Updated: Jan 3
Japa, a mantra meditation with a mala that can uproot negative thought patterns and calm the mind, is one way yogis can count blessings instead of sheep for some much-needed shuteye.
Traditionally, the chanting of mantra (spiritually empowering words, repeated) can help us raise our consciousness. We can break negative habits and create positive patterns in our minds and our lives. Repetition of a mantra turns the mental practice into an instrument of self-shift. This practice can help us create more beneficial tracks in the mind and redirect the emotional grooves of the past known as "samskara" toward more positive paths.
Because our minds can become a toxic chatterbox - more often now that we are inundated with messages via phone and unstoppable stimuli - the tracks of the mind are hard to clear and quiet. Could this be one of the reasons we lack solid sleep as a society? Our busy minds are keeping us from sleeping as deeply and soundly as we would like, imho as well as many others.
Whether sleep is the prize that allows you to step into the japa practice, or the practice of japa rewards you with calm, clarity, and contentment that allows you to sleep, either way, it's a win.
1. how to spot a legit mala
108 beads make up a mala, if you're going to use one for meditation. There are lots of jewelry-like bead strands that look like a mala, but to be legit, there must be 108 beads and a 109th bead called a guru bead. It is usually a bit larger and different. After you’ve taken the journey of breathing and reciting personal mantras 108 times, arriving at this guru bead is said to bring you closer to the guru within you... or at least a clear mind for blessings and sheep.
2. reframe japa with this idea of rest and ease
You hold it in your hand and count off breaths and/or mantras (spiritual phrases) to calm your mind and create more grounded, yet uplifted, energies within. Using the mala beads to count frees your brain from the numbers so you can focus on breathing and reciting your mantra, which can be as simple as “Om,” often described as the basic vibration of unifying all things past, present and future. Try practicing a japa mantra meditation, setting an intention and allowing the beads to be a grounding element as you follow them while reciting your words:
3. how to use the mala in your hands, combined with your mantra
Find a comfortable seat.
Choose a mantra that speaks to you - or your whole breath can be the "mantra"
Hold the mala in one hand and let it dangle easily.
Touch the guru bead with your opposite hand.
With the hand that is holding the guru bead, move your fingers to the next bead as you repeat your mantra or breathe fully as your mantra (perhaps a silent "om" with each breath)
Continue 108 times until you feel the guru bead again.
Sometimes there are special or different shaped beads placed after every 27th bead to make it easier to keep track of the mantra. Sometimes bracelets are 27 beads, a quarter of the 108. Malas are made up of all kinds of beads and stones these days, but no need for a fancy mala. The most important part is the practice of calming or shifting the mind through this mediative practice.
4. why repeat?
The repetition is like counting sheep, only each mantra is like counting your wishes, blessings, or intentions. It's not as easy as it sounds. One time, when I was traveling, I was practicing japa in my hotel room. I stopped halfway to see what time it was. Yup. It's a practice. Clearly, my mind was nowhere near calm to stay focused on the task.
The repetition is needed, and 108 is said to be a cosmic number... the tipping point, if you will. Repeat anything 108 times, and something shifts.
If this is the one thing you do before you go to bed, and you get some rest regularly, think of the possibilities. It could be the ultimate reform of your non-sleeping ways. Make room for the blessings and rest peacefully, wake up with more energy, and look forward to a day feeling refreshed and clear.
I wrote another post for Vie Meditation about the rise of mala beads as spiritual fashion statements. You can read it here: "Own One Piece of Yoga Jewelry To Feed Your Mind, Soul and Inner Fashionista,"