Mala beads are a strand of beads that is used for counting during a mantra meditation. They are also called Buddhist beads or Buddhist prayer beads. Mostly a mala looks like a necklace with 108 beads with a guru and a tassel but it can also have 21 or 27 beads (in the form of a bracelet) for shorter meditations, with markers at 7th or 21st or 27th beads which are different size to guide you. The user can wear the mala as a necklace or as a wrapped bracelet during the day to remind him/her of the meditation or yogic practice.
In the early days the beads were meant to be used by laypeople as a way of adapting monastic discipline to the limits and demands of ordinary people’s lives. A popular legend is in the form of the Mokugenji Sutra tells how the beads came about. It says says King Vaidunya once said to the Buddha, “In recent years, disease and famine have swept my country. The people are distressed, and I worry about this night and day without interruption. Ours is a pitiful condition. The totality of the dharma is too profound and extensive for us to practice, given these circumstances. Please teach me just the main point of the dharma so that I may practice it and teach it to others.”
The Buddha replied: “King, if you want to eliminate earthly desires, make a circular string of 108 bodhi seeds and, holding them always to yourself, recite, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.’ Count one bead with each recitation of these three.” The recitation is called the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
This is the earliest story about this Buddhist practice which clearly shows that it was meant for ordinary people who could not abandon the worries of secular life as easily as monks in the monastery. The beads were later adopted by monks maybe because of their effectiveness in calming the mind for anybody who uses them. Subsequently different Buddhist sects either retained the number of beads or divided them into consecutive twos or fours for brevity or informality. Some sects attached a decorative tassel flanked by talismans or amulets depending on their local tradition.
The use of prayer beads is common in Christianity (the rosary), Buddhism, Islam, and many other old religions. That is because all religions benefit from the mind focus.
Malas are always made with either 7mm or 8mm or 10mm round beads which glide easily through your fingers. Traditional ones are made with Rudraksha beads, lotus seed beads, yak bone, Bodhi seeds, or wood. These are usually for general purpose use. Healing malas are made from gemstones. Gemstones come in different colors which give them specific energies and properties. If you browse our store you will find malas made from black onyx, amazonite, rose quartz, gold vermeil, aquamarine, amethyst, tourmaline, moonstone and other gemstones. Each type of gemstone imparts different benefits to the user. In other shops you will also find malas made with glass beads or glass crystal which are usually used for color therapy, but they are rare.
How to Use Malas for Meditation
Mala beads have been used for meditation by Buddhists and Hindus for centuries. The traditional Rudraksha mala dates back to the 10th century. It is quite easy to use a mala for meditation if you follow the following 8 steps to get started:
- Decide the intention of your practice and choose your mantra or affirmation.
- Sit quietly in a cross legged position or on a straight backed chair if you cannot cross your legs.
- Close your eyes and watch the speed and depth of your natural breath.
- Now breathe deeply and focus on your mantra or affirmation.
- Hang the first mala bead gently on the middle or ring finger of your right hand.
- Place your thumb on the guru bead and begin reciting your mantra.
- At the end of the mantra push the mala bead away with your thumb and move onto the next bead for another round. Continue until you reach a count on 7, 21, 27, or 108.
- If you wish to do another round of mantras or affirmations, do not skip over the guru bead. Instead, turn the mala around and move in the opposite direction.
Benefits of Using Malas for Meditation
- First and foremost malas are tools mainly for two things: to keep count and to help you to concentrate. You can either use the beads to keep count of the mantra you are chanting or your breath. The point of counting is to know when to come to a stopping point. You might only have 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes of free time so you chant a mantra 7, 21, 27 or 108 times, depending on the length of the mantra. For example chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” 108 times takes 2-3 minutes for most people and chanting the compassion mantra 21 times takes about 20 minutes. So the counting acts like a timer to guide you.
- Sitting still, calm and focused is generally hard for most people so the mala and the mantra are essential tools that you can use to achieve better attention, focus and enhanced self-awareness.
- The beautiful gemstone necklaces hold a special significance for the wearer/user depending on where they come from, the power imbibed into them and the gemstones used. All in all you feel and experience an energy resonance while holding the beads and this increases over time as you wear and use them for meditation and prayer.
- The usual way to use a mala is to track a mantra meditation. The repetition of a single sound, for example “om” or “Om Mani Padme Hum” or any other mantra is deeply transformative.
- Meditating with a mala helps to calm the mind, regulate blood pressure, deepen and slow down the breath and redirect the focus of the mind towards positive spiritual patterns. With a nice break from daily worries you come out of meditation with a better mood.
- Chanting gives you that focus and concentration on the words you are repeating and, by constantly hearing the words and furthering your understanding of them, a spark might go off and an “Aha!” moment might arise.
Choosing a Mala
One way to choose a mala is to use your intuition. So if you are shopping around and a particular mala attracts you it is the right mala for you right now.
Another way is to set an intention for your yoga/meditation practice then find a mala with the right gemstone. For example, if you find it difficult to stick to tasks, decisions or relationships, onyx will help you to stay grounded in your choices. Then you can see your decisions through or you can commit better to a relationship.
A third way to choose a mala is through color. Each color is associated with a certain range of frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum. That means each color will benefit you in a certain way. If you are working on your chakras, then you definitely will want to choose according to color. You have a problem telling the truth or speaking clearly? Then choose a mala made with blue gemstones, such as amazonite. After meditation wear your mala as a necklace all day and it will help you to open the throat chakra. In the same way if you have trouble giving or receiving love, then buy a mala made with rose quartz. As you wear it daily it will open your heart chakra.
Quality of Mala Beads
Quality matters when you buy a mala because you want it to last a long time and withstand use on and off the mat. The string that the beads are strung on must be premium thread or good quality wire (that has passed the 30lb test). When you buy a gemstone mala, look for beads that are A or B or C grade because those are high quality gemstones. Check the method of knotting as well to make sure that it is a good finish and that the piece will last you a long time. Ask the seller if he/she stands behind the product because they should be willing to restring your mala if it breaks too soon. Make sure that the mala comes in a natural fabric bag (cotton, linen, silk or velvet) that you can use for storing when the mala beads are not in use. If not then get that bag yourself separately.
Mala beads are beautiful to wear, they can be healing if they are made with the right gemstones and they enhance your meditation by focusing the mind on the mantra. Browse our store to find the right mala beads for you. You will benefit from them to the full!
Authored by Sipiwe Mashingaidze
Sipiwe Mashingaidze is the author of a number of books on holistic health and spirituality. She became interested in holistic health when she developed recurring health problems in her 30s and 40s that doctors could not eliminate. She only managed to eliminate her symptoms completely in 2008 when she did her own research and changed her diet. That is when she decided to write her first book. You can link with her on Facebook or visit her website here. If you would like to write an article for our blog, please read our guest posting guidelines.