Go into any yoga studio, yoga festival or gathering and you are bound to find threaded strands of beads dangling off the necks and wrists of yogis. These beautiful beads may also adorn a personal altar, shrine or the front of a one’s personal yoga mat.
What is the use of these beads?
Malas (or garlands), aka prayer beads, allow the user to keep track of the number of mantras, prayers or breaths taken with a minimal amount of conscious effort. A mantra is a repeated phrase, word or sacred utterance (sound). It may or may not have a literal meaning, but can be spiritually meaningful or musically uplifting to the person reciting. Using a mala allows greater attention to be paid in the present moment.
The English word bead comes from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘bede’ and ‘bidden’ which mean ‘prayer’ and ‘to pray’.
More than two-thirds of the world use prayer beads or rosary beads to aid in their spiritual practices. A number of cultures use beaded garlands for prayer, mantra or intention.
The western culture usually associates these beads with Buddhists or Hindus, but Sikh, Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Catholics (Anglican prayer beads) all use these beads to guide a spiritual practice.
The oldest string of “religious” prayer beads is believed to have been found in Greece dating back to 1600 BC on frescos of a prehistoric village of Santorini.
The use of these prayer beads, called japa malas, spread to cultures and religions throughout the world.
Japa means repetition. The Sanskrit word is derived from the root, jap, meaning to mutter or repeat internally.
“FUN FACT: When the Roman Empire was trading with India, they confused the word japa for jap, the Latin word for “rose.” Eventually, the prayer beads were used in Rome where they were called rosarium, or rosary in English.
The japa mala usually consists of 108 + 1 beads threaded with individual knots tied between each bead to create space as you turn them in your fingers during use. The extra beads allow for any oversights made through absent-mindedness in counting or for the loss or breakage of beads.
Some smaller japamalas may come in strands of 18, 27, or 54 (distributive properties of 108) beads to be counted several times.
Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs mala strands are 108 beads, while Catholic strands known as rosaries may have 59 beads. The Eastern Orthodox Christians and Islam religions use 33 or 100 knots tied on a cord of wool or silk, and may occasionally use beads.
Repeating a mantra or mindfully being aware of your breath 108 times can be a daunting task. Using 108 beads ensures the devotee repeats their sacred mantra or thoughtfully breathes at least 100 times.
Beads may be made of wood, stone, carved bone, gemstones, plant seeds, shells, pearls or metal. Some may even be made of thread or yarn.
Japamalas are hand knotted between each bead to make the mala stronger and to give space to turn each bead between one’s fingers. These knots will also keep the mala intact if the mala ever breaks, thus eliminating a mess. In some Indian cultures, the knots are individually tied saying a mantra or AUM (OM) as a way to bless the creation of the mala.
The larger bead of a mala, called the guru bead, represents the student-guru relationship. When meditating, it is advised to reverse directions when you reach the guru bead to symbolically avoid crossing over one’s teacher.
The tassel of a mala is made of thread. It combines the entire strand together as one and is a practical way to mark the 108th bead. In some Indian cultures, the wrapping of the string to form the tassel head represents earth, fire, air, water, and sun.
After a meditation practice, the practitioner may place the tassel over the eyes one at a time or to the forehead (as known as the 3rd eye) to signify their connection with divinity.
No two malas will be exactly alike due to variations in the materials. This uniqueness makes malas very special to the owner; especially when the beads are hand chosen and the mala is personally strung.
While a full-length mala may appear to be the same length as a necklace, they should be handled with care. Not all malas can be worn as jewelry, especially as some gemstones and other organic materials are softer and may not withstand stresses of wear.
Medical research from the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine indicates significant benefits for meditating and using prayer beads.
- Increases focus during mantra meditation
- An easy way to keep track of the number of mantras recited
- Helps slow breathing rate, induce calm, and improve concentration
- Lowers blood pressure
Moving the beads through the fingertips one at a time while breathing deeply and smoothly communicates information from the muscles to the brain, thus relaxing the central nervous system by initiating a steady, recurring physical action (much like squeezing a stress ball).
Other benefits include:
- Help the process of determining goals, intentions, and spiritual pursuits
- Seeing or wearing one’s own mala can serve as a reminder of one’s intention and goals
- Enhance self-awareness (emotional and self-regulation)
- Reduce depression and anxiety
Researchers at Yale University, Harvard and UCLA are discovering meditation can actually change the structures of the brain in the areas of the hippocampus, amygdala, sensory cortices, and insular cortex and the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex.
Humans have been using malas for over 3,000 years.
Doctors and researchers are discovering what yogis and spiritual devotees have known for years. Setting intentions, and limiting stress through the use of mala, mantra, and meditation is healthy for the brain and the body.
The next time you see these beaded strands, know the person wearing them has chosen theirs to help keep themselves aware of their intentions, self-awareness or spiritual purpose.