Strings of beads used during prayer or meditation are an ancient and international tradition. In fact, the word “bead” actually means “prayer” in Middle English. Catholicism uses Rosary beads, Islam uses Subha and Tasbih beads, and Buddhism and Hinduism use Mala beads. In Yoga’s meditative practices, we also use strings of Mala beads.
Mala beads originated somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries. Used for keeping count during mantra chanting, Mala beads traditionally have 108 small round beads (usually between 7-10mm in diameter each) and one larger bead called the Guru bead. The guru bead is also called the Sumeru, Bindu, or Stupa. Beads are small so they allow easy finger manipulation, even when eyes are closed. Beads can be made of any material, but traditionally they are made of Rudraksha, lotus seeds, yak bone, Bodhi seeds, or wood. Gemstones are also used, harnessing their healing properties. Likewise, glass beads are often used for color therapy. In my kids’ classes, we sometimes make Knotta Malas by tying knots in string.
The practice of chanting a mantra or affirmation is called Japa, and it can be tricky. Keeping count of how many repetitions you make can easily lead you off your meditative path. That’s why Mala beads are so useful. To use the Mala beads, choose a mantra or affirmation that you’d like to focus on. Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and settle into your breath. Hang the first bead on your middle or ring finger of one hand. Place your thumb on the guru bead (the largest one) and begin reciting your mantra, either out-loud or in your mind. When you finish the mantra, push the bead away with your thumb and move onto the next bead for the next repetition of your mantra. It’s important to note that you never use your index finger when manipulating the Mala beads. Your pointer finger represents the ego, and your ego is one of the biggest impediments to meditation and peace. If you make it all the way around your Mala beads, it will be 108 mantra repetitions.
Mala beads, when not being used in meditation can be worn around the neck or wrapped around the wrist as jewelry. The idea is that every time you use your beads for meditation, they fill with the positive energy and when you wear them, you are reminded of your practice and the calm of meditation throughout the day. Use them in your free time in line at the grocery store, stopped at traffic lights, or as you settle into bed. Classroom teachers can pass them out before tests to calm nerves or to settle activity after lunch. Plus, they are really pretty!
Mala beads make a wonderful tactile tool to teach children about meditation and mindfulness. In the kids’ Yoga classes I teach, I always bring a bag full of Mardi Gras beads – you know the ones you can buy at the Dollar Store. No, they don’t have 108 beads. Nor do they have a Guru bead, but they do have the same kinesthetic properties traditional Mala beads have – they are like Mala training wheels! Pass them out and have kids try out a mantra practice. We like to use the mantra “Peace begins with me”. You could also just have your kids do one full breath per bead. Or, make up your own mantra specific to your class’ age and goals.
Using those Mardi Gras/Mala beads, you can play games, too. Have each child make a loop on the floor with her beads and try to blow pompoms into the circle (good pranayama practice). Or, working cooperatively, kids spread their bead strings along the floor to make a mandala. If you have a regular group of Yogis, they could be in charge of their own beads, so they could do “homework” and practice their mantras at home, remembering to bring their beads back to class the next time (be sure to have spares – you KNOW someone will forget their beads).
It’s also fun, and quite meaningful to the children, to make their own Mala beads. There are lots of tutorials online, but basically it is just string, beads, and nimble fingers to tie knots around each bead. You can make these beads as traditional or crazy as you’d like (Pink glittery beads? Sure! Basketball colored beads? You bet!). Strings of Mala beads also make a lovely homemade gift kids can give their parents for holidays or siblings/teachers/friends for birthdays or thank you’s.