Various spiritual traditions offer a wide variety of devotional acts. There are morning and evening prayers, graces said over meals, and reverent physical gestures. Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands. Some Native Americans regard dancing as a form of prayer. Some Sufis whirl. Hindus chant mantras. Orthodox Jews sway their bodies back and forth and Muslims kneel and prostrate as seen on the right. Quakers keep silent. Some pray according to standardized rituals and liturgies, while others prefer extemporaneous prayers. Still others combine the two.
These methods show a variety of understandings to prayer, which are led by underlying beliefs.
These beliefs may be that
- the finite can communicate with the infinite
- the infinite is interested in communicating with the finite
- prayer is intended to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, rather than to influence the recipient
- prayer is intended to train a person to focus on the recipient through philosophy and intellectual contemplation
- prayer is intended to enable a person to gain a direct experience of the recipient
- prayer is intended to affect the very fabric of reality as we perceive it
- prayer is a catalyst for change in one's self and/or one's circumstances, or likewise those of third party beneficiaries
- the recipient desires and appreciates prayer
- or any combination of these.'
The act of prayer is attested in written sources as early as 5000 years ago. Some anthropologists, such as Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Sir James George Frazer, believed that the earliest intelligent modern humans practiced something that we would recognize today as prayer.
Friedrich Heiler is often cited in Christian circles for his systematic Typology of Prayer which lists six types of prayer: primitive, ritual, Greek cultural, philosophical, mystical and prophetic.