The mind is certainly elusive and at times a challenge to focus during meditation. Here’s a beautiful technique that can help rein it in: the use of japa mala beads.
In brief, a japa mala is a string of beads traditionally used in Hinduism and Buddhism to keep count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating mantras while meditating. The Sanskrit word mala means “garland,” and japa “the practice of reciting mantras.”
Generally, malas have 19, 21, 27, 54, or 108 beads. The number 108 is considered significant in both Hinduism and Buddhism (for various reasons that could lend to a whole blog!). To find out more now, take a trip to Wikipedia. The numbers by which 108 are divisible are also auspicious, as are various prime numbers.
The beaded garlands can be made out of wood, crystal, glass, coral, seeds, and even bone. While certain materials are used for general purposes, such as those from the bodhi tree, others are only intended for specific practices. Every japa mala has a head bead, which is generally larger and/or has one to three smaller beads attached, as well at the knot that holds the mala together. This is called the “guru,” or teacher bead.
Today, we’ll explore how to use a japa mala for basic meditation. If you do not have mala beads, you can find them at yoga and spiritual centers, as well as on the Internet.
First, if you are new to meditation, I recommend reading this introduction to meditation article.
- Once you find a comfortable seat, hold the japa mala in your right hand, with the first bead above the “guru” bead resting between the thumb and the ring or middle finger. In many Eastern practices the index finger is associated with the ego, thus not advantageous to use on the mala. Let the index finger hover away from the beads.
- Take a moment to settle in. Familiarize with how the breath, body, and mind are feeling.
- Once you feel acclimated, slowly begin to move the mala clockwise as you breathe in and hold in place as you breathe out, or with each repetition of your mantra.
- What mantra to use? Something as simple as “In” and “Out” as you breathe can be sufficient. You can also repeat the universal symbol “Aum.” I often repeat “So Hum,” a mantra meaning “I am that.” If the mind wanders, which it will do, come back to the mantra and the rhythmic movement of the thumb over each bead.
- If you pass through all the beads, jump over the head of the “guru” bead (we don’t want to step on our teachers by skipping it and continuing on in the same direction (a method used in Buddhism), or turning the mala around in your hand and resuming in the opposite direction (a method used in Hinduism).
Good luck meditating! Find more tips for your practice here.
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.