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If you meditate regularly or practice yoga, you’ve probably come across mala beads before.

Mala beads, commonly known as a japa mala or simply a mala, are a type of prayer beads. Prayer beads have been used for centuries by a range of religions, from Hinduism to Catholicism.

Today, they’re sometimes used as a mindfulness aid without any religious affiliation. They traditionally include 108 beads in addition to a guru bead, which is larger than the rest of the beads and often has a tassel.

Mala beads can help you with different aspects of meditation, which is linked to a range of health benefits. Meditation can help reduce stress levels, improve sleep, and lower blood pressure, among other things.

But meditation isn’t always easy. Many people find it hard, especially in the beginning, to keep their mind from wandering off. That’s where mala beads come in.

Mala beads “have the purpose of keeping you focused during meditation,” says Lena Schmidt, a certified yoga instructor.

Schmidt explains two ways a mala can help make meditation easier:

  • The repetitive movement of your fingers across the beads helps ground you.
  • Touching each bead as you say a mantra helps you keep track of how many times you’ve repeated the mantra.

You can use mala beads in a variety of ways during meditation, but breath control and mantra repetition are two good starting points.

Controlling your breath

Simply paying attention to your breathing can be a form of mediation. It’s a handy one, too, since you can do it anywhere.

To use mala beads for controlling your breath:

  • Hold your mala with one hand.
  • Let it drape across your fingers so you can move it easily. Place two fingers around one of the beads next to the guru bead. Many people use their thumb and middle finger, as some religious traditions avoid using the index finger.
  • Complete one full breath (inhale and exhale).
  • Move your fingers to the next bead, breathing in and out once per bead.
  • Finish at the guru bead to complete 108 breaths.
  • If you want to do another round, just move your fingers in the opposite direction until you reach the guru bead again.

For more guidance, here’s a visual from Howcast.

Repeating a mantra

A mantra is a phrase, word, or sound you can use to help focus your awareness during meditation. “Om” is a common one, but there are countless others.

You can also create your own mantra that feels reassuring or calming. For example your mantra might be “I am calm,” “I am safe,” or “I am loved.” The mantra you repeat can also vary depending on your current situation.

To use mala beads with a mantra, follow the same process as you would for controlling your breath. But instead of exhaling and inhaling at each bead, repeat your mantra. You can whisper it, say it in a loud, clear voice, or stick to a mental repetition — whatever feels best.

Malas come in a range of styles and colors. The beads themselves can be made from seeds, precious or semiprecious stones, wood, or other materials.

Since you’ll use the mala to promote calm and relaxation, it’s important to choose beads that feel good to you. There’s no right or wrong choice here.

“Look for a mala that speaks to you,” Schmidt says.

When looking at a specific mala, she advises asking yourself:

  • Does it feel good to touch?
  • Is it beautiful to me?
  • Is it made out of a stone or seed that has a special meaning to me?

If your answer to any of these is “yes,” the mala should work just fine for you.

How important is the number of beads?

Traditional mala necklaces have 108 beads, which reflects a sacred number in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

If 108 beads seems a little long for your needs, you can also find malas with 54 or 27 beads. Some full malas include beads of different shape after every 27th bead, according to Schmidt. This can help you keep track of your repetitions while giving you the option of doing a shorter meditation with 27 or 54 beads.

Can’t find anything you like? You can always make your own. Check out this how-to video from Beadaholique.

Mala beads might be pretty to look at and soothing to touch, but these simple necklaces are more than just trendy jewelry. They’re powerful tools that can help guide and enhance mindfulness practices.

Many people who use mala to meditate find that they help increase concentration and promote a more beneficial meditation experience.

Remember, a mala doesn’t need to include gemstones or other expensive materials to work well for you. Just choose (or create) one that feels right to you.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.