Understanding Japa Mala Meditation

Dec 27, 2016 | Yoga

Mid 2011 I was first introduced to and taught the technique of Japa Mala meditation. The most common translation of the sanskrit word mala is garland. Japa meaning muttering, the method of this practice, is very simply the quiet or internal chanting of a mantra with the use of a string of “prayer beads”. 

The mala, which is essentially the same as rosary, is made up of 108 beads plus a single “guru” bead. They’re traditionally made from rudraksha (a sacred seed, representing the masculine or Shiva), clear quartz crystal (the feminine, or Shakti), rosewood, or sandalwood. The guru bead may be slightly larger in size (although certainly not always), or may have tassels attached (see image above). 

Mala beads used for meditation are not the same as those which have become a fashion statement.

Not that I’m against fashion malas in any way. But I do feel it’s essential to discern the difference. Japa mala beads are not generally showcased on display. Traditionally they’re worn underneath or inside one’s clothing, or contained separately in a small bag. 

This very kinaesthetic technique of meditation is really invaluable for those who are very busy mentally, who struggle to anchor the mind or refine their attention to a single point, or who feel consistently challenged slipping into a state of internal quiet. It is certainly an excellent starting point for beginners. 

Japa Mala meditation encourages pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal, leading us into a state of dharana – sustained concentration, where the mind holds steady on an anchor or focus. These states are the prelude to true meditation, called dhyana in Yoga philosophy.

To perform this meditative practice, traditionally the mala is held in the right hand only (even for you lefties!). It’s believed that this is due to the cultural traditions of India – where everything ‘hygienic’ is done with the right hand (like eating), and the left is saved for cleaning oneself after using the toilet! As pictured above, the mala is held draped over the third finger, avoiding the index finger, again for cultural reasons. The index finger is seen as the pointing and accusing finger (“it’s rude to point”). 

Begin with the guru bead placed just below your closed or sealed middle finger and thumb. The technique will begin on the first bead next to and above the guru bead. The mantra is recited very quietly, or internally in the mind, whilst holding the single bead (you can also roll or massage the bead between the middle finger and thumb to infuse it with your mantra and help focus the mind). Once a single round of the mantra has been chanted, use your thumb to gently push or move that bead downwards, so you can take hold of the next bead. At first this may seem fiddly and tricky, but it truly becomes very smooth with practice. You will master the art with your eyes closed eventually – it’s a true test for utilising the sense of touch very well!

Continue the technique along every bead, repeating your mantra once on each, until you reach the guru bead. You never chant on or pass over the guru bead. You may complete your practice here, after 108 rounds, or alternatively take a moment to pause and honour the guru before flipping the mala around to work along another cycle. Note – there is an art to flipping the mala, which is easy once practiced a few times, but it’s very difficult to explain without a visual aid! It’s a roll of the wrist to flip the garland to be in ‘reverse’ position.

Try not to anticipate the guru bead, and instead trust that your sense of touch will identify when it has come around.

You’re potentially now wondering about what mantra you should or could use for this meditation technique. It is customary that a teacher passes an appropriate mantra onto a student, through the relationship of guru-shishya-parampara – an unbroken lineage of teacher and student. In reality, this is not accessible for most. With that in mind, it is certainly ok to select a mantra that resonates for you, which you can comfortably pronounce and also understand the meaning. Do keep in mind, if selecting a mantra for yourself, the length of the mantra will have a notable impact on how much time it will take to get through 108 rounds. Your meditation could last for 15 minutes to 2 hours! When starting out it’s ideal to keep things short and simple.

Consistency is key – not perfection.

Some examples of good starting mantras: Om; Sat Nam; So Hum; Om Namo Narayani; Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya; Om Gum Ganapataye Namaha.

It is important to emphasise that doing the practice is the key here. Doing it regularly to reap the benefits of quietening the mind. Often we can get too hung up on finding the ‘perfect’ mala beads, or generating the ‘right’ mantra to chant. The mind is always looking for an excuse, and this is all the more reason why just getting started is the most important component of this technique. 

I hope this information has given you some inspiration, clarity, and insight into a very old form of meditation. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in a comment below. Or, if you’d like to share a little about your own experience with Japa Mala meditation I’d love to hear from you too! 

As a supplement, I spontaneously (i.e. unscripted and unrehearsed!!) filmed a video in June 2015 whilst in Bali which goes into similar detail about Japa Mala mantra meditation. You can see an example of flipping the mala should you wish to learn how to complete more than 108 rounds.

If you found this post helpful please share it onwards – because the world needs more meditators!

Grateful for your interest and your dedication to your own evolution,

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