Malas and 108 – What Does it Mean?

 

Malas and 108 – What Does it Mean?

 

Malas and the number 108 have long both mystified and intrigued yogis, geometrists, architects, astrologists, musicians and artists alike.
Indeed anyone who deals with any kind of numbers, sequences, patterns or formations on a daily basis or as part of their work will be sure to have come across the number 108 on numerous occasions – even if they weren’t aware of it at the time.

For yogis, the most noticable appearance of the ‘sacred’ number 108 is on the colourful strings of mala beads that have become common to wear around our necks, wrists, and anywhere else they can be worked into everyday outfits without looking overly pretentious. 108 beads represent this number which has been found throughout the history of yogic philosophy and practice in relation to the earth, the universe, our physical bodies, our energetic pathways, and countless other areas in the geographical and architectural worlds too.
It seems the number 108 connects and aligns us to the universe in ways we’re still learning about. Here are just some of the countless examples of 108 that have been observed in the physical, geographical and architectural world throughout history:

  • Sun Salutations – The Surya Namaskar is traditionally completed in rounds of 9, as the 12 movements in the sequence multiplied by 9 equals – you guessed it – 108!
  • The stones at Stone Henge (dating back to the neolithic era) were placed in a circular formation which is 108 feet in diameter.
  • Most Buddhist traditions follow the belief that there are 108 steps to enlightenment.
  • Hindu deities have 108 names
  • India is said to have 108 sacred sites
  • The Mayan High Temple of Lamanai in Belize was erected at 108 feet high

Physical Condition

Delving deeper into the physiological side of things, 108 degrees (Farenheit) is also the number at which the vital organs of the human body begin to overheat and fail. This, coupled with the existence of 108 energetic pathways (or Nadis, in the yogic tradition) stemming to and from the heart chakra leads us to believe that 108 physically provides a bridge which connects the internal to the external world. Pressure points, or “Marmas” as they are known in ayurvedic medicine, also are found in 108 separate locations around the human body, and are thought to connect directly to the energetic pathways which flow within.

Beyond Yoga

Even beyond the traditional yogic texts we are constantly reminded of this number from many of those who have searched in depth for freedom, happiness and meaning in life. Many branches of Chinese Tai Chi have 108 moves. Most Buddhist temples have 108 steps, with Tibetan Buddhism believing in the existence of 108 delusions. Zen Buddhists in Japan also ring a bell 108 times at the start of each new year to remind us of the 108 human temptations which must be avoided in order to achieve Nirvana.

All of these examples, and more, symbolise the depth to which ancient practitioners and yogis have gone to in order to hopefully gain some clarity or understanding into life. Whether it’s through physical practice, mindful walking meditation through a temple, or constructing sacred dwellings to honour the unknown origins of the number 108, seekers the world over have proven that there is definitely some sort of connection between the number 108 and our human condition.

Significance of Mala Beads

Yogis use mala beads to connect with the vast expanse and universal oneness this condition is a part of. As energy-beings we are one and the same as those 108 steps to the temple, the 108 gongs signalling the new year, and the 108 movements of daily practice that heighten our spiritual completion and aid us to sail through our daily work.

Although I hate to admit it, it’s similar to the significance of the rosary in Catholicism, the mala beads being used to keep count during deep meditation and chanting. Each round of completed meditation, pranyama, or chanting ends when the last bead has been reached. Yogis believe that this mysterious number will allow us to further align ourselves with the rhythm of the universe, and that through regular contact will maybe someday expose us to answers to questions thousands of years old.

If nothing else, by aligning ourselves as often and consistently as possible with the energetic fields we aim to embody, it allows us to be as close as possible to them at all times.

What a Month in India Taught Me About Yoga

What a Month in India Taught me About Yoga
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Before I begin I want to make clear that the views expressed here are purely objective and that I’m only going on what I experienced, not an in-depth study or survey.

‘What are the differences between practicing yoga in the West and practicing in India?’

This is a question I’ve been asked quite regularly in recent weeks, having embarked on a solo trip with no definitive end on the basis of exploring the ancient practice and contrasting attitudes towards the study of yoga around the world (well in Asia, anyway).
To be honest, I came to India expecting (or maybe hoping) to experience some sort of revelation when it came to my yoga practice, the stories I’ve heard having inspired me to explore the places most attributed with the origins of yoga and somehow find or realise something I haven’t before by immersing myself completely in a strange country and alternative habits, values, and climates. I wanted to really push my boundaries and experience yoga as a lifestyle properly for a little while, embracing new aspects and styles with unfamiliar surroundings and people – places you don’t see on Instagram or enticing Google adverts boasting a luxury yoga retreat and 5-star accommodation. In a way, that’s kind of what happened.
In another way, it’s not. At all.

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It sounds obvious to me now, but the biggest thing I’ve realised since coming to India is that it really doesn’t matter where, when, why, or how you practice – yoga is both universal and intensely personal. Yoga is as unique to each practitioner as their individual height, weight, hair colour, daily nutritional requirements and sleeping patterns. Each person’s practice is their own, no matter where you do it, for how long, or at what intensity.

Or at least it should be.
Strangely, one of the things that brought me to this realisation was attending classes that seemed very impersonal, and I was surprised to find that some of the guided classes I attended in McLeodGanj (Dharamsala, North Indian province of Himachal Pradesh) in particular lacked in creativity. Disappointingly they felt like going through the motions of a standard fitness class in the gym back home. At the same time, I understood the reasons behind these elements of the practice.
After speaking with several yoga-instructor friends and enthusiasts alike, I came to understand that some of the more established Indian yogis (I won’t name names for obvious reasons) have been doing the same ‘routine’ sequence and practice every day for over 40 years. Because of this, it has become almost mechanical in its routine progression, and one could almost argue that anyone who’s attended enough of the classes to learn the routine by heart could in theory also ‘teach’ a class themselves.
I want to be careful how I vocalise this, but the truth is I found that this sameness has both positive & negative aspects.

On the positive side, the benefits of 40 years of consistent Ashtanga practice are blatantly apparent in the physique and steady, controlled way these yogis speak.
It’s also inspiring to see that the practice itself has become a sort of constant for them, in the way that prayer or religious devotion has for the many Buddhist monks and nuns inhabiting the Northern Himachal Pradesh Himalayas. It’s ritualistic, which can be a valuable thing in a modern world that otherwise lacks rituals.

On the negative side, the lack of creative exploration & facilitation for the fluctuations of the body from day to day during these routines flies in the face of one of my own beliefs about the practice of yoga – that it is a way of accepting and appreciating change with ease and grace, being open to and moving with it, instead of resisting.

I cannot help but marvel at the depth, widespread popularity, and general understanding and acceptance of the entire practice of yoga in India. I have already learned to open up and trust myself and those around me more thoroughly than I thought possible.
For me, this is what yoga is all about – opening up (both physically and mentally) and accepting what is. Trusting what you have and that which is constantly in flux around you, instead of creating unnecessary anxiety worrying about things outside of your control. A feeling of harmony in body and mind. Harmony within your place in the world.
This includes change.

Change and evolution are part of who we are, the only two constant reliable elements of life that we can depend on outside of our own minds. Being able to tolerate and adapt to natural and environmental changes is crucial for so many reasons, and it confused me to see some of the yogis upholding a practice that seemed quite stagnant and repetitive, unbending even. Maybe I’m just too used to attending creative classes that adapt and cater for the elements and our bodies – a rainy day class at home in Yogahub Dublin once focused on shoulder and chest-opening poses in response to the week of horrible weather we’d just experienced, hunched over and hurried pacing a necessity with disregard to posture or discomfort.
But it seemed to me that the whole ‘oh she’s gone to do yoga in India’ myth and expectation of self-understanding and epiphany-gaining experience is exactly that – a myth.

This is what I mean by having an evolving practice. India as a country is still evolving; it is a land of extremes. Colours, tastes, wealth, poverty, heat, rain…you name it, India has an extreme to meet it.

Avoiding extremes and finding balance has been part of my own yogic journey, and I found the almost extreme lifestyle and all-or-nothing vibe of several of the yoga studios and gurus I attended to be somewhat overwhelming and contradictory in their message. That being said, there were several teachers that were more supple in their ideologies and achieved a more rational balance between the unchanging ritual & the realities of a living daily practise, so I can’t be too generalistic here either.

My point in writing this was to express what I’ve learnt, and to disprove the theory that yoga can only be learned correctly or experienced fully by travelling to India. I’m guilty of harbouring beliefs such as this, although deep down I sort of knew the truth for what it is – that yoga is accessible anywhere, to anyone, and in whatever capacity you have to experience it and your own body. Even on a balcony in a tiny hostel in Sri Lanka where the cleaning lady tries to sweep crumbs and dust from within an inch of the mat around you. I’m still practicing. I’m still moving. Evolving, changing. And that’s ok too.

 

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