What is a Mala and How to Use a Mala

What is a Mala and How to Use a Mala

You may be wondering what a mala is, whether you saw one at your local yoga studio, went to a workshop, or met someone that makes them at a yoga festival. Well as someone who’s used malas as well as made malas, taught others how to make them, and continues to create deeply meaningful malas, I would love to share my knowledge and experience on what is a mala with you.

The tradition of mala usage began in India which is still used today in modern yoga practices and Hinduism as well as embraced by Buddhists. These prayer beads have journeyed through time and geography, evolving in their use and significance but maintaining their essence as instruments of meditation and prayer.

What is a Mala Anjali Mudra with Om Ring

This blog post is crafted from my personal experience and deep respect for malas. I aim to share not only the traditional and contemporary significance of these beads but also practical insights into their usage and care, honed from years of both using and making them by hand. Whether you are a beginner in the world of yoga or an experienced practitioner, understanding malas can enrich your practice immensely.

What is a Mala?

I have cultivated a deep connection with malas over my years of bhakti yoga and raja yoga. A mala is simply a hand-crafted set of beads used for mantra, japa, and prayer. But these beads are not just randomly strung without any specific meaning. The beads themselves are thoughtfully used, each hand-knotted and precisely 108 beads in the strand. The string that binds them all together moves through the guru bead connected to the tassel each with symbolic meaning.

While malas may be beautiful to look at and meaningful to wear, their function for mantra is what makes a mala special.

Components of a Mala

Malas are made with specific materials. Each component holds symbolic meaning that reinforces the concept and usage of a mala.

108 Beads: The strand of a mala is made up of 108 beads. 108 is a sacred number with deep meaning which we’ll explore later. In practical terms, 108 is a great way to keep count of mantra repetition if you are aiming to recite a mantra say 100,000 times. You would complete 1 mala and count 100 repetitions counting the extra 8 as either mistakes or given to a higher power.
 
Guru Bead: This bead sits outside the strand of 108 beads and acts as the starting and ending point of the mantra circuit. It represents the teacher or spiritual guide and signifies respect and acknowledgment for the source of spiritual teachings. We never count the guru bead as part of our counting nor should we ‘step over’ the guru bead as this symbolically represents stepping over our own teacher.
 
Tassel: Attached to the guru bead, the tassel collects and combines the energy of the mala and the practitioner. It symbolizes connection to the divine and spiritual unity. Symbolically this represents enlightenment comes from the teachings.
 
String: The thread that runs through the beads represents the connection between all spiritual practices and principles. It holds the mala together representing purusha, which is the Sanskrit concept for the all pervading force behind all things. The formless, pure, and always existing energy.
 
Knots: Each bead is typically separated by a knot. These knots ensure that the mala is strong and that the beads move smoothly between the fingers during meditation. Symbolically, the knots represent life’s challenges and the need to overcome them mindfully.
 
What is a Mala Jack Utermoehl Holding a Root Chakra Mala

Materials Used in Malas

Many materials may be used for mala beads however there are some traditional materials that are symbolic and meaningful. In modern day, we’ve been able to mine and use more semi-precious gemstones in our malas that were traditionally not easily available for malas.

Rudraksha Seeds ("Shiva's Tears"): These seeds are highly valued for their strong spiritual properties. They are said to originate from the tears of Lord Shiva, and wearing them is believed to bring clarity, calmness, and protection.
 
Sandalwood: Cherished for its aromatic properties, sandalwood is commonly used to induce a calm and meditative state. It helps soothe the mind and align physical and mental tranquility.
 
Tulsi Wood: Considered incredibly sacred in Hindu tradition, Tulsi wood is used for its purity and its ability to support spiritual growth and protection.
 
Bone: Often made from yak bone, these beads are reminders of the impermanence of life. They are commonly used in Tibetan Buddhism to cultivate a greater understanding of the temporary nature of existence.
 
Semi-precious Gemstones: Different stones are chosen for their specific energies and benefits. For example, amethyst for purification and spiritual protection, turquoise for healing and balancing, and rose quartz for love and compassion.
 
What is a Mala Lauren with Kali Mudra

Variations in Mala Designs

While the traditional mala consists of 108 beads, there are variations that may include different numbers of beads typically seen in mala bracelets, this is a modern take on the mala. The choice of string, type of knots, and choice in beads can vary greatly, reflecting personal preferences or specific spiritual intentions.

Understanding the components, materials, and symbolism of malas enhances the intention behind their use and the depth of meditation practice. For practitioners like myself, creating and using a mala is a meditative practice in itself, a way to infuse each bead with mantra, mindfulness affirmations, and spiritual purpose.

How to Use a Mala

In my practice of Kriya and Bhakti yoga, malas are indispensable tools for deepening meditation and enhancing mindfulness. Here, I share the techniques I've honed for using a mala effectively in Japa meditation, along with insights into selecting and employing mantras that resonate with personal spiritual journeys.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Using a Mala

1) Start at the Guru Bead

Begin your meditation holding the bead next to the guru bead. Hold your mala with one hand, letting it drape over the middle finger. Softly extend your index finger away from your mala.

2) Use the Thumb to Count

Use your thumb to pull each bead over the middle finger towards you as you recite your mantra. This method keeps the practice focused.

3) Progress Through the Beads

Move from one bead to the next with each mantra recitation. The motion should be smooth and deliberate. Ideally once you start you finish but if you need water or to cough then do so without attachment or judgment.

4) Do Not Cross the Guru Bead

When you reach the guru bead again, do not count it, do not cross it. If you wish to continue with another round of mantras, turn the mala around and proceed in the opposite direction.

5) Take a Moment

When done, take a moment to sit in silent meditation or maybe just a few breaths. Let the repetition circulate in the mind and body.

What is a Mala Hand Position Jack Utermoehl

Is there a Goal of Meditation?

The Process of Japa Meditation

Japa meditation involves repeating a mantra silently or aloud with the intention of transcending the busy mind to reach a state of deeper spiritual awareness. Each recitation is synchronized with the movement of a bead, which helps keep track of the number of repetitions and anchors the mind in the meditation practice.

Selecting Mantras or Affirmations

  • Choose a mantra that aligns with your current spiritual needs or personal aspirations. For example, select a mantra for peace if you are seeking inner peace.
  • Consider the energy of the mantra and how it resonates with your inner state or desired transformation.
  • Affirmations for daily intentions can also be powerful. Choose simple, positive statements like "I am calm" or "I embrace joy."

Common Mantras and Their Meanings

There are thousands of mantras to choose from however there are some very common mantras that you might use with a mala. I’ll give you a few below.

Om

Often considered the universal sound, "Om" represents all consciousness and is used to unify the chanter with the universe.

Om Namah Shivaya

A mantra that bows to Shiva, the transformer, it is used for strength and protection during transformation and challenging changes.

Om Mani Padme Hum

A powerful Buddhist mantra that invokes the benevolent blessings of compassion.

Integrating Malas into Daily Practice

  • Set a regular time each day for mantra meditation to establish a routine.
  • Wear your mala as a reminder of its meaning to you and to be available for use at any time.
  • OR, keep your mala in a special place such as your meditation space or altar at home.
What is a Mala Jack Utermoehl Meditating with Mala

Four Levels of Mantra Integration

As you explore and progress in your mantra practice, you’ll begin to notice the 4 layers of mantra integration. These layers start basic on the surface down to full integration.

Literal Meaning: Understanding the basic meaning of the mantra.
 
Elicited Feeling: Focusing on the emotional and mental response the mantra generates.
 
Internal Awareness: Integrate the mantra with the Self. Beginning your self-programming.
 
Soundless Sound: Full integration of the mantra. You’ve effectively become the mantra just like any of your other default background programs.

Symbolism in Malas

In my experience, understanding the deeper symbolism of malas can enrich your mantra practice. Let’s explore the layers of symbolism that imbue malas with such significance.

The Guru Bead

The guru bead is a pivotal element in a mala, symbolizing the teacher, the spiritual guide, or the teachings themselves. It holds a place of honor at the end of the string of 108 beads. When we reach this bead during meditation, it signifies both an end and a beginning—encouraging reflection, gratitude, and a deepened respect for the teachings and teachers that guide our spiritual journey.

The String (Purusha)

The string that threads through all the beads, known in Sanskrit as Purusha, represents the universal self or spirit that pervades reality. This continuous thread symbolizes the eternal nature of the spirit, connecting all forms of creation and maintaining the integrity of the mala. Just as Purusha is the essential fabric of the cosmos, the string in a mala binds the beads together, creating unity and cohesion in our meditative practices.

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Significance of the Number 108

The number 108 is a sacred number in many spiritual traditions. There are many interpretations of why 108 is considered sacred, some of those are:

Hinduism: In Hindu tradition, there are said to be 108 Upanishads, which are ancient texts of spiritual learning and philosophy. Additionally, many deities have 108 names.
 
Buddhism: Traditional Buddhist malas have 108 beads, which correspond to the 108 human passions that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, vowed to free us from.
 
Celestial Alignments: The diameter of the Sun is about 108 times that of the Earth, and the distance from the Sun to Earth is roughly 108 times the Sun's diameter. Similarly, the distance from the Earth to the Moon is about 108 times the Moon’s diameter.
 
Astrological: In Vedic astrology, there are 12 zodiac houses and 9 planets, totaling 108 (12 * 9).
 
Harshad Number: 108 is a Harshad number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits (Harshad is from Sanskrit, meaning "great joy").
 
Number Symbols: The numbers 1, 0, and 8 in 108 also represent one thing, nothing, and everything (infinity), symbolizing the universe.
 
What is a Mala Jack Utermoehl holding his mala

Implications of a Broken Mala

A broken mala often carries significant spiritual symbolism. In many cultures, it is seen as a sign that the mala has absorbed and shielded you from negativity or fulfilled its purpose in your spiritual growth. It can also indicate that you are ready to move to a new phase in life or spiritual practice. While some may choose to repair their mala, others may see it as a point of transition and seek a new one to mark a new chapter in their journey.

After your mala breaks you can do one or more of the following:

  1. Repair your mala or have it repaired.
  2. Place the mala parts on your altar or in a special place.
  3. Gift the parts for someone else’s mala.
  4. Re-use the parts for some other creation but not another mala.
  5. Discard in a personal ceremony.

Energetic Aspects of Malas

Malas are believed to interact dynamically with your energy field. Each bead can be seen as absorbing the vibrations of the mantra or intention it is used with, thus becoming charged with energy. This energy can serve as a protective barrier or a source of enhancement for personal or spiritual intentions. Over time, as you use the mala, this energy builds and amplifies, deepening your connection to the mala and its energetic power.

The Science Behind Malas

Through my deep engagement with both the practice and teaching of yoga, I've observed firsthand the transformative power of malas when combined with mantra meditation. Here, I will explore the scientific rationale behind these benefits, discussing how the repetition of mantras and the tactile use of malas can significantly enhance mental, psychological, and physiological well-being.

Impact of Repetitive Mantra Chanting on the Brain's Physiology

Chanting mantras repetitively can impact brain physiology by enhancing focus and reducing stress. This practice is known to quiet the "default mode network" (DMN), the brain area active during wakeful rest and involved in self-referential thoughts or "mind-wandering." Mantra chanting helps maintain attention and presence, which lowers stress and anxiety levels. Neuroscientific research has shown that such repetitive cognitive activity can lead to increased gray matter in regions of the brain associated with decreased anxiety and stress.

What is a Mala Lauren Meditation Smile

Psychological Benefits

Regular meditation practice has been linked to a number of psychological benefits:

Increased Calmness: Regular mantra chanting and mala meditation induce a state of relaxation response, which counters the stress response in the body. Over time, this practice can lead to lasting states of calm and a decrease in overall stress levels.
 
Heightened Awareness: Engaging in mala meditation enhances mindfulness, which is the practice of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment. This heightened state of awareness can improve the quality of both personal and professional life by fostering a deeper understanding of our emotions and actions.

Cognitive Improvements

Regular meditation practice has been linked to a number of cognitive benefits:

Better Memory: Studies have shown that those who meditate regularly can experience improvements in memory and recall. This is believed to be due to the role of meditation in improving attention and concentration, key components of memory.
 
Increased Attention Span: Meditation practices like those involving malas can lead to improvements in the ability to maintain attention. This is particularly valuable in our fast-paced world where attention is frequently divided among multiple tasks.

Behavioral Changes

Consistent mala meditation can also lead to significant behavioral changes:

Improved Emotional Regulation: Regular meditation helps in managing emotions more effectively, which can lead to healthier relationships and better decision-making.
 
Reduction in Impulsive Behavior: By increasing self-awareness and control over one's thoughts, mala meditation can reduce tendencies towards impulsive and reactive behaviors.

Role of the Reticular Activating System (RAS)

The reticular activating system (RAS) plays a crucial role in maintaining consciousness and regulating wakefulness and sleep-wake transitions. Engaging in mala meditation stimulates the RAS through both the physical act of moving beads and the mental effort of focusing on the mantra. This stimulation helps maintain a state of alertness and mindfulness during meditation.

What is a Mala Lauren holding her Mala

Care and Cleansing of Malas

As a meaningful object for your practice of mantra, japa, or affirmations, it’s important to maintain and care for that object just as you would your own body- your temple.

Physical Care of Malas

Let’s explore the physical care for a mala.

Cleaning Methods

For malas made from seeds or wood, a gentle wipe with a damp cloth is sufficient. Maybe you’d even like to coat them in an oil however the oils from your fingers may suffice. For gemstone malas, mild soap and water can be used occasionally. Ensure the mala is dried completely after cleaning to prevent damage. Only use products that won’t damage the string.

Storage Tips

Store your mala in a soft, dry place when not in use. A dedicated pouch or box can protect it from dust and direct sunlight, which can fade or damage certain materials over time. Keep malas in a meaningful place such as your meditation space, your yoga room, an altar, or on your person.

Handling With Care

Always handle your mala gently and with respect. Avoid stretching the string or letting it hang from your neck during vigorous activities, as this can cause the string to weaken or break.

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Mala Cleansing

Your mala is deeply connected to your spiritual and energetic state. Our malas may absorb unwanted energy just the way they absorb our mantra’s energy.

Use of Sage

Smudging your mala with sage smoke is a traditional method to clear negative energies. This can be done by lighting sage and passing the mala through the smoke, allowing the purifying properties to cleanse the beads.

Sound Cleansing

Using singing bowls or bells can also cleanse a mala. Place the mala around or inside the singing bowl and ring it, letting the vibrations clear any stored energies.

Natural Elements

Sunlight and moonlight are gentle, effective cleansers for malas. Expose your mala to early morning sunlight or overnight moonlight to recharge and cleanse the beads. Be mindful that prolonged exposure to harsh sunlight might damage sensitive beads.

What is a Mala Lauren with Anjali Mudra

Mala Wear and Tear

You can expect normal wear and tear to take place overtime. Eventually you’ll want to either re-string your mala, let it break, or retire it. Sometimes a mala simply serves its purpose and is no longer needed. This makes space for a new mala, mantra, or practice.

Handling: Always treat malas with the reverence they deserve. They are not just accessories but integral to spiritual practice and should be handled with intention and gratitude.
 
Wear and Tear: Natural wear and tear on a mala can be seen as a part of its journey with you. If a mala breaks, it can be restrung. Many see this as an opportunity to reflect on its role in your spiritual path and to reaffirm or even redefine your intentions.
 
Repairing Your Mala: If your mala breaks, consider it a part of its lifecycle and an opportunity for renewal. You can restring it yourself or seek a skilled artisan who understands the spiritual significance of malas to repair it.
 
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Modern Use and Popularity of Malas

Malas have evolved from their traditional symbolism to become a symbol of people that practice mindfulness and yoga in the west. I’ve witnessed this evolution firsthand and explored how these sacred tools are being adapted and appreciated in contemporary life. Here’s a closer look at the factors contributing to their rising popularity and how they are being integrated into modern lifestyles.

Reasons Behind Growing Popularity in Non-Traditional Contexts

In an era where mindfulness has become a sought-after solution for stress relief and mental clarity, malas offer a tangible method for people to make their meditation practices more accessible and focused. The act of passing beads through the fingers can help anchor the mind and using specific mantras can focus the mind.

The repetitive motion of bead counting during mala meditation has a calming effect on the nervous system, akin to the relaxation response triggered by deep breathing exercises. This physiological benefit makes malas an attractive tool for stress management in fast-paced modern lives.

What is a Mala Lauren Meditating

Integration into Wellness and Fashion Industries

Malas are increasingly featured in wellness centers, yoga studios, and holistic health practices. They are often recommended by wellness practitioners as part of therapy for anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders.

With their unique and customizable design, malas have become a statement of yoga practitioners and a symbol worn to display a chosen lifestyle. This created a market that allows designers to creatively use various stones, materials, and colors that align with contemporary aesthetic tastes while still retaining the spiritual undertones.

Modern malas might include a variety of materials not traditionally used, such as recycled glass or semi-precious gemstone beads. The design parameters have expanded to include chakra malas with specific colors to align with the body's energy centers or themed malas that reflect personal passions or affirmations.

Chakra Meditation: Infinity Breath Meditation

Community and Group Practices Involving Malas

Many yoga and meditation retreats now include mala-making workshops as part of their programs, allowing participants to create a personal mala that becomes a part of their spiritual practice. Group meditations often start with each participant holding their mala, enhancing the collective energy of the practice.

We host mantra meditations at Bhakti House Yoga Studio and sometimes mala making workshops although anyone serious about making their own mala may prefer a one-on-one session with guided instruction and help procuring the materials.

What is a Mala Anjali Mudra

Your Personal Mala Practice

Throughout this exploration of malas, we’ve uncovered their deep-rooted historical significance, delved into their symbolic meanings, and examined the scientific backing for their benefits in meditation and mindfulness practices.

Summarizing Key Points

Historical Roots: Malas have evolved from ancient spiritual instruments in Vedic traditions to modern tools used in diverse spiritual and secular contexts.
 
Symbolic Significance: Each component of the mala, from the beads to the guru bead and tassel, carries deep symbolic meanings.
 
Scientific Benefits: The repetitive use of malas in meditation has been shown to impact positively on mental health.
 
Care and Cleansing: Proper physical and spiritual maintenance of a mala ensures its longevity and potency.
 
Modern Usage: In contemporary settings, malas have been embraced for their aesthetic value and their role in promoting mindfulness and stress relief.

Integrating malas into your daily practice can bring structure to your meditation practice. The tactile nature of the beads can serve as a powerful anchor, grounding your practice in the physical world while you explore the depths of your inner landscape. This dual engagement can significantly enhance your well-being by integrating spiritual practice into everyday life.

Tell Me About Your Mala Experience

I invite you to share your experiences with malas in the comments below.

Whether you are just beginning to integrate a mala into your practice or have been using one for years, your stories can inspire and inform others. Feel free to leave comments below, share this post with your community, or reach out with personal insights and questions.

Together, we can deepen our understanding and appreciation of this ancient practice, supporting each other in our paths to greater mindfulness and spiritual growth.

About the Author Jack Utermoehl Founder of Asivana Yoga Company
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