No matter what kind of yoga we practice, or where we practice it, in most classes we will bring our hands into a prayer position at least once during any class. This simple gesture holds a lot of potency for the yogi, regardless of our background or beliefs. It's a gesture that holds hope. Hope is a core quality of our humanity. Without hope, we wither and suffer, and we become utterly disconnected. This leads to depression and even antipathy. Hope is what gets us through the most trying times and helps us to make the best of the best of times.
The hands in prayer gesture is called Anjali Mudra and it is connected with a story of a woman's prayer for a child (see the video on Anjali Mudra for a more complete explanation). She received this child in the most unexpected of ways - he fell out of the sky, and into her upturned prayer-hands. Sometimes what we get is not exactly what we asked for, but as the Rolling Stones said, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need."
The "try" in this case, is the hope. We hope things will turn out for the best, and we honor that hope with the gesture of prayer, which in yoga practice, is generally followed by challenging asana that bends and twists our bodies to release any blockages that might prevent our best from arising from within us. You see, hope is often directed toward something outside of us - we hope we'll get a good job, find the right partner, restore lost health...and we think that the answers will come from outside. Really, the act of hope sets us up for clearing the way so that the answers will arise from within.
There is a parable that talks about a man whose town is being flooded. As the flood waters rise, the man crawls out onto his roof and prays for help from God. A family in a boat pass by and encourage the man to hop in. "No, thank you," says the man, "God is going to save me." He remains on his roof as a helicopter swoops down with a rescue crew who offer to save the man. "No thank you!" shouts the man over the whoosh of the helicopter blades, "God is going to save me!" As the floodwaters creep over the edge of his roof, a lonely man in a buoy floats by and tries desperately to get the man to join him and float to safety. "No, thank you. God is going to save me," the man says one last time before he drowns.
At the pearly gates of heaven, God greets the man, but the man is furious with God! He says, "God, I prayed and prayed, and you didn't save me!"
"What are you taking about?" says God. "I sent a boat, a helicopter and a life raft!"
The man's prayers had been answered, it's just that his eyes weren't open to see those answers. When we pray, coupled with hope, the answers always arise. As yogis, we have the added benefit of the asana practice (as well as other yoga practices) to help us clear away any blockages that would prevent us from seeing how the universe is responding to our hope. Because it is responsive, always. It's just up to us to remember that even when we don't get what we want, we always get what we need.