What Mala beads can bring to your meditation practice

Lockdown 2020 and I’m sat in what has become a familiar spot – on my yoga mat in front of my laptop.  I hold the Mala beads aloft in my right hand, and feel their cool, calming shape pass across my finger as I guide each one with my thumb, as instructed by our online teacher this evening.  Om Gum Ganapataye Namah I repeat over and over, the rhythmic movement of each bead tracing each repetition of the mantra.  Coordinating the movement of my tongue, as it wrestles with these hitherto unfamiliar Sanskrit words, with the dexterity of my thumb and finger manipulating the beads, is all consuming and there is little room for the bombardment of thoughts that usually visit me during meditation.  As I finish, 108 beads and repetitions later, a connection must have been formed between me and my newly acquired Mala, because it soon becomes a regular companion for my practice.  And unbeknownst to me then, in just a few months’ time from our introduction, these beads will join me in the labour suite as I look to anchor myself during the prelude to my son’s arrival into the world.


Mala is Sanskrit for garland, and the Mala is a string of beads threaded together to form either a necklace or bracelet.  A full Mala has 108 beads, or 109 including the Guru (teacher) bead.  Not counted in practice, this bead, also referred to as Sumera or Meru (mountain), and sometimes larger than the others or additionally demarcated with a tassel or disc, provides a marker for the start and end of meditation.  For in essence the Mala is counting device, a means to keep track of your practice from an age before stopwatches or smartphone timers.  With one repetition of mantra, or one breath per bead, one makes the journey around the Mala, from Guru bead and back again.

The number 108 is selected as the number of beads and therefore repetitions, due to its numerological and spiritual associations.  What can be thought of as a miniature Mala, the Sumirani – translated as ‘that which reminds us’ – has a quarter of this number of beads.  Worn as a bracelet, it can be used, as its name suggests, as a prompt for mindfulness throughout the day.

Whether Mala or Sumirani, the beads themselves can be made from a range of different materials.  Traditionally, simple materials, such as bone or wood would be used, with Indian Malas tending to be made from the latter, with the particular type used said to provide different qualities.  For example, according to Swami Nishchalananda, red sandalwood calms the emotions, white sandalwood brings peace and harmony, tulsi awakens devotion and rudraksha encourages non-attachment.  More recently, the beads might be made from crystals, bringing to the Mala the specific qualities associated with the particular gemstone used.

As Rolf Sovik writes though, ‘the material of the Mala is far less important than the sincerity and one pointedness with which you practice.’  It is suggested by Timothy Burgin that one way to empower your Mala is to complete an unbroken run of 40 days of practice, with the energy created becoming infused in the beads.


It’s dark in the birthing room at the hospital, save for electronically projected stars and the dim lighting of battery powered candles.  Now, instead of only thoughts taking me from my practice, it’s also the physical sensations of early labour that threaten to carry me away. The Mala beads provide me with an anchor, by now having been used so much since the online workshop, that their presence in my hand evokes familiarity with the feeling-tones of breath, peace, home.  I lose track of how many journeys I make from Guru bead and back, over and over.  As the urgency of my labour increases and the calming presence of the beads is replaced by the harsh, bright lights of medical intervention, I can’t pinpoint at what point my Mala becomes stowed back in its silk bag in the safety of my hospital holdall, just as, one five-day hospital stay later, I can’t remember the act of transferring them from there to their normal resting place on my bedroom shelf.  Although I flirt with their use during the early days of life with a newborn, holding them from time to time as I watch over my sleeping son, it will only be 19 months later that they’ll be picked up once more with true regularity.  Perhaps, like so much after birth, they needed time, for whatever energy they were holding onto from that night to be dispersed.


As with much of yoga, there are differing guidelines on how to use the Mala, depending on the particular source or school of teaching.

Traditionally, they are held in the right hand, suspended from the ring finger, and it is the middle finger or thumb that moves the Mala towards you, bead by bead.  The index and little fingers are unused and held away from the beads.  An easier hold is to drape the Mala over the last three fingers and move each bead with the thumb.

Practice, whether mantra recitation or breath-focused meditation, is started at the Guru bead.  Each bead is moved with each repetition of mantra or with each breath, until the Guru bead is reached once more.  If practicing multiple rounds, the Guru bead is not crossed; instead the direction around the Mala or Sumirani is reversed as the practice continues.

As teacher Julie Hemmings writes, ‘The action of counting and moving the beads methodically through the fingers also adds an element of attention and awareness – an additional layer to help to focus the mind.’


A dimly lit room once more, but this time it’s my bedroom at home.  My son, now a toddler, is not long asleep and I am struck by a number of options available to me in this moment, opportunities which haven’t been accessible during another long day of mothering.  Such a small window of potential time, before the likely broken night.  Meditation feels low down on my list of desires right now, but more than that, I sense my restlessness and know it will be both uncomfortable and difficult to sit and return my awareness to my breath, over and over.  It’s this avoidance of discomfort that has taken me from my usual practice these last few weeks, but now there’s a competing itch that won’t be ignored – the discord of the passion with which I spoke about meditation with Mala beads when I taught earlier this week, with my non-practicing.   And so it is that I find myself walking towards the bedroom shelf, and reach for my Mala.

© Catherine Rolfe Yoga 2022

Bibliography and further resources

Mala Beads – What they are and How to use them (divineworks.co.uk) (Special shout out to Julie Hemmings who wrote this excellent piece on Mala beads – it was Julie’s fabulous British Wheel of Yoga workshop that introduced me to the Mala.  Much gratitude Julie).

Buddhist Malas: What’s New and What’s Ancient? – Tricycle

Using Mala Beads to Deepen Your Yoga Practice • Yoga Basics

String of Pearls: How to Use a Mala (yogainternational.com)

How to Use Mala Beads in Meditation – Yoga Journal