What is a Mala and Why 108 Beads?


Have you ever wondered why 108 is a number used in yoga sun salutations, classes and malas? I have posed the question many times with few answers. So I thought I’d research it myself.  Here’s some of what I found…

The number 108, discovered by ancient Vedic mathematicians to represent wholeness of existence, involves complex, mystical energies.

108 represents:

  • The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters.
  • According to yogic tradition, there are 108 pithas, or sacred sites, throughout India.
  • There are 108 Upanishads and 108 marma points, or sacred places of the body.
  • The sun’s diameter is 108 times the earth’s diameter.
  • The 12 zodiac signs multiplied by the 9 planets equal 108.
  • Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance of Lord Shiva has 108 poses.
  • The heart chakra contains 108 energy channels.
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps representing the 108 steps to enlightenment.
  • In Japan, at Zen Buddhist temples, a bell is chimed 108 times at the end of the year closing a cycle to serve as a reminder of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.

Malas are beaded strands consisting of 108 prayer beads. A mala is used for helping you focus and count as you repeat a mantra or prayer 108 times. The use of malas dates back thousands of years to 8th century B.C. in India when ancient sandstone sculptures depicted people praying with beads to Lord Shiva. The word mala is short for the Sanskrit “japamala,” with “japa” meaning recitation and “mala” meaning garland.

Working with a mala connects us with the mysterious powers listed above. In addition to their 108 small beads, malas contain a larger bead called the bindu or guru bead. This bead helps the practitioner feel where the strand begins and ends, thereby allowing her or him to focus attention on the mantra while keeping the eyes closed.

How to Use a Mala

According to Jen Stock  — a spiritually-inspired jewelry designer whose malas adorn the necks of many celebrities including Rihanna, Usher, and Heidi Klum — one should dangle the strand between the middle and index fingers of the right hand. Start at the guru bead, and use the thumb to advance each bead over the middle finger toward the body, chanting aloud or silently. (The index finger is avoided since it represents the ego).

When an entire circuit of the mala has been traversed, the practitioner turns the mala around and resumes chanting in the other direction. Working with a mala calms distractions and deepens meditation, and even one round on the mala serves as a rewarding component of sadhana.

How Mala Beads Are Made

For this answer I sought out a pro – Jen Stock. She writes:

Malas may be made from a variety of different materials. One of the most common is rudraksha, which is a seed of a sacred Himalayan tree connected with Lord Shiva.

It is said that Lord Shiva (also called Rudra) emerged from deep meditation and cried a tear (aksha) for humanity, which became a seed that blossomed into a tree. To derive the utmost benefit, a rudraksha mala should be worn directly touching the skin where it protects the aura, dissolves negative karma, and conveys health benefits.

Followers of Lord Krishna use a mala made from the wood from the tulsi plant. Some Buddhists use a mala made from yak bones or seeds from the Bodhi tree.

Semi-precious stone malas imbue the practitioner with the properties of the stones themselves. Ultimately, the perfect mala finds each practitioner, guiding him or her along the path, offering a reservoir of peace.

A spiritual object that accumulates energy from a practitioner’s devotion, a mala should be treated respectfully whether worn or placed on an altar and handled only by the one using it.

Like a gentle tool for introspection, a mala helps deepen the calling to turn within, allowing the practitioner to be one with the breath, the chant, and his/her practice.

YoGoGirls’ Favorite Mala Beads:

New Yorker, Jen Stock creates some of our favorite malas. Jen’s designs are vegan, which means no silks, leather or pearls are used, they’re cruelty-free and handmade by women in New York. Each piece of her jewelry is a symbol to be mindful in your day-to-day activities and to be aware of others and conscious of what you put out into the universe for your own well-being.

Come see Jen Stock pieces for yourself at her Mindful Jewelry Trunk Show at Lusso in Clayton near the Ritz-Carlton for a little Happy Hour Trunk Show April 12, 6-9pm.

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