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How to Work With Mālā & Mala


Dear Manorama,

Can you help me with the word mala? How it is used, as well as what does it mean when I hear the three malas, impurities?
Thank you always for your wisdom and graciousness.



Dear Vanessa,

Thanks for your question. The first word, mala, is a Sanskrit word written in transliteration as mālā. It is represented by a necklace made of a string of beads. You have likely seen them in the sandalwood form or in a more elaborate quartz crystal form or other colorful beads, as well. The name for this necklace is a mālā, which means a garland. Monks and yogis-in-training are given these by their teachers or they purchase them at a local yoga boutique. The word mālā has three meanings: 1. A tool used during the practice of Japa Mantra. 2. When the mālā is made of flowers it is used to honor a Yogic or Buddhist luminary. 3. As a necklace it’s used as a yoga fashion accessory.

As a tool for Japa Mantra, you need to hold the mālā beads in your right hand and cross each bead saying a specific mantra. You hold the mālā and as you traverse each bead you say a specific mantra. The full japa is 108 repetitions. This is not an article on how to work with Japa Mantra; (I will say more about this practice in a future blog).

The second usage of mālā is in the form of a garland of fresh flowers (generally carnations or roses), which gets placed over a Yogic or Buddhist luminary to offer respect or in celebration. On special occasions, students traditionally string a fresh mālā of flowers and place the mālā over their teacher’s head much like you see in Hawaii with the lei. The teacher or luminary will wear it for a time and then will either place it on his/her altar or will give it away as a blessing to a student. Generally, students will offer mālās on the day of Guru Purnima or their teacher’s incarnation day, to extend respect. It’s a very loving, colorful and fragrant practice. Not every school of Yoga practices this, but many do.

The third usage of this word listed above is mālā, as a fashion accessory. I don’t think you need me to go into this, but mālās look nice and have become associated with Yoga fashion in recent times.

Regarding your second question, the word mālā and mala are different. In the word mala, both syllables have a short ‘a’ and therefore pronounces differently from mālā. This word means dirt, impurity or stain. Depending on the context mala can mean the dirt or impurities that a yogini may want to work to clean or support coming into greater alignment. Additionally, the term ‘the three malas’ is a process described in Kashmir Shaivism. Going over it is too much for the scope of this
Q & A here. However, if you are deeply interested I encourage you to go more into it with a skilled practitioner of Kashmir Shaivism. Your key elements to be aware of are the differences between mālā and mala and how they are used.

I hope this helps. Thanks for your question.

May you always be blessed.