Body, Mind & Spirit

Malas: The History, The Beads & How to Choose One

Published on February 13, 2017

Article by Terence Loose for Bodhi Tree

Many of us like to wear our devotion on our sleeves, or in the case of malas, around our wrists and necks. While these prayer beads have become a popular ornament for everyone from spiritual practitioners to weekend yoga enthusiasts, their significance remains grounded in prayer and meditation. 

The History of Traditional Malas

Used in Buddhism and Hinduism for centuries, malas were traditionally made from the seeds of the rudraksha tree. In Sanskrit, rudraksha comes from the word for the Hindu god Shiva (Rudra) combined with “tear drops” (aksa). According to ancient Vedic texts, Shiva went into deep meditation for the wellbeing of all creatures, and when he awoke, tears of compassion fell to earth and took the form of rudraksha seeds, to help heal humanity. Since then, the beads have run the gamut from the traditional rudraksha seeds to crystal, lava, sandalwood, rose quartz and jade, among other stones.

The string of 108 beads, traditionally used for keeping count of mantras or breaths during meditation, or 21 and 27 beads, worn on the wrist, both have an extra, larger bead, known as a guru bead, to let you know when you’ve achieved a full revolution of mantras. With 108 recitations of a mantra, the wearer is meant to invoke the omnipresence of the deity that represents the universal self.

Malas: Not Just for Spiritual Practices

But malas don’t have to be used just for spiritual practice. According to Ashley Wray, founder of Mala Collective, which brings the creations of Balinese mala maker Soma Temple to the west, you should not let malas’ traditional use in prayer and meditation dissuade you from wearing one. “You don’t have to be religious or have any spiritual practice to wear mala beads. Often, people are drawn to the necklaces for their believed healing qualities of calming the mind and providing inner peace,” Wray tells Bodhi Tree. Already a favorite amongst celebrities including Sting, Donna Karan and Julia Roberts, who wore the jewelry in the film Eat, Pray, Love, Mala Collective’s necklaces and bracelets are rudraksha beads combined with gemstones.

Unlike hundreds of years ago, today there are thousands of choices when it comes to malas. “It’s important to know that a mala represents something different to each person,” Wray says. “It can be a tool for meditation, a reminder of an intention, a piece that inspires you, or a beautiful manifestation of a feeling.” So they can simply be worn to remind us to be more appreciative, compassionate or mindful.

How to Choose Your Mala

Many choose a mala based on the bead. Mala maker Natalie Mitchell, founder of Kolored Krowns, explains that “each bead—whether wood, gemstone or natural material—has its own meaning and energetic properties. Sandalwood is soothing and stimulates the base chakra; labradorite awakens one’s own inner mystical abilities; rose quartz is the heart stone, the universal love stone; and black tourmaline—one of my favorites—is the ultimate psychic protector.” The options are endless.

Whatever the reason, Wray often tells people that the mala you are first drawn to is the mala you’re intended to have. If the stone is believed to hold a certain energy or intention, embrace it. In Mitchell’s experience, “people are drawn to the idea of keeping something close that either represents—or actually works with—the energy of peace, love, abundance, clarity or protection.”

The Significance of the Number of Beads

The number 108 has long been held sacred in Hinduism, but is also open to interpretation, with many opinions on its meaning, says Wray.

“Some believe there are 108 stages on the journey of the human soul, while others associate the possibility of enlightenment with taking only 108 breaths a day, while in deep meditation,” she says. Mitchell adds that “in yogic tradition, it’s said that there are 108 sacred places of the human body; while the distance of earth to both the sun and the moon is 108 times their diameters—only further providing evidence of the interconnectedness of all.”

Others, like Karma Thinley Dorje, a Buddhist teacher and author of Malas and Power Beads: How to Select and Use Malas for Prayer and Meditation, says that the number relates to the 12 astrological houses, multiplied by the nine planets in our solar system, with the guru bead being added as a reminder of the sacred bond to your teacher or guru.

The shorter, wrist malas came about to aid in the use of prostrations, which are performed to purify oneself of karmic obstacles during Ngöndro Practice—the foundational, preparatory Tibetan Buddhist practices for sadhana—acknowledging the place and value of the Three Jewels: ­the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, according to Dorje.

If malas are used for meditation, you’ll most likely use a mantra, or a word, sound or phrase repeated to aid in your concentration. “It can be as simple as ‘I am ‘love,’ or a Sanskrit word like ‘ananda’ (bliss) or phrase such as ‘om namah shivaya,’ which means ‘I honor the divine within myself.’ Most importantly, it should resonate with you and be something that you can easily return your attention to with each breath,” says Mitchell.

Malas may mean different things to different people. What it represents to you, and how you use it, is what’s most important.

Learn more about malas.

Peruse our other articles on crystals and gemstones. 

Published on: February 13, 2017

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