Everything You Need to Know About Malas

Mala beads, prayer beads, worry beads, rosaries. All of these make up a set of spiritual tools the date back to 8th century India, which has found their way into many of the world’s traditions of prayer, meditation, and reflection. The thing about mala beads is that most people know little about them. Most people recognize them as something carried by Buddhist monks or worn around the necks and wrists of yogis and yoga practitioners. But do you know why? And do you know how they can be beneficial for you in your practice?

The origins of some of the different beads are highly debated, and much of the history of mala beads seems to have a lot of variations to it depending on who you talk to. What I’ll pass on here is what I’ve learned and been taught along with the more practical how-to info that can be helpful if you want to give them a go yourself.

I asked on Facebook and Twitter for people to share their questions about mala beads so throughout this post I’ll be answering some of those questions.

 

Let’s start with some terminology…

Mala – Sanskrit for “garland”
Japa – Sanskrit for “repetition”
Mala Beads – a string of 27, 54, or 108 beads used for meditation or intention setting
Japa Practice – the meditative practice of reciting mantras or affirmations, often with the use of mala beads
Japa Mala – prayer beads used for mantra and prayer practice

I’ve been collecting mala beads for some years. When I was little and attending catechism classes, I really liked praying the rosary, and I liked the beads themselves. Even at the age of 8 I had a connection to this type of prayer practice and it turned out to be one of the few things in my loose Catholic upbringing that I ever felt connected to or comfortable with. During my early stages of studying Wicca, I liked things like knot spells where you would use knots on a string as markers for prayers and intentions. Later when I was in college and expanding the scope of spiritual understanding, I discovered japa practice and soon started to take an interest in mala beads.

A big box of malas. Each one is kept in a small bag with a card explaining it’s intention, what it’s made of {since a lot of them have crystals and gemstones} and what I last worked with them.

This is an example of one of my many malas that can be worn as jewelry. To most people, it just looks like an unassuming, pretty necklace but with the stones and the intentions it’s empowered with it serves as a spiritual tool and reminder.

 

The way that I found some people would try to use them in Wicca and Witchcraft while trying to call what they were doing something other than just prayer always felt weird to me {“I’m not praying I’m casting a spell by chanting what I want.”}. Personally, I feel like traditional japa practice, and uses of mala beads have little to do with Witchcraft but have a lot to do with devotional work, so in that way, they can easily be adapted to Pagan traditions.

 

What are they really used for, you ask?

Mala beads serve as a tactile reminder during meditation and chanting. In many Eastern traditions chanting and prayer is done in certain numbers. By running the beads through your fingers as you chant you’re able to keep track of how many times you have chanted or prayer to a specific deity, for example. If you needed to do more than one round of prayers on your mala beads a bowl of rice would be kept on and each time you made a pass through your beads a grain of rice would be removed from the bowl. You would keep praying the beads until the rice bowl was empty.

Today a lot of people use them in prayer and meditation because it helps to calm the “monkey mind” that many people have to combat in meditation. While some people can easily is down and quiet the mind to focus for meditation, many others can’t. So having the beads to keep the mind and hands busy can help with keeping focus.

They also help us to remember to breathe during our meditations. If you’re not chanting, and your goal is to just focus and clear the mind you can use them to track your breath by inhaling with one bead and exhaling as you move to the next and so on.

Traditionally they would be used for the reciting of prayers for a specific intention, the names of a deity, of a mantra given to you by a teacher or guru. They they are used for all kinds of purposes, mostly revolving around intention setting {we’ll get to that in a minute}.

 

108 beads + 1

The most common of mala bead configurations is the 108 bead mala. But in truth the beads are 109 beads. The 109th bead is called the guru bead or meru bead {meru meaning “mountain”}. This is the center bead which can vary greatly from mala to mala and tradition to tradition. Some use a specific style of bead with a tassel hanging off it, often with the tassel color either representing a specific deity or intention. In other configurations of beads the guru bead may be a specific type of gemstone which would signify the intention and purpose of the mala beads.

 

This mala is made with rudraksha beads. There are also onxy and pearl beads with the guru stone being pyrite. This mala holds the intention of protection. I’ve also used it for prosperity because of the association of pyrite and money.

 

The guru bead is a very important bead since it represents either your own guru or teacher, your deity, or your Higher Self {all depending on your tradition and views} along with your intention. When praying with your mala you never cross over your guru bead. When you start your meditation you start at the first bead to the right of the guru bead. You then go through all the beads until you get to the last bead before your guru bead. You can stop there, hold your guru bead and say a prayer to your deity, say a prayer for your teacher, or set an intention and then stop your meditation.

In some traditions it’s common practice to do a second round to bring you back to the point where you started your meditations. If you were going to do this you would turn your mala so that the last bead is now on the right again. It’s basically a flip; so if your thumb is holding the underside of the last bead to the left of the guru bead you would turn the beads over so your thumb was now on top. This puts what was the last bead as the first bead again and you’re now working the beads from the other side. It’s a little confusing until you try it or see it done.

Some malas can have a different number of beads; the two other common configurations are 27 and 56. These often make up a type of mala called a wrist mala.

 

Reader Question
How do you hold them? Is there a specific way that’s supposed to be done?

 

There is a traditional way to hold them. The beads are held in the right hand as the left hand is seen as impure in some traditions {you could also think of things like “left hand path” as being a possible factor in deciding which hand to use}. The beads are held and worked through the thumb and the middle finger. The index finger is extended and never touches the mala beads. The index finger is related to the ego, something which ideally is kept out of prayer, meditation, and devotional work. To move through the beads the thumb lightly pulls each bead through or over the middle finger with each prayer, affirmation, or mantra that is recited.

 

When you hold your mala extend the index finger and use your index finger to rest the beads on and gently pull them with your thumb. Always start with the first bead to the right of your guru stone.

 

 Beads and Seeds

The materials that make up a set of mala beads set the intention of what the beads will be used for. It’s not uncommon for an avid japa mala practitioner to have different sets of mala beads for different intentions. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you how many sets I have, but they each do carry their own energy and intention. We’ll talk about how a set of mala beads are traditionally empowered, but first you have to pick out your beads!

The beads or seeds that make up your mala will help with setting your intention. Pick something that resonates with the purpose of your work and the energy and intention that you wish to draw into your life.

 

Common Materials

This is a mala I often carry in my pocket. It’s made with copper and sesame jasper.

 

Rudraksha – Rudra means “Lord Shiva” and Aksha means “teardrops”, making Rudraksha “Tears of Lord Shiva”. It is said that Lord Shiva went into a deep trance meditation for the well-being of all living creatures of the earth and when he finished and opened his eye tears fell to the earth. These tears were in the form of seeds which grew to trees, later being called the Rudraksha tree. The seeds used for mala beads are the dry seed capsules of this tree. This makes rudraksha malas sacred to Shiva but also helps in healing the heart center and balancing the chakras, promoting inner peace, as well as granting knowledge, power, and enlightenment. This is one of the most popular and traditional materials used for making mala beads.

Sandalwood – an aromatic wood that is very calming and soothing, helps to promote humility and the ability to focus the mind for meditation. Sandalwood beads are not cheap and are becoming harder and harder to source. Be cautious of sandalwood malas that are sold cheaply; many times these are not true sandalwood beads and are simply another type of wood that has been treated with sandalwood oil or perfume to give it the sandalwood scent.

Rosewood – actually red sandalwood, these are sacred to Lord Ganesh and are used for work to remove obstacles, protect from negativity, and healing work that involved the blood and circulation; carries a very warm and protective energy.

Lotus Seeds – used for work involving spiritual growth and the ability to rise above obstacles, especially while on the path to spiritual enlightenment.

Bodhi seed – seeds from the Bodhi tree; these represent the Buddha’s enlightenment which was attained while sitting under a Bodhi tree; represents spiritual promise, dedication, and faith.

Gemstones – like selecting crystals or gemstones for any kind of work, use the color and properties of the specific stone to help in picking out the best one for your intention.

 

This is my 27 bead Bodhi tree seed wrist mala. It’s far too big for my tiny wrists so when I feel the need for it I carry it in my pocket, but I always have it in a bag in my purse.

 

Guru Stones
Some malas will be made of one of the woods or seeds listed above but will have guru stones made of a specific gemstone rather than a tassel or larger bead of the same material. With these kinds of malas, pick one with a crystal or gemstone that resonates with your main intention or that is sacred to the deity you are working with. When it comes to tassels, the color can vary, which provides you with an opportunity to pick out a mala with a tassel color that resonates with your intention.

 

Reader Question
What prayers, chants, mantras, or affirmations should I use with a set of mala beads?

This question came from a few different readers and it’s a good one! It’s also a very personal one. If you were working with a guru or teacher they would traditionally give you a mantra to use in order to help empower you on your journey. Your mantra would change over time as you grow spiritually. Most people don’t have a guru or teacher working with them, they just know what they are looking to bring into their lives, so really you are open to picking whatever words or phrases you feel will be most beneficial for you and fitting to your chosen mala.

The use of affirmations like “I am wise”, “I am strong”, “I am powerful”, and so on is more of a modern practice. Traditionally the japa practice would be to honor a deity or to help with self-realization process. When you’re not working in a traditional practice you are more free to do what you wish. I personally use affirmations, deity names, and the occasional traditional mantra, like Om Mani Padme Hum. There is no real hard and fast rule of what to use if you aren’t holding to a specific traditional practice or working with a teacher.

 

Traditional Empowerment of a Mala

Empowering a mala can be done in different ways depending on your preferences, your traditions, and your practices. There is a really simple and wonderful way that is traditionally used in Buddhist traditions for empowering a mala.

Once your mala and your intention is chosen you decide on your prayer, mantra, or affirmation that will be used with it. In order to charge your mala with this specific intention you would use your chosen mantra or affirmation every day for 40 consecutive days on the same mala. As of the 41st day the mala is considered charged with your specific intention and can then be worn or carried like a talisman to radiant and attract this specific energy.

Once a set of mala beads is charged with a specific mantra, if a different mantra is used with them, that original energy it is charged with is “erased” or “reset”. This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have different malas for different intentions since each set will work with one specific thing.

 

A set of my rudraksha beads that have long been empowered for meditation are draped over a Buddha on my yoga altar.

 

 

Reader Question
What should I do with my mala when I’m not using it? What’s the best way to store it?

An empowered mala is often kept in a sacred place when it’s not being used, worn, or carried. Many people will place them around the neck of a Buddha statue or the statue of another deity that they may be working with or whom the beads are dedicated to. You can also keep them in a special box or cloth bag and keep that on your altar or in another sacred space. These are sacred tools, so like any other sacred or magickal tool it should be cared for with respect.

 

Reader Question
What are your thoughts on wearing malas as jewelry?

Wearing malas as jewelry is one of the ways to draw on its power outside of prayer and meditation. I love wearing my malas as jewelry because they serve as a constant, sacred reminder of a specific intention that I have set. But again, they are sacred tools, even if they are being worn as jewelry, and should be treated like any other kind of magickal or sacred jewelry. Just like you might not let people grab at your pentacle necklace or the crystals you wear outwardly as jewelry, don’t let people start grabbing for your mala beads. People will be drawn to your beads if you wear them as jewelry because, for most people, they will be quite unusual. They’ll be all the more curious if you are wearing a mala that has genstones on it as well. As long as you’re treating your mala as sacred and you’re keeping in mind the real purpose of it, there’s not problem with wearing it like jewelry.

 

Reader Question
What’s the best way to care for a mala? Do they need to be smudge or cleansed?

Like an other tool that will be used for prayer, energy work, and sacred practice you will find over time that it needs a little refreshing and cleansing. If you are wearing your mala out and people touch it a good deal, you’ll want to cleans it. Using a singing bowl and using vibration to do the cleansing is my preferred method, especially if there are gemstones involved in the mala. This resets the dominant oscillatory rate of the stones back to their natural DOR, making them as energetically pure as possible. For woods and seeds you can use the same method or you can use smudge or incense as well.

In general be mindful of how you use and wear your mala. Don’t wear it in the shower or bath or when you go swimming. Don’t wear it when you sleep, and if you’re going to be doing any heavy physical activity like exercise or yoga, either take it off {which is idea} or make sure that it is securely tucked into a shirt or wrapped around your wrist. I know a lot of people like to wear their mala while doing yoga, which is fine, but it depends on how rigorous your yoga routine is. Even wrapped around your wrist, if too light, you can easily snap the string your beads are on while doing any positions that have you flexing your wrists and putting weight on your hands.

 

The mala I was wearing today as I worked on this post…made with garnet, blue sponge coral, and sandalwood beads for diving into that ocean of creative dreams and catching something awesome!

 

If you’re curious about where to get some of these beautiful malas, visit my two favorite places online for gemstone malas that can be worn as jewelry:


Want to grab a cool free ebook on mala beads and mantras?


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  • nada
    April 22, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for your great informations! I have a question, can we wear two different malas at the same time? With love ❤

    • Jess Carlson
      April 22, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      I would say that if you’re wearing more than one there should be solid reason. I also think that it’s best to wear two malas together that compliment each other. Work on one intention or with one energy at a time, but if you have two malas that draw on that same type of energy and you want to wear both that’s OK.

  • Sondra
    September 13, 2015 at 5:49 am

    Can I wear my Mala prior to being fully charged? And can I meditate with it more than once a day?

    • Jess Carlson
      September 14, 2015 at 12:55 pm

      You can absolutely meditate with your mala more than once a day. When ti comes to wearing it, personally I think it wearing it while you’re in the charging phase of your mala actually helps. Some people would say otherwise but I think if you feel drawn to wear it and have it with your all the time while you’re charging and consecrating it, go for it.

  • Jack
    October 27, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Very interesting !

    A very close friend made a Japamala for me, to be more precise a Wrist Japamala, since then I have been meditating constantly with it and I have found myself calmer and more aware of my surroundings, interesting is that a lot of people began to reach me for advices or just so that I could hear them out, they all implied that I pass this positive energy and that I always have wise words to share, though I really do not believe I posses the words, they posses me, and I say nothing they already do not know but perhaps are just slightly blind to see.
    Makes me wonder that due to all the positivity and good energies I emit to the universe while meditating is coming back at me and attracting those who are on the same path but sometimes just a little confused.
    I am far from being good to deserve all of the blessings, but since meditation entered my life, I have become more grateful for all the destroys and creates me.

    Great job with the website, you are definitely contributing in positive ways !

    Peace!

  • Debi
    November 4, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Hello…!
    Can i use two different rosary at a time for two different beej mantra…. ?

  • Barbara
    June 10, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    what do i do if i found a mala??

    • Jess Carlson
      June 10, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      What do you mean you “found a mala”? Like you just randomly found one in your possession or you happened to find you like that you want to purchase and use?

      • Barbara
        June 30, 2016 at 1:50 pm

        I found one in a bathroom @ a grocery store

      • Barbara
        June 30, 2016 at 1:52 pm

        I left it at the store with mgmt for 30 days. No one claimed it. I now have it.
        At first I kept it for a few days, and I did not feel right about it so I returned it to the ‘lost/found’ at the store. (w/my name attached to it). After 21 days no one claimed it.

  • Nicole M
    June 30, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Lovely article and very helpful. Can I wear more than one mala at once? I have 3 and would like to but I am not sure if that is alright.

  • Deanna
    August 29, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Does it matter what wrist to wear my malas? I heard left for buddhism reasons (not sure exactly) also I heard that wear them on your left to receive positive energy and right to give positive energy??

    • Jess Carlson
      August 29, 2016 at 2:27 pm

      It really doesn’t matter what wrist you wear it on unless you subscribe to a spiritual tradition that dictates a specific designation for each wrist. Outside of Buddhism, in more of a magickal context, the hand/arm you write with is considered your “power arm,” the arm that projects energy. Your other hand/arm is your “receptive arm,” the one that receives energy. You can choose which wrist to wear your mala on depending on if you are looking to project and energy or receive and energy. Or you can simply wear it on the arm that feels right for you.

  • Heidi
    September 23, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Hi! Is there a way to “keep track” of where you are? I am likely to be interrupted by my son or other things, even if I choose my time wisely. If I set it down, how do I know where I left off? Aren’t there some malas that have “spacers” or something? And if so, how would I use them? Thank you SO much for your assistance! This has been the most helpful writing I’ve found on maps beads yet! 😃

    • Heidi
      September 23, 2016 at 9:27 am

      Maps = mala. Auto correct. Mrrrr!

    • Jess Carlson
      September 23, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      The best ways to see where I am are to follow me on Instagram, because I’m there pretty much every day, and of course signing up for my newsletter, which I currently send pretty minimally. I’m getting ready to move in a few weeks so I’m not around too much right now but by late October I should be back in the swing of more regular blogging and I’ll be on Periscope once again. 🙂

  • ཨོ་རྒྱེན་ཙུལ་ཁྲིམས།།
    October 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    First, sorry for my bad english, the correct way to hold a mala, is with the left hand, no right

    • Jess Carlson
      October 9, 2016 at 5:17 pm

      It depends on the tradition that you’re talking about. In the Hindu tradition it’s done with the right hand because the left is considered impure.

  • Thomas
    November 4, 2016 at 8:36 am

    It was once suggested to me that because the tassel represents the connection to the divine, when worn around the neck, the tassel should be oriented upwards. Can you offer any additional insight?

    • Jess Carlson
      November 17, 2016 at 12:24 am

      I’ve never heard that the tassel has to be oriented upwards when worn necklace style. That might be the preference of the people you’ve talked to or the instructions of their specific tradition or practice. The tassel carries different meanings too depending on the tradition and region in the world. In some places the tassel is seen simply as ornamental so that when worn around the neck it has more of a decorative, traditional jewelry feel. And then of course you have tons of mala beads that don’t even use tassels at all. If you’re not working within a specific spiritual tradition that has a designated way to work with malas, I say go with your intuition and what feels right to you.

  • Crystal
    November 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Hi Thanks you so much for your wonderful article. I do need help and want to ask… My brother who is a Tibetan Buddhist passed away. I have always been a strong believer of his faith. I now have his beads and other things. Is it okay if I cleanse, program and use his old mala beads. They mean a lot to me and I am positive he’d like me to have them. I do still feel his presence around me guiding me throughout. Please let me know if it’s okay for me to use them or will it have any negativity. The energy on the mala beads is still very strong. I have recently cleansed & charged it under the full moon, programmed it with my intentions etc. I am just wondering if it is safe and okay if I use mala beads that aren’t mine to begin with?

    • Jess Carlson
      November 16, 2016 at 11:47 pm

      Hi Crystal,

      I’m sorry to hear about your brother, but how nice to have his spiritual tools as a way to remember him and stay connected! Well since you’ve already done this it doesn’t much matter does it? 🙂 I wouldn’t imagine there would be any negativity from having done this and then using them yourself. If you feel he would have wanted you to have them and you feel it’s OK to go forward, then use them. But if for some reason you start to feel like it’s not right or you feel a sense of hesitation to use them, I would stop and keep them as a memento of your brother and get a set of beads of your own to start out fresh with.

  • James
    January 25, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Lotus seeds come in many different colors. I found that the variations in color come during the time the seeds are picked. Do the color of the seeds matter on a mala?

    • Jess Carlson
      January 25, 2017 at 7:40 pm

      Hi James,

      Yeah, lotus seeds, like any natural supply for malas will have a lot of variation. Even rudraksha seeds vary in color. The difference in color doesn’t really matter IMO…lotus seeds are lotus seeds. But if you find one more energetically or visually appealing than another, get what you’re drawn to and use that.

      Good luck!

  • Isabel
    May 12, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Hi, what does it mean if my mala has 120 beads?

    • Jess Carlson
      May 12, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      Chances are you have a “fashion mala” rather than a “functional mala.” If you have something like what Tiny Devotions sells you may have something with more beads than traditionally used. If you want to still use it for meditation just skip the extra beads, which in yours might take the form of gemstones or crystal beads among the rest of the beads. I have some like what you’re talking about and that’s what I do when I choose to use one for meditation. The other thing is that you could simply wear it for its purpose of being a reminder of something you’re working toward or focusing on rather than one you actually meditate with. While I LOVE my many malas I have one specific and very special to me rudruksha mala with 108 beads that I keep at my altar and usually use for my mantra work.

  • Jessica Cowie
    June 8, 2017 at 11:44 am

    This was so informative! I just got my first mala and it is made of howlite. I was just immediately drawn to it and after I read about the healing properties of howlite I understood why I was drawn to it. I’m looking for a few more, specifically amethyst and rose quartz. I’m primarily interested in functional Malas but they’re each beautiful to wear as well. My question to you is. Why are some more expensive and some less expensive? I want to make sure I’m getting real amethyst and rose quartz but also don’t want to break the bank if not necessary. Any suggestions when purchasing online? So far I had a great experience with my howlite but that vendor does not off an amethyst or rose quartz mala right now. Another website is selling super expensive ones from Bali and saying that since they are blessed and have a special seed incorporated on them it makes them worth more. I’m very new to this. Any guidance would be much appreciated!

    • Jess Carlson
      June 8, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      Some companies selling malas that are very expensive are usually selling to a very specific demographic, primarily women with a healthy amount of disposable cash that want their mala to be a fashion statement more than a functional spiritual tool. That’s why you’ll find many of the companies that sell malas for hundreds of dollars sell their stuff in a place like Lululemon were a pair of practically see through leggings cost $90…when you could go to Target and get an almost identical pair for $15. But that said there is also the issue of materials. Some mala makers use very large guru stones made of materials that can be pricey depending on their quality. Sometimes when you’re paying $200 for a mala you actually ARE getting something of quality but more often than not, it’s just overpriced because you’re paying for the brand.

      Rose quartz and amethyst are not expensive stones. You shouldn’t be paying hundreds of dollars for a mala made of those materials. And frankly paying higher prices because a mala is supposedly blessed from a holy person of some kind from Bali is EXACTLY the kind of thing that companies selling expensive malas are hoping will get someone to pay more…and exactly what they think (and maybe rightly so) that the people with the money to pay for it want. As far as special seeds, I guess it depends on what the seed is. Most seeds used for malas aren’t terribly expensive though again quality and size can play a role.

      My recommendation when it comes to looking for something that you are looking for function over fashion is to avoid the “big names” and the expensive sites and look at smaller shops, artisan sites, and Etsy. For instance this mala (http://etsy.me/2sYGvut) is absolutely gorgeous and just under $50. And then you have this one (http://etsy.me/2sYCtT9) that’s more basic but also beautiful and cost friendly at just under $27. I would personally question the quality of ones that are like $3 a pop but I’d also question ones that are really high priced too.

      Set yourself a budget, decide what your ideal materials would be including what kind of guru marker you want (stone, seed, tassel, etc), and then decide what makes the mala functional for you. And also consider if you DO intend to wear it like sacred jewelry. There’s absolutely no shame in buying something that’s pretty as well as functional if you’re going to wear it and not just use it for meditation and then leave it on your altar.

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