The Embodiment of Worship

Relations Among Postural, Psychological, and Physiological Aspects of Religious Practice


  • Patty Van Cappellen Duke University
  • Megan E. Edwards Duke University



embodiment, prayer, body, emotions, religious experience


In addition to a set of beliefs, religion is fundamentally a corporeal practice. Across religions, specific postures adopted for prayer and worship may not simply reflect arbitrary customs but are closely intertwined with religious experience. This contribution reviews embodiment theory and related empirical evidence showing how body postures influence our emotions, thoughts, and decision-making. We propose a typology of postures adopted in religious practices along the dimensions of expansiveness-constrictiveness and upward-downward body orientation, and review the corpus of published/unpublished research on the embodiment of worship. We further discuss that in addition to enabling the experiential and ritualistic aspect of religion, embodiment serves at least four functions: communicative, social, cognitive, and intrapersonal. Finally, we suggest contextual and individual differences variables that may constrain the choice and psychological consequences of postures within and outside religious contexts. Together, we emphasize that the locus of religion’s psycho-social “effects” is not only in the mind or the brain but in the full body.

Author Biographies

Patty Van Cappellen, Duke University

Social Science Research Institute

Megan E. Edwards, Duke University

Social Science Research Institute


Atkinson, Q. D. and H. Whitehouse. 2011. “The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-Culturally.” Evolution and Human Behavior 32: 50–62. DOI:

Bailey, A., M. LaFrance and J. F. Dovidio. 2017. “Could a Woman Be Superman? Gender and the Embodiment of Power Postures.” Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology 2: 6–27. DOI:

Barrett, L. F. and K. A. Lindquist. 2008. “The Embodiment of Emotion.” In Embodied Grounding: Social, Cognitive, Affective, and Neuroscientific Approaches, edited by G. R. Semin and E. R. Smith, 237–262. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Barsalou, L. W. 2008. “Grounded Cognition.” Annual Review of Psychology 59: 617–645. DOI:

Barsalou, L. W., A. K. Barbey, W. K. Simmons and A. Santos. 2005. “Embodiment in Religious Knowledge.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 5: 14–57. DOI:

Barsalou, L., W. D. Pecher, R. Zeelenberg, W. K. Simmons and S. B. Hamann. 2005. “Multimodal Simulation in Conceptual Processing.” In Categorization Inside and Outside the Lab: Festschrift in Honor of Douglas L. Medin, edited by W. Ahn, R. Goldstone, B. Love, A. Markman and P. Wolff, 249–270. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI:

Batson, G. and M. Wilson. 2014. Body and Mind in Motion: Dance and Neuroscience in Conversation. Chicago, IL: Intellect.

Bialobrzeska, O. and M. Parzuchowski. 2016. “Size or Openness: Expansive but Closed Body Posture Increases Submissive Behavior.” Psychological Bulletin 47: 186–194. DOI:

Bombari, D., M. Schmid Mast, and C. Pulfrey. 2017. “Real and Imagined Power Poses: Is the Physical Experience Necessary after All?” Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology 2: 44–54. DOI:

Briñol, P., R. E. Petty, and B. Wagner. 2009. “Body Posture Effects on Self-Evaluation: A Self-Validation Approach.” European Journal of Social Psychology 39: 1053–1064. DOI:

Carney, D. R., A. J. Cuddy and A. J. Yap. 2010. Power Poses: Brief Nonverbal Displays Cause Neuroendocrine Change and Increase Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science 21: 1363–1368. DOI:

Carney, D. R., A. J. Cuddy, and A. J. Yap. 2015. “Review and Summary of Research on the Embodiment Effects of Expansive vs. Contractive Nonverbal Displays.” Psychological Science 26: 657–663. DOI:

Cesario, J., K. J. Jonas, and D. R. Carney. 2017. “CRSP Special Issue on Power Poses: What Was the Point and What Did We Learn?” Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology 2: 1–5. DOI:

Chasteen, A. L., D. C. Burdzy, and J. Pratt. 2010. “Thinking of God Moves Attention.” Neuropsychologia 48: 627–630. DOI:

Coakley, S. 2000. Religion and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, A. B. 2009. “Many Forms of Culture.” American Psychologist 64: 194–204. DOI:

Cohen, A. B., J. I. Siegel and P. Rozin. 2003. “Faith Versus Practice: Different Bases for Religiosity Judgments by Jews and Protestants.” European Journal of Social Psychology 33: 287–295. DOI:

Coles, N. A., J. T. Larsen and H. Lench. 2017, August 27. “A Meta-Analysis of the Facial Feedback Literature: Effects of Facial Feedback on Emotional Experience Are Small and Variable.” DOI:

Cuddy, A., S. J. Schultz and N. E. Fosse. 2018. “P-Curving a More Comprehensive Body of Research on Postural Feedback Reveals Clear Evidential Value for Power-Posing Effects: Reply to Simmons and Simonsohn 2017.” Psychological Science 29: 656–666. DOI:

Davis, J. I., A. Senghas and K. N. Ochsner. 2009. “How Does Facial Feedback Modulate Emotional Experience?” Journal of Research in Personality 43: 822–829. DOI:

Doufesh, H., T. Faisal, K. S. Lim and F. Ibrahim. 2012. “EEG Spectral Analysis on Muslim Prayers.” Applied Psychophysiology Biofeedback 37: 11–18. DOI:

Duclos, S. E., J. D. Laird, E. Schneider, M. Sexter, L. Stern and O. Van Lighten. 1989. “Emotion-Specific Effects of Facial Expressions and Postures on Emotional Experience.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57: 100–108. DOI:

Dunbar, R. I. M. 2017. “What’s Missing from the Scientific Study of Religion?” Religion, Brain & Behavior 7: 349–353. DOI:

Engelkamp, J. 1998. Memory for Actions. Hove, England: Psychology Press.

Fuller, R. C. 2005. “Faith of the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Spirituality.” Religious Studies Review 31: 135–139. DOI:

Fuller, R. C. and D. E. Montgomery. 2015. “A Body Posture and Religious Attitudes.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 37: 227–239. DOI:

Garrison K. E., D. Tang, and B. J. Schmeichel. 2016. “Embodying Power: A Pre registered Replication and Extension of the Power Pose Effect.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7: 623–630. DOI:

George, L. K., C. G. Ellison, and D. B. Larson. 2002. “Explaining the Relationships between Religious Involvement and Health.” Psychological Inquiry 13: 190–200. DOI:

Goodman, F. D. 1999. “Ritual Body Postures, Channeling, and the Ecstatic Body Trance.” Anthropology of Consciousness 10: 54–59. DOI:

Gore, B. 2009. The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys. Rochester, VE: Inner Traditions/Bear.

Granqvist, P., M. Mikulincer and P. R. Shaver. 2010. “Religion as Attachment: Normative Processes and Individual Differences.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14: 49–59. DOI:

Grant, C. C., M. Viljoen, J. van Rwensburg and P. S. Wood. 2012. “Heart Rate Variability Assessment of the Effect of Physical Training on Autonomic Cardiac Control.” Annals of Noninvasive Electrocardiology 17: 219–229. DOI:

Green, J.B. 1998. “‘Bodies, That Is – Human Lives’: A Re-examination of Human Nature in the Bible.” In Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, edited by W. S. Brown, N. Murphy and H. N. Malony, 149–173. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Gronau, Q. F., S. Van Erp, D. W. Heck, J. Cesario, K. J. Jonas, and E.-J. Wagenmakers. 2017. “A Bayesian Model-Averaged Meta-Analysis of the Power Pose Effect with Informed and Default Priors: The Case of Felt Power.” Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology 2: 123–138. DOI:

Gruber, M. I. 1980. Aspects on Nonverbal Communication in the Ancient Near East. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.

Hall, E. L. 2010. “What Are Bodies For? An Integrative Examination of Embodiment.” Christian Scholar’s Review 39: 159–175.

Hayward, R. D. and N. Krause. 2014. “Religion, Mental Health and Well-Being: Social Aspects.” In Religion, Personality, and Social Behavior, edited by V. Saroglou, 255–280. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Hess, U., A. Kappas, G. J. McHugo, J. T. Lanzetta and R. E. Kleck. 1992. “The Facilitative Effect of Facial Expression on the Self-Generation of Emotion.” International Journal of Psychophysiology 12: 251–265. DOI:

Johnson, K. A., Y. J. Li, A. B. Cohen, and M. A. Okun. 2013. “Friends in High Places: The Influence of Authoritarian and Benevolent God-Concepts on Social Attitudes and Behaviors.” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 5: 15–22. DOI:

Jones, J. W. 2019. Living Religion: Embodiment, Theology, and the Possibility of a Spiritual Sense. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI:

Klaschinski, L., K. Schnabel and M. Schröder-Abé. 2017. “Benefits of Power Posing: Effects on Dominance and Social Sensitivity.” Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology 2: 55–67. DOI:

Kundtová Klocová, E. 2017. Body in Ritual Space: Communication through Embodied Practices in Religious Ritual. Doctoral dissertation. Masaryk University, Brno.

Kruger, P. 1994. “Nonverbal Communication and Symbolic Gestures in the Psalms.” Bible Translator 45: 213–222. DOI:

Ladd, K. L., C. A. Cook, K. J. Messick, and W. Brown. 2010, October. Experimentally Induced Influences of Motion and Posture on Prayer’s Objective Content and Subjective Experience. Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Baltimore, MD.

Ladd, K. L. and B. Spilka. 2002. “Inward, Outward, and Upward: Cognitive Aspects of Prayer.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41: 475–484. DOI:

LaFrance, M. and C. Mayo. 1978. “Cultural Aspects of Nonverbal Communication.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 2: 71–89. DOI:

Laird, J. D. 1974. “Self-Attribution of Emotion: The Effects of Expressive Behavior on the Quality of Emotional Experience.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29: 475–486. DOI:

Lindquist, K. A. 2013. “Emotions Emerge from More Basic Psychological Ingredients: A Modern Psychological Constructionist Model.” Emotion Review 5: 356–368. DOI:

MacCormack, J. K. and K. A. Lindquist. 2017. “Bodily Contributions to Emotion: Schachter’s Legacy for a Psychological Constructionist View on Emotion.” Emotion Review 9: 36–45. DOI:

Markus, H. R. and S. Kitayama. 1991. “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review 98: 224–253. DOI:

Matsumoto, D. 2006. “Culture and Nonverbal Behavior.” In Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, edited by V. Manusov and M. L. Patterson, 219–235. London: Sage. DOI:

Mehling, W. E., C. Price, J. J. Daubenmier, M. Acree, E. Bartmess and A. Stewart. 2012. “The Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness MAIA.” PLoS ONE 7: e48230. DOI:

Meier, B. P., D. J. Hauser, M. D. Robinson, C. K. Friesen and K. Schjeldahl. 2007. “What’s ‘Up’ with God? Vertical Space as a Representation of the Divine.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93: 699–710. DOI:

Meier, B. P., S. Schnall, N. Schwarz and J. A. Bargh. 2012. “Embodiment in Social Psychology.” Topics in Cognitive Science 4: 705–716. DOI:

Mendes, W. B. 2009. “Assessing Autonomic Nervous System Activity.” In Methods in Social Neuroscience, edited by E. Harmon-Jones and J. S. Beer, 118–147. New York: Guilford.

Niedenthal, P. M., L. W. Barsalou, P. Winkielman, S. Krauth-Gruber and F. Ric. 2005. “Embodiment in Attitudes, Social Perception, and Emotion.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 9: 184–211. DOI:

Noah, T., Y. Schul and R. Mayo. 2018. “When Both the Original Study and Its Failed Replication Are Correct: Feeling Observed Eliminates the Facial-Feedback Effect.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 114: 657–664. DOI:

Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. DOI:

Pagitt, D. and K. Prill. 2013. Body Prayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook.

Paivio, A. 1990. Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach. Volume 9. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI:

Park, C. L. 2005. “Religion as a Meaning-Making Framework in Coping with Life Stress.” Journal of Social Issues 61: 707–729. DOI:

Park, L. E., L. Streamer, L. Huang, and A. D. Galinsky. 2013. “Stand Tall, but Don’t Put Your Feet Up: Universal and Culturally-Specific Effects of Expansive Postures on Power.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49: 965–971. DOI:

Pecher, D., R. Zeelenberg, and L. W. Barsalou. 2004. “Sensorimotor Simulations Underlie Conceptual Representations: Modality-Specific Effects of Prior Activation.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 11: 164–167. DOI:

Porges, S. W. 2017. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.

Randolph-Seng, B. and M. E. Nielsen. 2007. “Honesty: One Effect of Primed Religious Representations.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 17: 303–315. DOI:

Ranehill, E., A. Dreber, M. Johannesson, S. Leiberg, S. Sul, and R. A. Weber. 2015. “Assessing the Robustness of Power Posing: No Effect on Hormones and Risk Tolerance in a Large Sample of Men and Women.” Psychological Science 26: 653–656. DOI:

Ransom, M. R. and M. D. Alicke. 2013. “On Bended Knee: Embodiment and Religious Judgments.” Current Research in Social Psychology 21.

Richert, R. A., N. J. Shaman, A. R. Saide, and K. A. Lesage. 2016. “Folding Your Hands Helps God Hear You: Prayer and Anthropomorphism in Parents and Children.” In Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 27, edited by A. Villange and R. W. Hood, 140–157. Leiden: Brill. DOI:

Riskind, J. H. and C. C. Gotay. 1982. “Physical Posture: Could it Have Regulatory or Feedback Effects on Motivation and Emotion?” Motivation and Emotion 6: 273–298. DOI:

Rosenthal, R. 1979. “The ‘File Drawer Problem’ and Tolerance for Null Results.” Psychological Bulletin 86: 638–641. DOI:

Sahgal, N. 2018, May 29. “Key Findings about Religion in Western Europe.”

Schwanenflugel, P. J. 2013. “Why are Abstract Concepts Hard to Understand?” In The Psychology of Word Meanings, edited by P. J. Schwanenflugel, 235–262. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Soderkvist, S., K. Ohlen and U. Dimberg. 2018. “How the Experiences of Emotion is Modulated by Facial Feedback.” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 42: 129–151. DOI:

Soliman, T. M., K. A. Johnson and H. Song. 2015. “It’s Not ‘All in Your Head’: Understanding Religion from an Embodied Cognition Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10: 852–864. DOI:

Srinivasan, K., S. Sucharita, and M. Vaz. 2002. “Effect of Standing on Short Term Heart Rate Variability across Age.” Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging 22: 404–408. DOI:

Stepper, S. and F. Strack. 1993. “Proprioceptive Determinants of Emotional and Nonemotional Feelings.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64: 211–220. DOI:

Strack, F. 2016. “Reflection on the Smiling Registered Replication Report.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 11: 929–930. DOI:

Strack, F., L. L. Martin, and S. Stepper. 1988. “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54: 768–777. DOI:

Taylor, C. E., C. K. Willie, G. Atkinson, H. Jones and Y. C. Tzeng. 2013. “Postural Influences on the Mechanical and Neural Components of the Cardiovagal Baroreflex.” Acta Physiologica 208: 66–73. DOI:

Thompson, E. and F. J. Varela. 2001. “Radical Embodiment: Neural Dynamics and Consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Science 5: 418–425. DOI:

Tomei, A. and J. Grivel. 2014. “Body Posture and the Feeling of Social Closeness: An Exploratory Study in a Naturalistic Setting.” Current Psychology 33: 35–46. DOI:

Van Cappellen, P., O. Corneille, S. Cols, and V. Saroglou. 2011. “Beyond Mere Compliance to Authoritative Figures: Religious Priming Increases Conformity to Informational Influence Among Submissive People.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21: 97–105. DOI:

Van Cappellen, P. and B. Rimé. 2014. “Positive Emotions and Self-Transcendence.” In Religion, Personality, and Social Behavior, edited by V. Saroglou, 123–145. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Van Cappellen, P., M. Toth-Gauthier, V. Saroglou, and B. L. Fredrickson. 2016. “Religion and Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Positive Emotions.” Journal of Happiness Studies 17: 485–505. DOI:

Van Cappellen, P., M. Edwards, and B. L. Fredrickson. 2020. “Upward Spirals of Positive Emotions and Religious Behaviors.” Current Opinion in Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.09.004 DOI:

Veenstra, L., I. K. Schneider and S. L. Koole. 2017. “Embodied Mood Regulation: The Impact of Body Posture on Mood Recovery, Negative Thoughts, and Mood-Congruent Recall.” Cognition and Emotion 31: 1361–1376. DOI:

Wagenmakers, E.-J., T. Beek, L. Dijkhoff, Q. F. Gronau, A. Acosta, R. B. Adams, Jr., D. N. Albohn, E. S. Allard, S. D. Benning, E.-M. Blouin-Hudon, L. C. Bulnes, T. L. Caldwell, R. J. Calin-Jageman, C. A. Capaldi, N. S. Carfagno, K. T. Chasten, A. Cleeremans, L. Connell, J. M. DeCicco, K. Dijkstra, A. H. Fischer, F. Foroni, U. Hess, K. J. Holmes, J. L. H. Jones, O. Klein, C. Koch, S. Korb, P. Lewinski, J. D. Liao, S. Lund, J. Lupianez, D. Lynott, C. N. Nance, S. Oosterwijk, A. A. Ozdo?ru, A. P. Pacheco-Unguetti, B. Pearson, C. Powis, S. Riding, T.-A. Roberts, R. I. Rumiati, M. Senden, N. B. Shea-Shumsky, K. Sobocko, J. A. Soto, T. G. Steiner, J. M. Talarico, Z. M. van Allen, M. Vandekerckhove, B. Wainwright, J. F. Wayand, R. Zeelenberg, E. E. Zetzer and R. A. Zwaan. 2016. “Registered Replication Report: Strack, Martin, & Stepper 1988.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 11: 917–928. DOI:

Watts, F. 2013. “Embodied Cognition and Religion.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 48: 745–758. DOI:

Weiss, D. H. 2013. “Embodied Cognition in Classical Rabbinic Literature.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 48: 788–807. DOI:

Wells, G. L. and R. E. Petty. 1980. “The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Persuasion: Compatibility and Incompatibility of Responses.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 1: 219–230. DOI:

Wilkes, C., R. Kydd, M. Sagar and E. Broadbent. 2017. “Upright Posture Improves Affect and Fatigue in People with Depressive Symptoms.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 54: 143–149. DOI:

Wilkinson, M. and P. Althouse. 2017. Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion Volume 8: Pentecostals and the Body. Leiden: Brill. DOI:

Wiltermuth, S. S. and C. Heath. 2009. “Synchrony and Cooperation.” Psychological Science 20: 1–5. DOI:

Woolley, J. D. and K. E. Phelps. 2001. “The Development of Children’s Beliefs about Prayer.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 1: 139–166. DOI:

Zimmer, H. D. 2001. “Why do Actions Speak Louder Than Words? Action Memory as a Variant of Encoding Manipulations or the Result of a Specific Memory System.” In Memory For Action: A Distinct Form of Episodic Memory?, edited by H. D. Zimmer, R. Cohen, M.J. Guynn, J. Engelkamp, R. Kormi-Nouri, and M.A. Foley, 151–198. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



How to Cite

Van Cappellen, P., & Edwards, M. E. (2021). The Embodiment of Worship: Relations Among Postural, Psychological, and Physiological Aspects of Religious Practice. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 6(1-2), 56–79 .