what is a japa mala

Malas and Mantras

By Angela Glaz

500 Hour E-RYT and Ayurvedic Wellness Counselor

We’ve all experienced “the hard knocks of life” or stress. We could be the best decision makers in the world, but despite our best intentions shit still happens -- and sometimes it happens all at once; the dog gets an eye infection, grandma is put in the hospital, a co-worker quits, and the last roll of toilet paper has  run out.  If we are not being mindful, when we experience these stressors, our bodies react instinctually in one of two ways – fight or flight.  

1. Fight - We power through and don’t look back. When we react to situations in this way, we are not taking the time to digest our experiences properly and when we don’t properly digest our experiences, it’s like being emotionally constipated. Emotions pile up within us until there’s no more room. When there’s no more room, they end up coming out, but they come out in the form of an illness.

2. Flight - We retreat to a space that makes us think that we can’t handle our stressor.  When we retreat, we are mentally giving up hope and when hope is lost, depression occurs. The further we retreat, the deeper we get and the deeper we get, the harder it is to get out.

If we relate these two stress responses to the Ayurvedic Doshas, you’ll find that Pittas tend to power through, Vatas tend to retreat, and Kaphas are somewhere in between.

For more on Ayurveda and the Doshas: www.ekayogaseattle.com/ayurveda/

Being Vata dominant myself, I know that I am prone to getting stuck in my own head and caught up in judgmental thought patterns.  When I’m faced with an abundance of stress, I want to retreat, I want to cry, I want to give up. There are times I do retreat and cry, but I don’t give up. I keep my head high and regain the momentum to keep moving forward with the help of a mantra - a single word or a short phrase.

Perhaps it’s the Catholic School girl in me that continually brings me back to the prayer-like motion; maybe it’s just the magic of routine and repetition? The magical part being, that through routine and repetition, I’ve become more confident and focused.  I’ve seen how daily dedication can result in body and mind transformation that cultivates great momentum and motivation to continue moving forward.  

What is a Japa Mala?

In Sanskrit, Japa means to recite and Mala means prayer beads. The Japa Mala is traditionally used in prayer and meditation and consists of 18, 27, 54, or 108 beads.  Malas are also referred to as mala beads, Buddhist beads or Buddhist prayer beads. They are used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra.

What is a mantra?

A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated to aid in concentration. It can be anything that you can easily remember, repeat, and connect to.  In Dharmic traditions, mantras are used for everything - illness, pain, stress, prosperity, fertility, etc.

While a mantra doesn’t have to be Sanskrit, there is a rich history and numerous benefits to reciting one in in the ancient language.

Mythologically speaking, Sanskrit is said to be the language of the gods. The language that connects human-beings to their higher selves. Historically speaking, Sanskrit is believed to have been  developed by observing the natural progression of sounds created in the human mouth, thus making sound and pronunciation an integral part of the language.

When reciting a mantra in Sanskrit, pronunciation and rhythm are more important than knowing what the mantra actually means. Traditionally, the purpose of saying a mantra aloud is to cultivate the energy vibrations associated with it.  By enunciating Sanskrit words and vibrating a certain combination of sounds, our tongue is pressing itself into particular areas of the mouth (this pressure is much like acupressure), sending signals to the hypothalamus in the brain. This part of the brain regulates chemical activity in all areas of our body, which in turn can help relieve pain, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure… the list goes on.  

Although ancient yogis may not have known what a hypothalamus was, heck… I don’t think I do  they  recognized the effects that sounds and mantras had on the body and mind.  One point for the ancient yogis!

My Favorite Mantras:

Bija Mantras or Seed Sounds

LAM (Pronounced as lum) - Associated with the root chakra. Good for cultivating grounding energy.

VAM (Pronounced vum as in thumb) – Associated with the sacral chakra. Good for cultivating courage.

RAM (Pronounced rum) – Associated with the solar plexus chakra. Good for cultivating self-esteem.

YAM (Pronounced yum) – Associated with the heart chakra. Good for cultivating love and compassion.

HAM (Pronounced hum) – Associated with the throat chakra. Good for cultivating good communication.

AUM (Pronounced um) – Associated with the third eye chakra. Good for cultivating inner wisdom.

AH (Pronounced ah as in aha)– Associated with the crown chakra. Good for letting go or releasing.

The Bija mantras are one-syllable seed sounds that, when recited, activate the energy of the chakras, which in turn help cultivate physical, mental, and emotional balance. According to the Puranas, (ancient Indian literature and folklore), the universe was created out of the sound AUM and the body can be recreated through a series of sounds.  According to recent work in quantum physics, science proves that the universe was indeed made of sound.  Another point for ancient yogis!

So… if we are truly composed of sound and we lose our rhythm, we’re going to lose our physical, mental, and emotional health as well. Think of your body as a band. If one musician is off by a single beat , the song will sound slightly off.  If all of the musicians are off by a beat, the song is going to sound horrible.   If your body is a band, you want everything to sync up and harmonize to create happiness and health.

Ganesh Mantra - Om Gan Ganpate Namaha

Ganesh is the well-known Hindu elephant deity. He is the remover of obstacles and the lord of good fortune and new beginnings.  There are several different Ganesh mantras, but this one in particular is meant to help remove obstacles and bring success.  

Shivaya Mantra - Om Namah Shivaya

Shiva is the deity of transformation who represents the true and highest form of self. This mantra is meant to help cultivate self-confidence and compassion.

Shanti Mantra - Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Normally, this mantra is recited at the beginning or at the end of a larger mantra or prayer, but as it is a mantra to invoke peace and bliss, there’s never a bad time to do it.

I got this - I got this

That’s it, that’s the mantra. When I’m feeling overwhelmed and that feeling of wanting to retreat, I repeat to myself “I got this” until I believe it.

How to practice a mantra:

1. Find a quiet and comfortable space to practice.

2. Smudge or clear the energy of that space. I like to light some Sage, or Palo Santo and use a space that is clean and clear of clutter.

3. Set an intention. By taking the time to dedicate your practice to something, you may be able to focus more intently and achieve a deeper state of meditation.

4. Choose a mantra that correlates to what you’re trying to achieve. 5. Repeat your mantra a minimum of 3 times or any number that can be divided into 108 (18, 27, 54).  When reciting your mantra, you can use your Japa Mala as a tool to help keep count. The above is the traditional way of practicing mantras and it’s a lovely way, but the truth is, most of us don’t keep a stick of sage in our backpacks and we don’t always have space or the time to recite our mantras 108 times.  At any given time, if you feel a mantra will positively change your state of being, recite that mantra! You can recite it aloud or to yourself. You can recite it in a quiet and serene place or you can recite in on your bus ride home from work. If you need it, use it.

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