What is a Mala?

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You’ve likely seen them wrapped around yogi wrists everywhere from Instagram
to the last yoga class you took. So, what’s the deal with those long beaded
bracelets everyone in the yoga community seems to be wearing? They’re called
mala beads and as it turns out, the modern yogi’s hottest accessory is also a
wearable mediation tool.

For those of you whose high school Spanish knowledge makes you think, “mala
= bad,” in Sanskrit, mala means garland. Malasana, everyone’s favorite hip-
opener, is also known as garland pose. Garlands, much like mala beads, wrap.
Etymology, baby!

Mala beads are prayer beads used by Buddhists and Hindus to keep track of
mantras either silently repeated or chanted. Much like the guided mediation you
may listen to, malas are another tool to aid you in cultivating a mind-body- spirit
connection through mediation. What’s a mantra? It’s a sacred phrase, believed
to have spiritual powers when repeated. Mantras, of course, are not to be
confused mottos, like “YOLO.”

Mala beads typically come with 108 beads anchored by a guru bead, a reminder
that we’re all students and we’re all teachers. A tassel stems from the guru bead,
representing each of the threads in the mala and our connection to each other
and the universe. Wait? 108? That seems arbitrary! That’s what I thought too, but
108 is a fascinating number with great astronomical, mathematical and
subsequent religious significance.

108 times the diameter of the sun is the distance between the earth and the sun.
The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the earth. The diameter of
the moon times 108 is the distance between the moon and the earth. 108 is
divisible by the sum of its digits. In Tibetan Buddhism there are 108 defilements,
or ways to flub up on your path to enlightenment. On the sunny side, Jainists
believe there are 108 virtues.

Although they’re now dangling from the necks of yogis everywhere (I even wear
mine on a night out sometimes), the original intention of the mala was private
mediation. Yogis would track the repetitions of their mantras on their mala beads
and then conceal their malas in their pockets. They’d touch the beads during the
day if they needed to be reminded of the intention of their daily meditation.

Maybe during your morning yoga practice or mediation your mantra was, “I am
present.” During your day, if you found yourself anxious for the future or dwelling
on the past, you could feel your mala beads, breathe and remind yourself to live
in the now. After all, as one of my favorite teachers says, “you can only enjoy
cake in the present and cake is great.” Even if you don’t use yours for mediation
every day, malas worn as jewelry are a nice reminder of the yoga lifestyle. So,
don’t feel like a poser wearing them; feel like a yoga poser instead!

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