Malas are a great tool in Mantra Yoga. They help you keep count of your repetitions. But that’s not all, there is a lot associated with malas, with their care and upkeep and their significance in your practice.
A mala is a string of 108 beads of either wood, seeds, pearls or semi-precious / precious stones. It has a 109 th bead which is called the Meru bead which sits at the head of the mala. It is said to be that bead that retains all the energy of your practice.
The history of malas or prayer beads is a long and elaborate one. Most of the main religions in our world use prayer beads – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
The first mention of malas seems to be around 800 B.C.E. They first originated in India and were used as a counter as they didn’t have clocks back then. Keeping count is of utmost importance in Japa yoga, as there are certain levels you can attain by the number of repetitions you complete.
The rosary – the catholic churches version of the mala – a half mala having 54 beads – came into being sometime between the 12th and the 15th century. The name rosary came from the Sanskrit word ‘japa’ – the practice of reciting Mantras. ‘Japa’ in Sanskrit means ‘china rose’.
When using a mala, it is important to never cross the Meru bead. It’s an old custom. The Meru bead is supposed to symbolize either Buddha Nature, the Guru principle, or the Divine. To show our respect, we turn around and go the other way. In this way we never touch the Meru bead and in time a great energy builds up in the bead. This is why the best malas are all made of natural substances like wood, seed, pearl or semi-precious stones which can hold the energy.
Another important point to note, is that it is vital you don’t touch the beads with your second finger – the one you point with – as this finger is considered the ego finger. So we just hold that one away while we turn the beads with our thumb while the beads rest on our third finger.
It is also advised not to let anyone else touch your mala – as your energy is stored in the beads. It should never be left on the floor, stepped on or over and it is helpful if you keep them on your puja or somewhere special when you are not using or wearing them.
It is said that when a mala breaks that you have burnt off some of your karma by your practice. It is looked upon as something to be celebrated.
For some buddhists, the broken mala symbolizes a spiritual breakthrough, because the many 108 different possible reasons to suffer are what chain us/keep us here into constant re-incarnation…. the breaking of a Mala can be interpreted as a spiritual breakthrough because it is directly symbolic in the breaking of the cycle of the 108 different sufferings.They believe that when your mala breaks you have learned something. You've made progress and now it's time to move on to the next step.
Tibetan monk said: if a bead of a mala breaks it means that it's protecting you...it's doing it's job! It means that it was energized/blessed enough that it has the power of deflecting you from negative energy. It's supposed to be a good sign, so don't worry about it. If you still have the broken bead, keep it! Place it on your altar. Keep using/wearing the mala. It means that it's "alive!" Give it the respect it deserves.
It should also be a sign of impermanence...never forget that.