What Are Mala Beads?

When I first started practicing yoga, I noticed that several of my teachers and also yogis wore these strange long, beaded necklaces with tassels. I didn't think too much of it until a friend of mine went to a mala-making workshop and came back wanting to teach me how to make my own mala. We headed over to a local shop (Tibet Imports on 6th Ave), picked out beads with the help of the store owner, and got to work making my mala. Along the way, my friend shared what she had learned during her workshop and got me curious about the history of mala beads.

A prayer mala is a set of beads typically used by Hindus and Buddhists to keep count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name(s) of a deity in a practice known as japa. Malas are typically made with either 16, 27, 54, or 108 beads. Most of malas consists of 108 beads, which actually counts as 100 mantra recitations plus extra repetitions to amend any mistakes. Additionally, the 108 beads signify the 108 worldly sins in Buddhist doctrine.

Malas are typically handmade, with a knot created between each bead, which makes using the mala easier because the beads are not as close together on the string. It also has a guru bead and a tassel and is charged with a mantra upon completion. Counting always begins with the bead next to the guru bead, and if more than one mala repetition is to be done, the meditator changes direction when reaching the guru bead rather than crossing it.

Different types of material is used to make the beads, depending on the purpose of the mantras used with them. For example, white colored malas are used for pacifying mantras, while increasing mantras call for malas of gold, silver, or amber. My very first mala was purple agate, which facilitates self-acceptance, builds self-confidence, enhances mental function, and improves concentration.

There are two ways in which malas are typically used. The mala is traditionally held in the right hand. In the first method, the mala hangs between the thumb and ring finger. The middle finger is used to rotate the mala one bead for each repetition. In the second method, the mala hangs on the middle finger, and the thumb is used to rotate the mala. In both methods, the index finger is avoided, as it represents the ego, which is seen as the greatest impediment to self-realization in ancient Hinduism.

When not being used for meditation, malas can be worn as necklaces or as wrapped bracelets. They are sometimes worn off the mat to remind practitioners of their yoga practice.

When choosing a mala bead, start with your intuition. Is there a mala or type of bead that stands out? One that you think you’ll have the opportunity to wear more often because it compliments your wardrobe? You might also choose a mala based on the intention of your yoga practice or what you are currently working on in your life.

After learning about and making my first mala, I've made several more for myself and friends. When I wear them, I feel more connected to my values. The mala in the photo above has heart opening qualities, and it is always the one I choose if I am feeling a little introverted or nervous about a social interaction. There may be no real magic there, but having it around my neck or wrist serves as a constant reminder to make an attempt to connect with other people and to be my authentic self.

I'd love to hear back with any comments or questions!!

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