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
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.
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.