as hell.

I knew I had to stretch to heal. So I took some ibuprofen and resolved to do 108 bows. Only 3 of them were full prostrations: the first, number 54, and the last. No problem. The standing bows gave my back a wonderful stretch, the prostrations gently unkinked the large muscles in my thighs, and I was fully present for the 30-minute experience. Not much more to be asked.

By now, I was hooked: I was working my body, mind, and soul at the same time. Tuesday I was back at it. I realized that trying to do a series of prostrations had been a mistake, so I spread them out. I got down to the floor about 13 times, roughly every 9 bows. Today, I tried for 1 prostration out of every 8 bows, did a few extra at the end because my body felt good, so the total was around 28. It only took 17 minutes, though I was unaware at the time that I was moving any faster. Most importantly, it was meditative.

I don’t know how rapidly I will “progress” in my bowing practice, and it doesn’t matter. The fact is that I’m meditating (and exercising!) daily. If I never did a full prostration, the spiritual benefit would be the same. If I get a health benefit, too, that’s a serendipitous bonus.

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