The Many Mysteries of Mala Beads and How to Harness Their Sacred Power
What exactly are mala beads?
While you have probably seen mala beads before adorning yoga teachers and students at your yoga studio, you may not have properly understood their true power and significance. While on one hand, we often see mala beads worn as beautiful and symbolic jewelry, these precious strands are also a powerful tool that can help deepen our meditation and yoga practice.
Mala beads are strings of traditional prayer beads used to keep a count of prayers or mantras that are being repeated, similar to rosary beads in the Catholic religion. Mantras in yoga are traditionally repeated 108 times and so mala beads contain 108 beads, in order that the person using them can move their fingers along the beads, repeating the mantra without having to count. Through repetition of the mantra 108 times, the yogini can fall deeper into meditation.
Along with the 108 beads there is a guru bead at the end to hold on to. The guru bead is slightly off to the side, so that the person using the beads can feel when they reach it. This allows for them to close their eyes while repeating the mantra and rely on their sense of touch to let them know that they have finished 108 repetitions of their chosen mantra. The guru bead signified a time for contemplation on the mantra and to let the mantra sit for a moment and resonate. There is a tassel coming out the end of the guru bead. The tassel signifies oneness, the coming together of the many strands into one represents our connection with the divine and enlightenment.
Traditionally mala beads are made of wood, but are now available in all sorts of material, from colorful glass beads, painted clay, wooden, seeds or basically anything that can be strung onto thread. The beads are usually (but not always) separated by a knot in between.
So, why 108 beads?
Good question. While there is no one clear answer, there are a broad range of different possible reasons, from different traditions and cultures, all of which fall under the umbrella of the fact that 108 is a pretty special number. It is considered a holy number due to having sacred traditions from Hindu and other cultures, or having mathematical, scientific and philosophical significance (so dig deep in your memory from high school maths and science classes to understand some of these).
The number 108 is considered to be holy in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism. In yogic philosophy, there are 108 Upanishads (part of the Vedic holy scriptures), 108 Pithas (sacred sites across India) and 108 Marma points in the body (sacred places, similar to acupuncture points or chakras). It is also posited that 108 is a holy number because 1 symbolizes god or a higher truth, 0 symbolizing completeness and 8 symbolizing eternity (and the mathematical symbol for infinity). In the Sanskrit alphabet there are 54 characters and each is believed to have a masculine and feminine side, leaving a total of 108.
Mathematical and scientific reasons
There are also many different mathematical reasons for the significance of this number. To name a few, 108 is the product of the powers of 1, 2, and 3 combined. This is where you need to dig back to high school math classes. The product of 11x22 x 33 (1x1 =1, 2x2=4, 3x3x3=27, so 1x4x27=108). It is also the product of 9 and 12, both considered holy numbers. The angles formed by two adjacent angles in a pentagon always add up to 108 degrees. It has planetary and astronomical significance as well. The moon, the earth and the sun are all roughly 108 times their diameters’ distance apart. In astrology, there are 12 constellations and 9 arc segments for each (known as namshas or chandrakalas, resulting in 108 in total.
The number is also said to link to philosophy and human psychology. It has been said in Eastern philosophies that there are exactly 108 different earthly desire that humans lust after, 108 different lies we can tell (or all lies fall under the subheading of one of these 108) and 108 different forms of human delusions or ignorances.
There is almost infinite other theories as to the significance of this number. Suffice it to say that it is considered a holy and symbolic number and worthy of us paying attention to it. Because of the importance of 108, us yogis devote ourselves spiritually to the practice by using this number. We can use it by repeating something, such as a mantra, or Sun Salutations, 108 times. Through 108 repetitions, we can begin to absorb the mantra or whatever it is that we are repeating into our being.
From jewelry to powerful meditation tool
Before you first meditate with mala beads, traditionally they are ‘activated’, a process through which you set your intentions and carefully consider how you will use the beads, in order to charge them with your energy. This process is what really separates these beads from the other necklaces in your jewelry box.
While there are some really beautiful traditions you can use in the activation ceremony, exactly how you activate them is completely personal and you can choose how you would like to do it. However you decide to activate the beads, it is important that there is some consideration given before you pick them up and start chanting 108 times. Like with any meditation, the more you carefully consider the how and why beforehand, the more meaningful and effective it will be.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Set an intention.
The activation of the beads it is often done in a ceremony, where you set an intention as to what you would like to achieve from meditating with mala beads. What is your hope from having mala beads? Do you want meditate using them to bring you more inner peace and calm, or more energy and fire? Do you want more self knowledge or to better understand the world around you? Give some careful consideration to how you would like to use the beads to deepen your meditation.
2. Make the space sacred to you.
Ceremonies can be as simple as finding a quiet space, maybe on your yoga mat and closing your eyes, or the activation process can be as complex as taking the time to set up a space with candles, incense, crystals or anything that is meaningful to you and meditating on your intention for your beads. What is important is that it is that is a space where you feel calm and peaceful, free of distractions. Give a little thought to the time of day and day of the week when you are likely to feel most relaxed. Are you better early in the morning before dawn, or in the evening? Are you more calm on a Sunday evening, or a Tuesday morning? Note that traditionally, ceremonies are done on a Monday, as this is the Lord Shiva’s day, but again, make it most meaningful for you.
3. Dedicate some time and love to the process.
It really important is that you give the process enough time to do it properly. It doesn’t have to be long, ten to fifteen minutes is enough, but don’t rush any part. Make sure you take a moment at the beginning to really sit still, ground yourself and take some deep, yogic breaths. Hold the beads in your hand, maybe closing your eyes and feeling them between your fingers, taking note of the texture and temperature of the beads. Repeat your intention in you mind (or out loud) until you start to feel it in your body. You may have a special mantra to activate the beads (the Radraksha Mantra of ‘Om Hrim Namah Shivaya Om’, meaning ‘I bow to the universal divine that vibrates within my heart ‘ is a particularly popular one, traditionally used for mala bead activation ceremonies, but any mantra that resonates with you is perfect). Make sure you sit for a few minutes and have your intention clear in your mind before beginning.
Using the beads once they are activated
How you use the beads, again will depend on your intention for the malas. There are few general guidelines to consider.
1. Choose your mantra carefully.
A mantra is a word or phrase that you want to meditate on. The word or phrase is internalized through repetition, where you say the word, either aloud or in your mind, over and over again, in the case 108 times. I really like the simple one of ‘let go’ when I am feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. Other popular ones include ‘So Hum’ meaning ‘I’m that’ for self acceptance and love, or a simple ‘Om’ can be really nice. Make sure you have a mantra that fits your mood and what you need for yourself while meditating.
2. Still the mind before you begin.
I know this sounds obvious, but it will be less effective if you start repeating your mantra while you have a million different thoughts whirling around in your head. You can’t really focus on a mantra while worrying about work/relationships/household chores. Take a few minutes at the beginning to breathe deeply and to arrive in the here and now. The present moment is such a beautiful place to be!
3. Commit yourself to 108 repetitions.
Holding the beads between your thumb and middle finger, repeat your mantra once for each bead, letting the flow of the process overtake you and taking care not to rush or lose focus. As with any kind of meditation, don’t worry if your mind does wander a little, just remember to bring it back to your mantra and beads when you catch yourself wandering off. It’s all a practice.
Once you get to the guru bead, it means you have repeated our mantra 108 times. The guru bead is there to prompt time for reflection and to let the mantra resonate within you.
5. Want a little more?
If you want to continue and go around again, it’s considered disrespectful to cross the guru bead, instead reverse back the other way, repeating the same mantra as you go.
Go forth and use your malas
Now you know how to do it, get (or make) yourself some mala beads today. This simple accessory can really deepen your meditation practice through repetition and devotion to the holy number of 108, it’s a powerful tool to add to your yogic toolkit.
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Stephanie Johnson, CYI, Yogini Soul Staff Writer, is an elementary school teacher, yoga teacher, meditation student and writer. She is looking for ways to explore this beautiful, crazy life that we have been gifted and to live it with meaning. Stephanie fell in love with yoga as a teenager and has since traveled across the globe in search of gaining knowledge and experiences to deepen her understanding of yoga, from her home country of Australia, to India and across Asia, to Chile, in South America, where she now lives with her partner and two sons. Connect with her on Instagram.