Keeping with the theme of yogic tools to help the practitioner, here’s a little information on mala beads. Usually thought of as only being used by Buddhists or Hindus, mala necklaces and bracelets can be used by anyone, and in fact the purpose of them is used across spiritual paths and religious organizations. The beads are made from an assortment of materials, from seeds of the bodhi tree to precious gems. They are strung together as a means of making counting easier.
The number 108 is significant in many spiritual paths. As a multiple of 3, it can relate to Mother, Maiden, Crone, the number of sacred texts in particular religions, the number of earthly desires, the number of planets and houses in astrology, the number of goddess names, the diameter of sun and earth, the meridians in the physical body that radiate out from the heart chakra, and a connection to the divine, just to name a few. Each bead is counted for each mantra spoken, usually silently. A mantra has traditionally been the name of a god or a recitation of a prayer, but contemporary practitioners can use any word or phrase, in any language, for what they are focusing on.
For instance, my word of the year for 2014 was love. Many times during seated meditation, I used my mala beads to help focus my mind on the sensation of love, counting the beads as I repeated the mantra in my mind. Like many things that we do, with the repetition of sliding the beads through my fingers, it became a movement in time with my intention and without complete attention on the feel of the beads. And like many times during meditation, regardless of whether it is an asana practice on my mat or meditation to release stress or perseverating thoughts, other thoughts barge in. This is where the tactile beads and the motion of drawing them through the fingers is helpful. It redirects the thoughts to the mantra. Meditation is, after all, not an emptying of the mind of all thoughts, but rather a concentrated focus of attention.
If you think you might want to try using mala beads, first there is an intention. What answers are you seeking, which area of your life might need some light? The material used to create the beads could be determined by your intention. You could choose a mala that “feels” right, one that has specific material for a specific intention, one that you make, or one that you just like. A necklace length mala has 108 beads, the 109th bead is NOT to be counted. A bracelet may have different number of beads depending on their size, usually 27, but again, the “guru” bead is NOT to be counted. For some, the mala is held in one hand, and seated comfortably with eyes closed, taking a few deep breaths and relaxing the physical body, the mantra (a prayer, the name of the divine, a word describing your intention for the meditation, etc.) is repeated as each bead passes through the fingers. Some practitioners hold the mala in the right hand between the thumb and third finger. Once the “guru” bead is met, the mala is reversed, and the counting begins again as the mala beads are touched and the mantra is repeated. For someone just starting out, counting the 108 beads, 108 times, is a lot. If there is not the time or if distractions become too great, counting forward and back in a multiple of 3 is best.
Often there is a mala used for a specific mantra. It’s not unusual that a practitioner then wears the bracelet or necklace once the beads have been “charged” with the energy of the mantra. If they seek an answer or help in a particular area, and then that issue is resolved, the wearer will usually remove the mala bracelet or necklace, cleanse it, and have it ready for the next intention.
In my yoga poem project, Yogis All: A Journey of Transformation, Volume I, I did not include a poem about using mala beads. It is on my list to include in Volume II.
Do you use mala beads as part of your meditation practice? Is there a particular mantra or material that you prefer?