Updated: Nov 12, 2020
In the progression of your yoga practice, you may find that you encounter a plethora of tools in this rich tradition. There are some which may be new for you, or some which you love, but you may not have a lot of cultural knowledge on.
One of the powerful tools within the yoga tradition are mālā beads. If you’re curious to learn more about mālā beads and their proper use and to avoid common cultural appropriation read on. And see how you can incorporate these spiritual beads into your practice (without just considering them jewelry).
What are mālā beads?
Mālā (Sanskrit:माला; mālā) according to the IAST Sanskrit dictionary means 'string', 'necklace' or 'garland'. They are a spiritual vehicle to deepen your practice. They are deeply connected to the practice of mantra.
Mantra is an integral yoga practice given to us in the Yoga Sutras as a tool to support our minds. Mantra comes from the Sanskrit words manas (mind) and trai (device). Japa is the repetition of a mantra, often with the use of a mālā, a strand of 108 beads.
When we practice yoga with mantra, using a mālā bead to help us repeat the mantra, the whole practice becomes greater than the sum of its parts. A mālā is a physical symbol of this transcendence, and can signify the users hopes, dreams, wants. and aspirations. I experienced this when my root teacher Shankarji, gave me a sandalwood mālā he had practiced with for a decade, and encouraged me to practice my mantras as part of my morning and evening sadhana, practice.
Mālā beads can be a vehicle for depth into meditation, and take on several forms. These beads in today’s age are made from a variety of gems and pearls, that hold meaning for different energies that the user may find useful to have in their practice. The sibling science to yoga, āyurveda goes in depth as to the support of these different gemstones for their effects on the mind-body-spirit.
It is important to note that in mālās, these gemstones are not just fashion statements but part of a deep, scientific practice meant to balance and harmonize. Each different gemstone has different energies or meanings tied to them. Because of this, the user of these beads is usually very intentional with what beads they choose. By being intentional they can really hone in during their meditation on different energies.
In addition, another important facet of mālā beads is that they can be incorporated into necklaces or bracelets, depending on what the user deems fit for them. But simply rocking them for fashion without having any intention behind them dishonors their sacred origin.
Again, mālā beads are more than fashion statements, they are specific spiritual technologies.
Is it taboo to wear mālā beads?
After learning what mālā beads are, you may be wondering, like many parts of yoga, if wearing mālā beads is taboo, or cultural appropriation.
Western culture is notorious for appropriating the yoga practice in the forms of “Om” t-shirts and other products that are worn with no respect to the practice, but instead for aesthetic purposes. Naturally, some people may wonder if this is the case with mālā beads.
“If I am white, is it taboo to wear mālā beads, aren’t they also meant to remind others to be mindful?”
The answer to a question like this is yes and no.
Yes, it can most definitely be taboo if mālā beads are used improperly and not intentionally. As with many things in yoga, in order to have respect and appreciation it is important to know the origins of certain things, in this case the mālā beads.
The more informed we are, the more we can avoid cultural appropriation. However, whether or not they can be used as a tool to remind others to be mindful… not always.
If a jewelry company is owned by a non-South Asian, and sells and profits from mālā beads, taking from and without giving back to this thousands of year old tradition from South Asia, that is cultural appropriation because it causes harm to the source culture and its people.
Like we mentioned before, mālā beads’ significance lies in the person using these precious stones, and, therefore, outside interpretation may not always be that they are to be mindful.
The usage of mālā beads is not taboo when they are being used as meditation tools and not simply as cute jewelry. When we use mālā beads for their intended purpose, we avoid the usage of them being appropriated or taboo.
Next level yoga, meditation and application
Now that you’re informed and aware of what mālā beads are and what they are used for, be encouraged to add this as a tool to your yoga and meditation practice!
Consider taking action by calling out, calling in, or boycotting non-South Asian / Desi owned companies and those who exploit this tradition for profit and erase our presence and ancestral wisdom, without regard for the source culture.
There are many ways to honor and embrace yoga's roots.
Remember that as long as you’re appreciating a culture by being informed, you are less likely to appropriate. There is nothing wrong with tuning into a culture and its practices, as long as it is done properly and with respect.
Mālā beads are a time-honored tool to take your yoga and meditation practice to the next level, and if you’re actively trying to be more mindful in your yoga and meditation, consider incorporating them, with honor and respect, into your personal practice.
For more information and tips like this to incorporate into your own yoga practice, visit www.embodyyogasrootsbook.com to learn more about my upcoming book and get a free chapter to learn more about respecting the roots of yoga.
You can also follow me on Instagram for daily inquiry, provocation, inspiration and tips instagram.com/susannabarkataki