What are Mala Beads?

what are mala beads

Mala beads, prayer beads, rosary beads – Isn’t it interesting that many religions and cultures use some form of counting beads? Repetition is a powerful tool in meditation or prayer. By using the beads, we don’t need to preoccupy our mind with counting. Being able to lose yourself in your chant or prayer is a beautiful experience.

More About Malas

The word mala means garland, and typically refers to 108 beads strung together and one “Guru bead,” which is larger than the rest.  Although malas are most commonly made of 108 beads (especially in Tibetan Buddhism), you can also find them with 18, 27, or 54 beads – notice those are all multiples of 9!  On a 108 bead mala, there can be differently shaped or sized beads after every 27th bead to make it easier to keep track.

Why are there 108 beads?  There are 108 chapters of the Rig Veda, 108 Upanishads and 108 primary Tantras.  And these texts are written in Sanskrit, a language comprising 54 letters, each with a masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) form, 54 x 2 = 108.  In Ayurveda, there are 108 sacred places, or marmas, in the body.  The diameter of the sun is approximately 108 times that of earth and the distance from our planet to its solar star is, on average, 108 times the diameter of the sun.

The Guru bead is a larger bead in addition to the 108 beads of a traditional mala that is used to keep track of when you have completed your 108 repetitions.  When you reach the end, if you would like to repeat, you reverse direction.  You are not meant to cross the Guru bead, as it represents the Absolute or Supreme Consciousness.

How Do You Use Mala Beads?

Being able to lose yourself in your chant or prayer is a beautiful experience.  By using the beads, we don’t need to preoccupy our mind with counting.  

Here’s a step-by-step on a suggested way to work with your mala:

  1. Find a comfortable spot to sit, ideally somewhere you can focus and won’t be disturbed.
  2. Select an intention, affirmation, mantra, or word.  You can repeat or chant it aloud, or in your head.
  3. Hold your mala in your right hand, draped between your middle and index fingers.  Starting at the guru bead, use your thumb to count each smaller bead, pulling it toward you as you recite your mantra.  Do this 108 times, the length of a standard mala, until you return to the guru bead.
  4. If you would like to continue, reverse direction (without passing over the guru bead) and begin again.

You can also use your mala to enhance your pranayama (breathwork) practice by inhaling and exhaling for each bead.

Mala Materials

The beads of a mala can be a variety of materials. They are commonly wooden beads, some contain semiprecious stones. Rudraksha beads (shown in the mala pictured at the beginning of this article) are rich in symbology, so I’d like to go more into detail here.  The Sanskrit name “Rudraksha” is comprised of the words Rudra (another name for Lord Shiva) and akṣha (“eyes”). Also know as “the eyes of Lord Shiva”.  The Rudraksha bead is said to originally come from  Shiva’s tears.   According to mythology, Lord Shiva spent 1000 years in meditation for the benefit of all beings, and upon opening his eyes, tear drops rolled down from his eyes and landed upon the earth taking birth as the sacred Rudraksha tree.

Rudraksha beads have been worn and used for meditation, japa mantra, and pujas/fire ceremonies for many centuries. Asian Yogis and Monks found that merely wearing the Rudraksha beads gave them astonishingly tremendous amount of tranquility, concentration that helped them meditate for a long period of time with spectacular control over their mind. Buddha wore Rudraksha beads, along with the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and many enlightened Indian yogis.  Ancient Hindu scriptures first noted the divine qualities of this bead, and these qualities have been proclaimed down through the ages. They bless one with peace of mind; protects against evil doers and spirits; protects the wearer against an early or untimely accidental death; if wearing the bead upon dying one would be released from the karmic cycle of birth and death: blesses one with nirvana, moksha, peace and prosperity. 

To knot or not?  You have the option to place a simple overhand knot between each bead if that feels right.  It adds to the stability of the mala, and if disaster strikes, your beads won’t end up scattered everywhere.  You can also have the beads loose on the string.  It’s truly your preference.

Mantra Ideas

You can use your favorite mantra or affirmation when you work with your mala. It can be as simple as OM/AUM, or you can have a much longer phrase. Here are some mantras I use, or that my students suggested. Feel free to comment your favorite!

  • Om shanti shanti shanti – peace, peace, peace
  • Lokah Samastah Suhkino Bavantu – may all beings be happy and free and may my actions contribute in some way
  • Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha – invoking Lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles
  • All is well
  • I’m in the world to love the world

For My Visual / Video Folks 🙂

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