Meditation is certainly not the easiest endeavor that we could undertake. It requires streamlined concentration and our utmost focus to rise above our thoughts. It asks us to go against the very nature of the mind, whose core function is to think. It’s hard. So to make meditation easier, we can use a mala. This meditation tool bridges the gap between the wandering monkey mind and the process of effortless concentration.
The Meaning of Mala
Mala is a Sanskrit word and means "garland" in English. (Think malasana: garland pose). It’s a string of beads made specifically for the purpose of meditation, much as a rosary is used for the recitation of prayers. Western yogis are often seen wearing malas wrapped around their wrists or draped around their neck, although their intended purpose isn't one of adornment.
Meditating with a mala comes under the yoga system called japa. Japa is another Sanskrit word and means “to rotate." It uses the repetition of mantra to rotate the consciousness and ultimately awaken a state of deep meditation. Japa is perhaps the easiest form of meditation because it quickly induces a state of pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. It’s good for everyone, anytime - a truly universal form of meditation. And the easiest way to practice japa is by using a mala. (Learn more in What is Japa Mantra.)
The Mala Design
Malas traditionally have 108 beads plus one extra knot or additional bead. Each bead is round so that it can easily glide through the fingers. They’re separated by special knots tied in their silk or cotton cords called brahmagranthi, or "knots of creation." The beads come from all sorts of materials: earthy and rustically carved tulsi stems and mango seeds, to rudraksha beads (a wrinkled seed that originates from Himalayan trees and is thought to ward off negative energies), lotus seeds and medicinal woods. Malas can even be made with customized precious gems. Depending on the material, malas sold in India can cost between 20 cents to hundreds of dollars.
A mala’s makeup of 108 beads is very significant. The number, 108, is considered by yogis to be a sacred number. It represents the 108 Upanishads, the 108 marma points (sacred energy centers in the body), and other sacred phenomena in nature. For example, the moon and sun are both 108 times their diameter in distance to the earth. There are many other beliefs for the sacredness of this number- most of them carefully guarded in the yogic tradition. (Learn about The Message of the Upanishads.)
The extra knot, or bead (the 109th), is called a sumeru. This “summit of the mala” holds a special significance. When meditating, the mind can easily become distracted by thoughts and lose its focus on the mantra. Meditating with a mala can even become robotic as the fingers pass mindlessly from one bead to the next. But when the fingers trace over the sumeru, the mind is gently reminded to refocus on the mantra. It’s a wake-up call for the wandering mind.
How to Use a Mala
Choosing a mala is a little bit like choosing a crystal. Find one that resonates with you - picking it up, holding it in your hands, sliding your fingers over a few beads to gauge how they feel. In an ideal situation, a mala would be chosen for you and blessed by your guru. If you’re choosing one yourself, clear its aura by giving it Reiki, airing it in the sun, or blessing it with a prayer before use.
Come to sit in a comfortable meditation posture, whether it be the advanced full lotus pose or an easier cross-legged position. Rest the mala in the palm of your left hand. Then rest the hand in your lap or with your forearm supported on your thigh.
With your left hand supporting the bulk of the mala, you’ll actually use your right hand to rotate the beads. Gently hold the first bead to the left of the sumeru bead with your middle finger and thumb. Avoid touching any of the beads with your index finger, which is thought to have a negative energy, or your little finger.
Mala and Mantra
As your fingers rest on each bead, softly chant a mantra. This could be a single syllable, such as Om (which is appropriate for everyone), or a bija (seed) mantra. It might be a longer mantra that you’re working with or even a mantra meant to harmonize the effect of a particular planet. Whatever the mantra may be, it should resonate with you and vibrate within. (Read more in What's My Mantra?)
Chant this mantra as if you’re infusing the bead with its vibration. After you’ve chanted on the first bead, slide your thumb and middle finger to the next bead. Chant the mantra, then move on to the next bead, and so on. Don’t rush as you pass over each bead. Try to find an effortless concentration, accepting that thoughts will come, but allowing them to float away just as easily.
Keep your awareness focused without force; like an “unconcerned observer of this spontaneous process” (Saraswati, 154). You might chant the mantra aloud, which is called baikhari, or audible japa. This method helps beginners to quiet the mind. You might then move on to upanshu, or whispering the mantra. Here you would move your lips but chant the mantra so that it’s only audible to you. This trains the mind for the next form of japa: manasic, or mental japa. This usually comes once the yogi is comfortable with baikhari and upanshu mantra. It requires a steady mind but is the most powerful form of mantra repetition.
When you make it all the way around the mala and arrive back to the sumeru bead, change direction and chant another round. Or you might just choose to just do one round depending on time and your level of focus. This is a goal that should be set before you sit down for japa mantra.
Keep your mala in a silk or cloth bag when you're not using it. It shouldn’t be worn. It’s infused with the subtle vibrations of your mantra and should be honored as a sacred tool.
Using a mala is so helpful in meditation because it gives us a tangible means to connect with the mind. With practice, the mind learns to detach itself from its ever-present thoughts, and to reach a more calm and pure manifestation.