A mala is a simple string of beads used in japa meditation to count mantras, prayers, or intentions. Malas can also be used to count breaths or used in a gratitude meditation. Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning garland. Malas are a type of meditation beads or prayer beads and are ancient tools that were developed to keep the mind focused and clear from thoughts. A full mala contains 108 counting beads plus one guru or meru bead as well as some smaller decorative accents not used for counting. Usually, a 108 bead mala is long enough to wear as a necklace. A mala can also be strung as a half mala containing 54 beads, or as a wrist mala with 27 counting beads to be worn as a bracelet. The guru (teacher) or meru (mountain) bead is often larger than the other counting mantra beads and it provides a starting and ending point for counting the repetitions of the mantra. A tassel is connected to the end of the guru/meru bead to finish the mala with a final knot. Mala beads are also referred to as mantra beads, meditation beads, Hindu rosaries or Buddhist prayer beads.
A mala’s tassel is usually made from cotton or silk. It is typical to find malas strung with cotton cord or nylon string. For maximum durability, we use a nylon cord for our necklace malas and a thick clear elastic to string our bracelet malas. Mala beads from India usually have knots between each bead, while malas from Tibet, Nepal, and China are not knotted between the beads. Some Tibetan style malas will have two counters attached to each side of the mala. These are used to count very large repetitions (hundreds to thousands!) of mantras and can be easily added or removed if necessary. All our Mala necklaces are hand-knotted but are available unknotted by request.
Mala beads are used in other cultures and religions but are known by different names, such as prayer beads, rosary beads, and worry beads. Over two-thirds of the world’s population employ some type of counting beads as part of their spiritual practice. The use of beads in prayer appears to have originated around the 8th century B.C.E. in India. Beads by themselves have had a powerful influence and importance in human history. The oldest beads found to date are approximately 42,000 years old. Beads have been used throughout our history as talismans for protection, amulets for luck, status symbols for wealth and authority, spiritual and religious tools, and as a form of barter. The meanings and use of beads have changed significantly over time—they have been used to symbolize personal and cultural relationships, physical, magical and supernatural power, and common cultural world-views.
What religions use mala beads?
Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all use some form of prayer beads. However, you need not be associated with a religion to use a Mala. Around the 17th-century Muslims began using prayer beads, called subha, misbaha or tespih. These prayer beads usually have 99 counting beads and one elongated terminal bead. Subha beads are used for the practice of zikr, the recitation of the 99 attributes or names of God.
Ireland is known as the origin for the Christian rosary in the 9th Century. The use and practice of the rosary was not officially approved by the church until the 16th Century when Pope Leo X gave the rosary approbation. Rosaries usually contain 59 beads and are used to count the prayers recited in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Kompoloi or worry beads have been used in Greek and Cypriot culture since the middle of the 20th century. The kompoloi have an odd number of beads between 17-23 and are not designed for spiritual purposes—they are used as a talisman or amulet to guard against bad luck and for relaxation and stress reduction.
Benefits of mala beads
Mala beads have been used in so many different spiritual traditions for so long because these beads have many powerful benefits for the body, mind and spirit. Some of the below eight benefits are universal for all types of prayer or counting beads but several of these benefits are specific to mala beads.
- 1. Increases focus during mantra meditation.
- 2. An efficient and practical tool to count mantras.
- 3. An easy way to keep track of the number of mantras recited.
- 4. Physical contact with prayer beads transmits their inherent healing powers.
- 5. Once mala is empowered it can be used for even more powerful healing of yourself and others.
- 6. Choosing a mala to purchase can help in process of determining goals and intentions and spiritual pursuits.
- 7. Seeing or wearing a mala can serve as a reminder of one’s intention and goals.
- It can also be used as a reward or symbol for accomplishing a difficult task.
How to Use Mala Beads
Traditional Mala Meditation practice:
Think of a mantra or intention, perhaps using the meaning of the stones to guide you. Hold your mala in your right hand, starting at the guru bead (bead nearest the tassel) begin to turn each bead one at a time in between your middle finger and thumb (avoid touching the bead with your index finger as this is believed to represent the ego) and repeat your mantra (either out loud or in your head) once on each bead. Do this 108 times, traveling around the entire mala, until you once again reach the guru bead. When you reach the guru bead on the other side, pause, and take that as an opportunity to honor your guru or yourself for taking the time to meditate. If you want to continue the meditation, instead of passing over the guru bead, simply reverse direction and begin again.
Japa Meditation Do’s & Don’ts
Malas have been traditionally used by Yogis, Hindus, and Buddhists to perform japa or mantra meditation. The Sanskrit word Japa can be defined as “to repeat or mutter prayers or mantras.” Over time the use of mala prayer beads spread across continents and cultures and now people from all over the world wear and use malas and practice japa. The spiritual and meditation traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism all have different customs and rules for performing japa and using mala prayer beads. Even Gurus or teachers in a specific tradition may have different instructions for japa. In general, mala beads are considered sacred tools that should be used and worn with respect and humility. Traditional rules and customs can become outdated over time or seem impractical when applied to a different culture. As with any spiritual practice, you must discover for yourself what traditional rules resonate with your goals and intentions. Most importantly it is essential to be mindful of what you’re doing and why you are doing or not doing it. To this end, it will be necessary for you to know what the rules of japa are before braking or altering them.
The Traditional Rules of Japa Meditation:
- 1.Keep your mala beads in a clean place, preferably on your altar or in a mala bag.
- 2.Before wearing your mala, touch the guru bead on your bowed forehead, ideally at your third eye center.
- 3.Do not let anyone touch or use your mala.
- 4.Avoid showing your mala to other people and especially keep the guru bead hidden from view.
- 5.Remove your mala when defecating, sleeping or having intercourse.
- 6.Keep your mala beads clean and well maintained. If the beads become chipped, cracked, or broken you should repair or replace the mala.
- 7.The most favorable time for Japa meditation is Brahmamuhurta, the time of Brahma, at one and a half hours before sunrise. This is when the Sattva Guna (purity or steadiness) is most predominant. The second best time is at sunset, and the third best is noon.
- 8.Before sitting for Japa take a bath or wash your hands, feet, and face and brush your teeth. Wear clean clothing.
- 9.Face in the direction of East or North when practicing japa. East and North are considered to be “the abode of Gods” and the most beneficial and potent direction to be positioned while praying or meditating.
- 10.Have a clean and special seat prepared for your japa meditation. Ideally, sit on a rug and use a meditation cushion.
- 11.Sit in the same place and at the same time every day to practice japa. Meditate in a room which is calm and quiet, or sit in a temple, meditation center or on the bank of a river.
- 12.Observe silence and remove all external distractions during japa.
- 13.Maintain a steady seated meditation pose, such as Padmasana, Siddhasana or Sukhasana. Make sure the pose is comfortable and stable so it will not create distractions.
- 14.Do not hold your mala necklace to below your navel while practicing japa. Hold your mala during japa at the heart center or in front of your third eye.
- 15.Use the middle finger and the thumb of the right hand to touch and move the beads with the mantra. The use of the index finger is prohibited as it represents the ego mind.
- 16.Commit to complete a certain minimum number of malas before ending your practice. Keep track of your Japa and try to increase the amount gradually over time.
- 17.Keep your mala mantra a secret. Repeat your mantra from 108 to 1,080 times daily (one to ten rounds of a full mala).
- 18.It is best to receive your mantra from your Guru or teacher. If this is not possible, carefully choose a mantra based on your goals and intentions.
- 19.Pronounce your mantra clearly and distinctly and without any mistakes—even if you are chanting silently. If you make a mistake repeat the mantra.
- 20.Do not practice Japa hurriedly or carelessly. Do it slowly and mindfully with feeling, focus, and single-minded devotion.
- 21.Find a tempo that engages your focus. Repeating a mantra too slowly will create boredom and repeating too fast will scatter your focus. When the mind wanders, adjust the tempo to regain focus. You may find it helpful to link the repetition of the Japa with the rhythm of the breath.
- 22.Experiment with your Japa technique to sustain interest, avoid fatigue, and counteract monotony. You can try alternating between repeating the mantra aloud and repeating it mentally. You can stand up or change your seated pose when you feel sleepy or drowsy.
- 23.Japa should be practiced with the eyes partially closed and with a soft gaze. This helps unite and merge the body’s prana and creates an electric loop from top to bottom of the body. Fix your gaze between the eyebrows or at the tip of your nose.
- 24.Contemplate the meaning of the mantra while chanting it. Feel the power of the mantra purifying your heart, destroying desires, removing cravings, and making your mind become steady. The practice of Japa can destroy the six Shadripus (lust/desire, anger, greed, attachment, pride/arrogance, and jealousy).
- 25.If you sneeze, yawn, cough or release gas during japa, this is considered as an impurity, and you should start over with a new round of japa.
- 26.After completing your japa practice take a few moments to sit quietly and feel the effects of the meditation. Finish your practice time with a moment of devotion before proceeding with your day and routine tasks. After your seated practice you can continue the current of Japa mentally during other activities.
After reading through the list of traditional japa rules, take note of which rules you’d like to focus on and commit to. Not all of these rules will be applicable or practical to your personal situation and lifestyle, so it is more important to practice mantra meditation on a regular daily basis rather than try to follow every single rule.