Mala beads have many different names depending on the tradition and location of origin. In this section I will share the information taught to me in the yogic tradition. Please note that depending on location of origin and tradition, different religions may view the practice differently.
Mala beads are a beautiful way to set intentions, manifest, and generally feel good. You don't have to meditate with the beads, although that is what they are made for in a practical sense.
For the purpose of my personal practice and yoga studio, I do not attach any religious connotation to the mala beads that I wear or make. I use them for focus in meditation, and for bringing positive, uplifiting energy into my daily life and the lives of the people I make them for.
Lets begin with the meaning behind the words 'mala' and 'japa mala'.
Mala: Sanskrit word for 'garland'
Japa: Sanskrit word for 'repetition'
Japa Practice: a meditative practice of reciting mantras or affirmations, often using mala beads
Mala Beads: a string of 27, 54, or 108 beads used for meditation or intention setting
Japa Mala: beads used for mantra and prayer practice
I personally have several different malas, each made of different gemstones and with a different energetic quality. I like to have the variation as each one reminds me of a different energetic aspect when I wear it (such as confidence, energy, or calm) and each one has a different mantra associated to it for meditation. You won't often see me without my mala but the majority of people don't know what it is, or what it is used for, and assume it's just a pretty piece of jewellery.
What is the purpose of a mala?
In many Eastern traditions, chanting and prayer is recited in a specific number of repetitions, in this case the mala is used to keep track of the number of repetitions.
For many yogis and modern day meditators, the mala is used during meditation as a tactile reminder of their practice. A word or mantra (in English or Sanskrit) can be repeated while gently drawing the mala through between the finger and thumb, and helps to calm the 'monkey mind'.
What is a Mantra?
If you wish to use your mala to assist in your meditaiton practice, you will need to choose a mantra (a word or phrase) which you repeat to keep your focus. If you have a teacher they may choose a mantra for you, or you can select one for yourself. Mantra's can be a single word or phrase, and can be in Sanskrit or in English (or any other language you love!). Check out our Mantra page for some inspiration!
Why are there 108 Beads?
The mala is made up of 108 gemstones or wooden beads. Wooden beads are more traditional, but semi-precious gemstones are popular as each one can carry it's own energetic properties to align with your intentions.
The number 108 has many associations - here are just a few of the reasons that a mala may be made of 108 beads (though there are many more than listed here)
- When using your mala beads in meditation and repetition of a mantra, you are complete once you have done it 100 times (or multiples of 100!). The 8 extra beads are to account for errors, mispronuciations, or can be extras as an offering to your teacher.
- It is believed that there there are 108 energy lines connecting to the heart, with one of them believed to be the path to self realization
- Mathematicians of Vedic culture viewed 108 as a number of the wholeness of existence 1, 0, 8: 1 stands for God or higher Truth, 0 stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 stands for infinity or eternity.
- The number 108 also connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth - The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters.
- It is believed that there are 108 Upanishads (texts of wisdom from the ancient sages)
What are the Marker Beads?
Marker beads can be made of a metal or another bead type, texture or shape. When you reach the marker in your mantra meditation, it will feel different and serve as a reminder to return to the practice if your mind has wandered. I personally prefer markers to be every 27 beads as there are four even sections around the mala that bring me back to the practice and easily allow me to know how far I am in my practice. It is possible to have markers at different points if you prefer though they are usually in multiples of 9 (typically 9, 18, 27, 36 or 54 but also 7, 12 and 21 for specific practices in Tibetan tradition).
It is possible to have a mala with no markers however I only recommend this if you are an experienced meditator as you have to go 108 beads without allowing the mind to wander off for too long!
What is the Meru Bead or Guru Bead for?
The 109th bead is the guru bead or meru bead (meru means 'mountain'). This is either a bead with two entrance holes and a single exit hole leading to a tassel, or is sometimes a different sized/textured bead or pendant.
This bead represents the awareness and respect that we must have in every aspect of life. Arriving here allows you to take a moment to reflect on the importance of your practice and reflect on your intentions and reason for sitting in meditation. If you have a guru/teacher, this bead is a representation of them.
Out of respect for yourself, or your Guru, we do not cross the Guru bead when we arrive; we simply pause and reflect. If you are finishing your practice you'll close your meditation, if you are continuing into a second or third (or more) round of repetitions, simply turn your mala and continue back to the direction from which you came.