Malas have been traditionally used by Yogis, Hindus, and Buddhists to perform japa or mantra meditation. The Sanskrit word Japa can be defined as “to repeat or mutter prayers or mantras.” Over time the use of mala prayer beads spread across continents and cultures and now people from all over the world wear and use malas and practice japa.
The spiritual and meditation traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism all have different customs and rules for performing japa and using mala prayer beads. Even Gurus or teachers in a specific tradition may have different instructions for japa. In general, mala beads are considered sacred tools that should be used and worn with respect and humility.
Traditional rules and customs can become outdated over time or seem impractical when applied to a different culture. As with any spiritual practice, you must discover for yourself what traditional rules resonate with your goals and intentions. Most importantly it is essential to be mindful of what you’re doing and why you are doing or not doing it. To this end, it will be necessary for you to know what the rules of japa are before braking or altering them.
The Traditional Rules of Japa Meditation:
- Keep your mala beads in a clean place, preferably on your altar or in a mala bag.
- Before wearing your mala, touch the guru bead on your bowed forehead, ideally at your third eye center.
- Do not let anyone touch or use your mala.
- Avoid showing your mala to other people and especially keep the guru bead hidden from view.
- Remove your mala when defecating, sleeping or having intercourse.
- Keep your mala beads clean and well maintained. If the beads become chipped, cracked, or broken you should repair or replace the mala.
- The most favorable time for Japa meditation is Brahmamuhurta, the time of Brahma, at one and a half hours before sunrise. This is when the Sattva Guna (purity or steadiness) is most predominant. The second best time is at sunset, and the third best is noon.
- Before sitting for Japa take a bath or wash your hands, feet, and face and brush your teeth. Wear clean clothing.
- Face in the direction of East or North when practicing japa. East and North are considered to be “the abode of Gods” and the most beneficial and potent direction to be positioned while praying or meditating.
- Have a clean and special seat prepared for your japa meditation. Ideally, sit on a rug and use a meditation cushion.
- Sit in the same place and at the same time every day to practice japa. Meditate in a room which is calm and quiet, or sit in a temple, meditation center or on the bank of a river.
- Observe silence and remove all external distractions during japa.
- Maintain a steady seated meditation pose, such as Padmasana, Siddhasana or Sukhasana. Make sure the pose is comfortable and stable so it will not create distractions.
- Do not hold your mala necklace to below your navel while practicing japa. Hold your mala during japa at the heart center or in front of your third eye.
- Use the middle finger and the thumb of the right hand to touch and move the beads with the mantra. The use of the index finger is prohibited as it represents the ego mind.
- Commit to complete a certain minimum number of malas before ending your practice. Keep track of your Japa and try to increase the amount gradually over time.
- Keep your mala mantra a secret. Repeat your mantra from 108 to 1,080 times daily (one to ten rounds of a full mala).
- It is best to receive your mantra from your Guru or teacher. If this is not possible, carefully choose a mantra based on your goals and intentions.
- Pronounce your mantra clearly and distinctly and without any mistakes—even if you are chanting silently. If you make a mistake repeat the mantra.
- Do not practice Japa hurriedly or carelessly. Do it slowly and mindfully with feeling, focus, and single-minded devotion.
- Find a tempo that engages your focus. Repeating a mantra too slowly will create boredom and repeating too fast will scatter your focus. When the mind wanders, adjust the tempo to regain focus. You may find it helpful to link the repetition of the Japa with the rhythm of the breath.
- Experiment with your Japa technique to sustain interest, avoid fatigue, and counteract monotony. You can try alternating between repeating the mantra aloud and repeating it mentally. You can stand up or change your seated pose when you feel sleepy or drowsy.
- Japa should be practiced with the eyes partially closed and with a soft gaze. This helps unite and merge the body’s prana and creates an electric loop from top to bottom of the body. Fix your gaze between the eyebrows or at the tip of your nose.
- Contemplate the meaning of the mantra while chanting it. Feel the power of the mantra purifying your heart, destroying desires, removing cravings, and making your mind become steady. The practice of Japa can destroy the six Shadripus (lust/desire, anger, greed, attachment, pride/arrogance, and jealousy).
- If you sneeze, yawn, cough or release gas during japa, this is considered as an impurity, and you should start over with a new round of japa.
- After completing your japa practice take a few moments to sit quietly and feel the effects of the meditation. Finish your practice time with a moment of devotion before proceeding with your day and routine tasks. After your seated practice you can continue the current of Japa mentally during other activities.
After reading through the list of traditional japa rules, take note of which rules you’d like to focus on and commit to. Not all of these rules will be applicable or practical to your personal situation and lifestyle, so it is more important to practice mantra meditation on a regular daily basis rather than try to follow every single rule.
How to Use Mala Beads for Meditation
If you are new to using malas for japa meditation, we recommend you read our complete step-by-step instructions on how to use and wear mala beads.