Mālā beads and mantras

Mala (4)

Mala (3)Have you wondered about the beads on sale at the reception desk? They might look simply like jewellery (and they are really pretty to wear as a necklace or bracelet), but actually they have a deeper significance -- and they might even help you with your yoga practice! 

Rather than being jewellery as such, they are mālā beads (mālā means ‘garland’ in Sanskrit). A mālā is a bit like a Catholic rosary; it’s an aid to meditation by helping you count the number of repetitions of a mantra. Within a Yoga context, mantra repetition can be done as a spiritual or secular practice. Traditional Sanskrit mantras (like OM) are believed to have a particular vibrational quality in their sounds that is healing or spiritually uplifting. Secular mantras might be compared to positive affirmations, helping us grow in ourselves and achieve our goals. So whatever your practice and beliefs, mantra meditation might offer something to you.

A mālā usually has 108 beads (a sacred number in Hinduism) and a larger ‘guru bead’, or it might be shorter, often 27 beads (a quarter turn of a full mālā). Within the Hindu tradition you hold the mālā in your right hand starting at the guru bead, and you use the thumb to count each bead towards you as you repeat the mantra. You travel round the mālā, bead by bead, with each repetition, until you come back to the guru bead. If you want to continue reciting your mantra, you flip the mālā over or reverse the direction — you never cross the guru bead.

Mala (2)A mantra can be recited out loud, whispered quietly or just repeated silently in your head, depending on your preference or circumstances. Mantra repetition can, of course, be done without a mālā, but using these beads introduces a tactile dimension to the practice. It can act as a focal point, stopping the mind wandering too much, especially as the sounds become familiar and difficult to give full care and attention to. It’s a bit like focusing on the breath or dṛṣṭi during āsana practice. It helps keep our attention and from that allows us to cultivate concentration and inner stillness.

108 repetitions of a mantra might sound like a lot, but it needn’t take too long. While a full mālā of a longer mantra like the four-line Guru Mantra might take about half an hour, a shorter mantra like OM obviously can take less time. Whatever mantra or affirmation you choose, try to repeat it with full focus each time, bringing every bit of attention to it as though each repetition is the very first time. After some time of practice (weeks, month or years…) you might notice a different quality to the mantra, as new layers of meaning or resonance reveal themselves to you. Just as āsana practice changes over time, so too our meditation experiences deepen and become more subtle the longer we commit to our practice.

By Victoria Jackson

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