The mala is an essential part of most of the techniques of japa. As we have already stated, it is mainly a tool to maintain awareness. It can be made of various types of material, depending on the tradition. The malas widely used in yoga are made of either sandalwood, tulsi or rudraksha beads. The mala that most sadhakas use today for their japa is made of tulsi wood. Crystal stones can also be used among various other materials.
Malas with different numbers of beads can be used. In yoga the usual number is either 108, 54 or 27. The latter is called a sumirani mala and is used for japa practised during one’s daily activities. We will discuss this later. The beads are generally strung on strong thread and are separated from each other by a special type of knot called a brahma granthi (knot of brahma).
Each mala has an extra, bead called the sumeru (junction or summit). This bead is offset from the main loop of the mala at the point where the two ends of the mala are joined. The bead is an essential part of the mala. It acts as a reference point, so that the practitioner can know the number of mala rotations he has made. That is, the practitioner starts the japa practice from the sumeru bead and proceeds to rhythmically rotate the mala, bead by bead. There is a smooth flow and rotation of the mala until the obstruction of the sumeru. This will immediately tell the individual that he has completed one round of the mala. It also has another use: it is easily possible, as we have already explained, to forget that one is doing japa. The mind wanders, even though the mala is being rotated. The mala is rotated auto-matically without awareness. When the fingers reach the offset sumeru bead awareness is once again returned to the practice in hand.
There is a special method of holding the mala: the mala should be held in the right hand. Support the mala by a loop formed by joining the tip of the thumb with the ring finger. The middle finger should be used to rotate the mala. The second finger and small finger should not be utilized but held clear of the mala.
You should count the number of times you rotate the mala. This can be done mentally or it can be done by using the left hand as follows: after one mala rotation place the left thumb on the first joint line at the base of the left little finger; after the second mala rotation, raise the thumb to the second joint line; after the third, place the thumb on the upper line of the little finger. Then on the fourth rotation, transfer the left thumb to the first line of the ring finger. And so on. In this manner you can count twelve rotations. This allows you to direct all your awareness to the ongoing practice of japa.
Traditionally, japa is practised while holding the right hand in front of the heart. There is a lot of sense in this if you chant your mantra in rhythm with your heartbeat, and this is something that happens automatically almost without effort. Or it does if you chant a one syllable mantra such as Aum. It does not apply with polysyllable mantras. Also, holding the hand in front of the heart seems to intensify the feeling with which one chants the mantra. Feeling comes from the heart, so it is said.
If you prefer to hold your right hand in any position you can do so. The choice is yours. According to tradition, it is also said that a mala used for japa should not be worn during the day, and that when it is not being used for japa, it should be carefully wrapped in a piece of cloth. This is done to prevent any negative change in the vibrations associated with the mala. Also it is said that other people should not even see your mala. You can adhere to these rules if you wish; again the choice is up to you.