BY MELISSA GOODMAN
It’s not uncommon to see the reception area of yoga studios filled with different assortments, colors, sizes and lengths of malas. They are eye catching and filled with a magical beauty that calls to the person looking at them to buy one. Caught in this trance you buy one, but what is it? What do you do with it? Does it matter as long as it looks good on?
Malas are more than jewelry, they are an instrument, a tool that can be used for Japa yoga. Japa yoga uses mantras, repetitive chanting to help awaken awareness. The yogic path is propelled forward by practice and repetition. Mantras, whether one syllable or several when repeated begin to shift our awareness and purify our body, mind and spirit.
Mala which literally means ‘garland’ has been employed for thousands of years and incorporated into many spiritual traditions. Malas can be composed of a variety of materials including but not limited to seeds, semi-precious stones, wood and bone. As malas are sacred instruments they should be treated with care either worn around the neck or wrist or concealed in a special bag or place.
A mala consists of 108 beads, there are wrist malas as well which generally consist of 27 beads, counted four times is 108. Mixed in with the counting beads there might be spacer beads and a ‘guru’ bead, these are not counted within the traditional 108 beads. Spacers can be used at any place in the mala but are usually found every 27 beads or one placed after the 54th bead. This allows the practitioner to know where they are in their practice. A ‘guru’ bead is a larger bead or decorative piece. This is used to begin and end the practice. The guru bead is never passed over. Rather, once the practitioner reaches the guru bead they would turn the mala around and continue a new round, using the same bead that ended the preceding round. The guru bead is not passed over as it would symbolize stepping over ones teacher. As you begin your practice start with the bead next to the guru bead, one bead is counted for each repetition of the mantra. As you move through your practice you are infusing your mala with the vibration of your words.
There are different schools of thought on how to hold a mala, whether it be left or right hand and what fingers the beads are draped over. I was taught the mala is held in the left hand and the beads are held between the thumb and middle or ring finger. In some traditions the index finger is associated with the ego and therefore is not used as the spiritual practice guides us away from the ego. I believe there is no right or wrong way of holding your mala and it is important not to get caught up in doing it ‘right’, as long as it feels comfortable and acts as an aid in your practice instead of a distraction.
The work of spiritual transformation takes time and energy. Each time you wear your mala let it be a reminder of your path to awareness.