Mind, Mala, and Spirit


I was born a Christian without any say in the matter. And by that, I mean I was born to two parents who had been raised in the traditions (if not the strict teachings) of Christianity, to two families who regarded themselves Christians. I was baptized in the Catholic church because "that's just what you did," and made my first holy communion as a child because "that's just what you did," and became a 12-year-old confirmation school dropout when "that's just what we do" stopped being good enough reason for me to do, well, anything.

It's safe to say that I never felt a sense of belonging in religion. In any one—though believe me, I tried. I could see religion as something meaningful to people I loved, and I tried for their sake. I tried to find comfort in church, but I didn't. I tried to find faith in Judaism when I dated a Jewish guy for several years and loved celebrating holidays with his devout family, but it wasn't there. I read The Tao of Pooh in high school, studied ancient cultures and Eastern religions in college, and while I found respectable things and meaningful things in each, I could never find myself fully surrendering to a religion. But unwilling to label myself an athiest or agnostic, I fell back on the old cliche—I'm not religious, but I am spiritual. I found myself trying and failing to find faith in God (of any sort) but feeling an unwavering trust in the universe.

For those who object and say these are one and the same, or that "universe" is just a secular "god," that's fine. We needn't mince words or convince each other of anything.

I've been exposed to a fair amount of religions, through personal experiences, books and media, personal study and research, and most recently, yoga. Here's the thing: Yoga is not a religion. But it is as old as the world, and as things that are as old as the world tend to be, it is inextricably intertwined with the religion(s) of its oldest practitioners. Now, I know there are some people who will call my superficial understanding of and relationship with Hinduism and Buddhism cultural appropriation. There are even people who will say the simple fact that I practice and teach yoga in a studio in New Jersey is cultural appropriation. That I sometimes speak Sanskrit and always close my class with Namaste is an affront to yoga and ancient Indian culture. They're entitled to their opinion, and I disagree. I can't practice or teach my class without referencing Hindu gods—the full split pose is called Hanumanasana, for the Hindu Hanuman. I teach poses like Garudasana (eagle pose), Dancing Shiva, Natarajasana (dancer pose), all of which are named for Hindu figures. Should I rather be ignorant of these names I'm using, or make a concerted effort to understand why we practice these poses?

Before my long-winded intro gets any more long-winded, I'll say this: I don't need anyone else to be comfortable with my spirituality or beliefs, and I don't need to be comfortable with anyone else's, as long as they remain personal and do not inflict harm on another person. Period, the end.

Anyway, all of this is an introduction to my saying I've managed to find a way to support my spiritual beliefs by finding what I need when I need it, from whatever place is best able to give it. When I lose something, I say the prayer of Saint Anthony to help me find it. When I miss my grandmother, I picture her being welcomed into the arms of the Virgin Mother. When I need to call on Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, I do. When I need to engage Kali mudra for the destroyer, I do. When I need to turn toward myself and find what I'm seeking within, I do.

Back to the point.... My yoga journey has been about much more than asana (postures), and meditation specifically is something I advocate for in myself and others. I believe finding a meditation practice that is meaningful and useful can really change a person's life. A mala is a string of beads used by Hindus, Buddhists, and others in meditation. I've wanted one for some time, and finally remembered to ask my friend and YTT classmate a few months ago where she'd found hers. Long story short, last weekend we had a workshop with the same woman who had made her mala, where we each got to make our own.

Making a Mala (If you were skimming in search of the mala portion of this post, here it is!)

A mala is a string of beads, usually 108 but also found in derivatives (54 or 27, mostly) that is used for meditation. Or for jewelry. They're also called "worry beads" sometimes, in the sense that the fingering of the beads is a movement often attached with worrying, stressing, contemplating. But generally, the purpose of a mala is to begin reciting your chant or your mantra or your meditation phrase at the first anchor stone, repeat it 27 times (once at each bead) until coming to a semi-precious stone where you might pause for reflection. Repeat, repeat, repeat, touching each bead or stone to keep count, until you reach the anchor stone once again, completing 108 repetitions of your mantra. Yes, it's very similar to a rosary.

Why 108? There's a LOT of literature to be found on that around the web if you're interested in numerology. It is a significant number in Hindusm and Buddhism specifically, but for numerology in general, as is the number 9 (1+0+8=9; 27/3=9 (3 is significant also and a derivative of 9), 2+7=9).
When making our malas, Krista showed us bowls and jars of beautiful wooden beads of several different colors, as well as numerous semi-precious stones in various colors. She had us pick our beads (we'd end up with 108 total), our two anchor stones (the same stone twice), and our three reflection stones (which could be the same as our anchor, or up to 3 totally different picks), as well as up to 3 charms for the anchor. Most importantly, she encouraged us to follow our gut here. She wouldn't explain the significance of our stones or charms until we had completed stringing our malas. Trust, she implored.

Before we began, Krista had us create an intention for our mala. In yoga, often we begin practice by setting an intention. When I guide my class, I ask them to do this within the first few minutes, just shortly after bringing them to their pranayama (breath practice), and encourage them to create a purpose for the energy they're about to create in their practice. It can be for themselves or for another person they know. When I practice, I alternate between choosing a personal intention for how I want to feel at the end of my practice (I am strong; I am peaceful; I am making progress; I am okay; I am worthy) and choosing to send my energy toward someone whom I know needs healing in some way. If you prefer religious terms, setting an intention is often much like a prayer.

In my life and very, very often in my practice, I am seeking balance in all things. I gave my mala the intention of balance before I even began stringing it.

Only once my mala was knotted and complete did I learn the significance of it all. And it was a validating and awe-inspiring learning experience.

I reached for the darker beads right away, and added some blue wooden beads for a few reasons: one, for color; two, because I need to balance out the red of my pitta dosha, my second most active dosha (which I won't even go into right now, but here you go); and three, I'm constantly drawn to earth tones in all things—deep and rich browns and elemental colors of wood, the colors of water, fire, and greens of natural life. When it came to the stones, I reached immediately for the deep indigo-blue ones—they had to be my anchors. I carefully looked over the rest but happily chose the almost jade-like green stones to complete my mala as reflection stones. The charms I selected are the two I am always drawn to, the elephant and the Tree of Life. I layered them, partly to mimic a necklace I have and love which has the Tree of Life nestled into the belly of the elephant. If you know me, you're probably not the least surprised by these two picks.

So what does all this mean? My friends and I literally gasped when we learned of our malas' significance.

My anchor stones are dark blue sodalite, whose spiritual properties are harmony and interdependence, endurance, and "good for writers."
My reflection stones are light green aventurine, whose spiritual properties are prosperity and taking action on decisions.

Here's something interesting to know: I've made mention of a project I'm working on (not trying to vague-blog, I swear—I'm just being a perfectionist and don't want to spoil the reveal too early) that is completely revolved around balance. It has to do with prosperity in a sense, for myself and for others, and is something I've decided on but have failed to fully commit myself to taking every action on.

My charms. Now I know these two are rich in symbolism, and I can always turn around and discuss why there is significance to be found in both the elephant and the Tree of Life. But I don't specifically think about it a lot, nor was I thinking in full sentences about elephants or the Tree of Life when I unflinchingly pulled both of those charms out and laid them alongside my beads.

Elephants are symbols of strength, wisdom, and courage, and invoke imagery of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. The Tree of Life represents family, balance, and a strong foundation. It is only by being firmly and strongly rooted that we can extend our branches, and we must seek balance when we do, pulling back to center. We root to rise.

I am not exaggerating in the least when I say the full reading of my mala was both spiritually perfect and organic. I didn't choose my stones or charms thinking of balance specifically, or try to "cheat" my way to an ultra-significant beading. And if you ever asked, I'd tell you THAT is why I believe in the universe, and why I am spiritual, and why I make time and space for these kinds of things in my life.
To tie it all together, we cleansed our malas and learned how to instill our intentions within them, which I did when I got home. I don't anticipate leaving home without it for a good, long while. This was such an interesting and fun (when I'm with my YTT gals, everything is fun) night and I'm so glad I finally have my mala! (Although, I did learn the very next morning that teaching or practicing with a mala on means wrist sweat like you wouldn't believe.)

If you're interested in malas, I cannot recommend Krista highly enough. She traveled from Central Jersey for our workshop, but she also is an Etsy seller with beautiful pre-made malas, mala kits to string your own, and customizable options as well. She is kind and incredibly knowledgeable, and if you're in the market for a mala of your own or as a gift for someone, please check out her shop.

Comments

  1. I totally understand what you mean - my husband actually feels the same way and even though he was raised catholic he is very much spiritual as opposed to catholic. I just emailed this post to him because I know he'll love it like I did! xo, Biana -BlovedBoston

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  2. Almost everything was borrowed from somewhere else, so worrying about cultural appropriation can become an exercise in recursion. I'm not going to wear Native American headdresses or get dreads, but beyond that? Whatever works is worth a try.

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  3. This is fascinating! I love learning about other religions, and there was definitely a time in my life when I'd "try out" different beliefs to see if anything rang true. Nothing really did, but I still love mysticism and I'm coming to appreciate spirituality more and more, even if I don't always know what to make of it or how to incorporate it in my life.

    There was a great Reddit thread a while back where they argued about cultural appropriation (a few people were complaining about a picture of white people performing a Japanese tea ceremony) and one person pointed out that most cultures welcome outsiders who are genuinely curious and want to learn more about their culture. Obviously doing it in mockery is bad, but learning and adopting things from other cultures? How can something that brings us closer to a mutual understanding of the world be bad? Anyway, I'm off to check out that Etsy shop!

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  4. I was totally not up on malas. Thanks for the background and info.

    I feel like I could have written the beginning of this - how you were given a religion, exposure to judaism (mine through close college friends and their families), exploration of eastern religions (out of all religions, I'm most "at home" in those, but even that is a stretch). I do strongly believe in the universe and how it works and my church is usually found outside.

    I think part of the reason you excel at and enjoy yoga so much is because you accept what comes with it and respect the ancient practices.

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  5. I'm such an ignorant asshole about certain things that when you mentioned 108, I immediately thought of LOST because that's what the numbers added up to. And it did have something to do with religion and symbolism but I never fully understood it.

    I think it's awesome that you've found something that works for you, spiritually.

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  6. So I knew nothing of malas when I started reading your post today and now I feel totally informed. I am always fascinated to learn meanings behind the why of certain numbers and such. 8 always seems to be a recurring number in my life. I am always always drawn to elephants and I loved to see their meaning. I love that you found something that works for you and feeds your spiritual needs. Religions have always fascinated me and I can certainly have respect for others beliefs.

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  7. I love your mala and its significance to you. I especially love seeing you grow in your practice and sharing your passions with the world. Keep going, keep going!!

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  8. okay, so i read all of this but i am not so good with the words and don't have much to say (what, shocker) except i love it all.
    especially this: I don't need anyone else to be comfortable with my spirituality or beliefs, and I don't need to be comfortable with anyone else's, as long as they remain personal and do not inflict harm on another person.
    also, the significance of your mala. i don't know if i did one, would i also pull the elephant and tree of life? because reading about them, i love the idea of them and the reasoning behind them, and i want them to be what i reach for, but that might be like cheating like you said, now that i know what they mean, i didn't before. anywho. this was super interesting and i love that you found what works for you.

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  9. I loved this post. As you've said so many eloquent things I sort of want to return the favour, but I am struggling for words. But i do agree with a lot of what you say about finding what works for the individual and i think we all need to stop judging

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  10. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!!!! First of all, you know how much i automatically LOOOVE this post. Secondly, green aventurine is one of my favorite crystals. And elephants? Don't get me started!!! I've been fascinated by them for a while now but didn't know you could make your own - which is very cool. Checking out her site now.

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  11. I loved reading this! I had no idea what a mala is, so it was really interesting to learn the significance behind it and see how one is made. I was somewhat familiar with symbolism behind elephants but had never really thought about what the tree of life meant- such a great meaning.

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  12. I too was born Christian without any say in the matter. I didn't realize that I didn't completely in my particular Christian denomination until my twenties, but have really loved learning more and cultivating my own belief system that works for me. I'm convinced that we are all on our own journeys and that what might work for me may not work for you and vice versus. Anyway, I knew nothing about malas before this, but I love that your mala unintentionally fit you. Beautiful!

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  13. HALLELUJAH. Me too on the religious/spirituality thing. And I dropped out of all that communion/confirmation stuff when I was nine. I told my fiercely Catholic mom that it sounded like the nuns were just making stuff up, so I didn't want to go back. And she said okay and never pushed the matter again. I remember telling the nun in catechism, "But that doesn't make sense," about something, and she made me stand in the corner. This was a fascinating post.

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