I have always been attracted to these pretty strings of beads wrapped around other yoga practitioners’ arms – even before I knew what they were. When I finally ordered my very first malas I was beyond excited. I ordered a pretty red sandalwood one and decided to splurge on one made from carnelian too.
The day they arrived I ripped the package open and instantly feel in love. I felt super spiritual and aware, because my rosewood mala even came from Nepal – never mind that it was dyed and stained most of my arm red when I did yoga on a humid day!
That was almost 5 years ago. Since then I have learned a lot about yoga and spirituality, about what spirituality is and what it looks like. Now my mala is no longer something pretty that I wear to look like a yogi. It is a powerful tool that I use for meditation practice to create mindfulness, focus and enhance my self-awareness.
Why are there 108 beads?
Malas represent the path of the sun and the moon across the sky, called the ecliptic. The ecliptic is divided into 27 equal parts called nakshatras and each of these are divided into 4 sectors, called paadas. Together this makes up the 108 steps that the sun and the moon take through the sky.
Each one of these steps represents a specific blessing force and as you move each bead through your fingers you align yourself with these forces.
In Buddhism it represents the 12 astrological houses multiplied by the 9 planets in our solar system.
Some believe that we take 10, 800 breaths during the day (while it is light) and 10, 800 breaths at night (while it is dark).
Others believe that there are 108 each of earthly desires in mortals, lies humans tell and delusions or forms of ignorance humans prescribe to.
The 108 possibly also represent the most important 108 Upanishads, and some say the beads represent Krishna’s gopis (close servants), with Krishna himself being represented by the Guru Bead.
The Guru Bead is the 109th bead on a mala. It is usually larger than the others and doesn’t get counted. When you get to this bead, you can flip the mala around and move backwards through the beads as you continue with your mantra, moving through the blessings again. Turning the mala around also avoids you going over the Guru bead – an action that could represent stepping over your teacher or the divine.
The Guru Bead also represent the summer and winter solstices, when the sun stops and ‘turns’ and the seasons start to change. This is a way to remind us that we are connected to the cycles of nature and the universe.
There are 108 energy lines that run from the heart chakra, leading to self-realization, while Ayurveda recognises 108 sacred places (crossways between matter and consciousness) in a human body. According to Hinduist beliefs, we have 108 Earthly Desires that we need to give up before we can become the 108 Energy Lines that form our higher and enlightened state of existence.
Ancient Hindu scriptures known as Veda believe 108 represents the wholeness of the universe. For them the 1 represents the solar (or God and higher truth), the 0 is the lunar (emptiness and completeness in spiritual practice) and the 8 represents infinity and eternity, and thus the entire universe.
Tassels represent the connection between us and the divine (as it holds everything together), while the string of the mala shows how everything is connected.
How to use a mala.
Malas are used during meditation or prayer in conjunction with a mantra or spoken phrase. This is Japa meditation, which means ‘muttering’ or ‘to recite’ in Sanskrit. They can also be used during pranayama practice.
Some malas have space beads that divide the mala into four sections of 27 beads – they are there for you to keep track of where you are and should not be counted. These beads act as a reminder to be mindful and to bring you back to the present moment during your meditation.
The mala is generally held in the left hand and each bead is passed along as the mantra is spoken or thought. The beads should be held between your thumb and index finger and the thumb pulls the beads to slide along the index finger with each completion of the mantra.
Mantras can be used for 4 purposes: to increase, to overcome, to soothe or appease or to tame by forceful means.
A popular mantra to use with a mala is ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. This mantra is said the hold all the teachings of Buddha as well as the truth of the nature of suffering and how to remove the root cause of it. Other popular mantras are ‘Om’ and the Gayatri Mantra.
They are powerful meditation tools but can also be worn around the neck as a reminder of being mindful, and/or the intention represented by your mala. You could also place it at the top of your yoga mat while you practice, to increase your set intention.
How do you choose a mala?
Like most things spiritual, your connection with your mala beads is unique.
While malas are usually made up of 108 beads, you can find shorter mantras, with 9, 18 and 27 beads to wear around your wrist.
Bodhi seed, red sandalwood and lotus seed malas are recommended for universal use.
Mantras intended to soothe or appease should be used with malas made from crystal, pearl or mother of pearl beads that are clear or white in colour. This clears away obstacles (like illness or bad luck) and purifies someone who is unwholesome.
To increase something mantras are used with malas made from gold, silver, copper or lotus seeds. These mantras usually focus on increasing your life span, knowledge and merit.
Sandal wood, saffron or other fragrant woods combine with mantras for overcoming others. The intention behind this should be self-less, only with the wish to help others.
Raksha seeds or human bone beads can be used by holy men to tame extremely harmful spirits or general afflictions.
Base materials like rudraksha, sandalwood and rosewood all have their own unique properties. Sandalwood have calming and meditative qualities while rudraksha is healing and rosewood has protective qualities. All three of these are considered to increase prosperity and abundance.
Many malas are made by incorporating different crystals or gemstones into the pieces. They can either form part of the mala as the 108 beads, or the Guru bead. The mala will carry the energy and vibration of the gemstones, like love if it is made up of rose quartz for example.
Some malas have tassels or bells while others are plainer. When choosing your mala, look at what you would like to invite into your life, consider the intention that you will set with your mala, but above everything, get quiet and let your intuition guide you.
Remember that your mala is a sacred object and thus needs to be treated with respect. Keep it with your other spiritual objects and don’t let it touch the floor or get wet and dirty.
Malas are not only beautiful pieces to wear, but they are a physical reminder to come back to practicing mindfulness. They are helpful tools to assist during meditation and pranayama and they can amplify mantras and intentions through their unique qualities.
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