We teamed up with Alison Smith, a Chopra Center Certified Meditation Instructor, to help you learn more about the history + components of mala beads and how to use them for meditation. Keep reading for more info, and tune into her guided meditation below.
Mala necklaces can be found around the necks of gurus deep in the Ashrams of India, as well as worn by your local yogi down the street at the newest coffee shop. So what is the purpose and spiritual significance of these necklaces? They’re much more than a physical representation of spiritual dedication or a pretty piece of jewelry: They’re an ancient tool that’s been used for more than 5,000 years to help focus the mind and enliven the spirit during a meditation practice.
Before we cover how to use your mala beads for meditation, let's begin with a little background about what they are and how to use them:
Cleansing your mala
When you first receive or make a new mala, it is simply a string of beads or piece of jewelry; it has yet to take on the identity of a spiritual tool. Take this opportunity to set the string of beads under the sun or full moon for a few hours, or use whatever process you’re familiar with to cleanse your gemstones or other spiritually enlivened items. After cleansing, your mala is now ripe to be set with intention and start working for you.
About the guru bead
Used in conjunction with a mantra, a mala is composed of 108 beads and typically worn around the neck. Malas can also be found in 54-bead or 27-bead varieties, and are used for meditation when the meditator plans to recite a longer mantra.
Malas are made of four different components: beads, a cord, a tassel and what is known as a guru bead. In Sanskrit, the word “guru” translates to “bringer of light,” and having a guru bead as a part of mala honors the relationship between student and teacher. When using a mala for meditative purposes, you should never skip over the “guru” bead out of respect for the student/teacher relationship.
What is a mantra?
In Sanskrit, mantra roughly translates to “vehicle of the mind.” It’s a personal motto or spoken invocation used to set an intention and focus the mind to access higher states of consciousness. You can recite your mantra out loud or silently to yourself. However, when you keep the sound inward and silent, it is typically more effective in moving you through the higher states of consciousness.
Mantras can be completely of your own choosing and recited in their ancient Sanskrit form, or you could simply choose one word or phrase that represents what you would like to manifest in your life. Each Mala and Mantra piece also comes with a suggested mantra that you can use for meditation with a particular mala. The choice of mantra is completely yours, however, and there is no right or wrong mantra to choose. The mantra that you choose for a particular mala is going be the energy the beads become spiritually enlivened with, and you will continue to use the same mantra for the same set of beads.
How to meditate with your mala
When beginning your meditation practice, take a seat in your preferred meditation location and settle into a comfortable position. Hold your freshly cleansed mala gently in your right hand between your thumb and middle finger. Do not use your first (pointer) finger; this finger is representative of the ego, and the ego is the biggest hindrance between yourself and enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.
You will never use your left hand to count mantras, as the left hand is considered impure. Be sure that when you hold your mala, you do not let it touch your feet or the ground. It is a sacred object and, from this point forward, should be treated as one with proper, ancient etiquette.
Japa is a Sanskrit word that translates to “repetition”, so if you hear the term “japa mala," it simply means a mala used for mantra meditation purposes. Start your mantra repetition, or japa, to the right of the guru bead. The thumb of the right hand uses a pulling motion, pulling the bead toward you as you repeat the mantra rather than pushing the bead away. The thumb moves the beads so the mala rotates in a clockwise direction—again, not passing over the guru bead.
As you work around the mala, you’ll repeat the mantra 108 times and know you have reached the end of the mala when your fingers feel the large guru bead. It is at this time you would stop, flip the mala over and start again from the right side, so as not to cross the guru.
As you continue to use your mala for meditation purposes, the beads become spiritually and energetically enlivened with the mantra you have chosen for them. It is your personal choice if you choose to let other people touch your mala, but it is believed that people can pass their energy onto your spiritual tool if you choose to let this happen.
Typically, when not in use, a mala is kept on a meditation alter, in a bag of no specific type of fabric or around the neck. When wearing a spiritually enlivened mala, the user would wear the beads under the clothing and directly against the skin so as to absorb as much of the energetic energy from the beads as possible.
About Alison Smith
Alison Smith is a Chopra Center Certified Meditation Instructor with expertise in Primordial Sound Meditation and a deep knowledge of ancient Indian Ayurvedic healing modalities. As a full-time staff member of the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, CA for over three years, Alison has been educated and trained by some of the most highly esteemed Vedic scholars in the world today, including Deepak Chopra himself.