Countless meditators have long used japa malas to increase focus and stay present during meditation. And for good reason too, japa malas are practical, beautiful, and best of all, easy to use. While most malas are traditionally strung with 108 beads, that by no means makes them all the same: malas are as unique as the people who use them. They range in size and color. They can be made with or without knots. But the most notable differences are the bead materials.
Textured, smooth, small, or large, there’s no limit to the types of mala beads out there. Malas are made of everything from seeds to stone, though some materials are more popular than others. Read on to learn more about traditional mala bead materials along with the unique qualities and meaning behind each one.
Rudraksha Seed Malas
Rudraksha seeds are some of most popular mala beads and have been used by gurus and monks for thousands of years. Highly sacred, Rudraksha seeds are said to have originated from the tears of Lord Shiva Himself, making them an auspicious choice for meditation. They guard against negativity energy, offer protection, and bring peace and prosperity to the wearer. Their naturally puckered and pitted surface creates a unique sensation for the fingers during meditation, helping ground you in the present. Lightweight and available in all different sizes, Rudraksha seeds are best worn against the skin so you can directly absorb their energies.
Bones malas symbolize impermanence. They remind us that nothing lasts forever, and so we must embrace the present with mindfulness and compassion. Bone is a very common mala material: malas from Nepal and Tibetan in particular are often made with bones from yaks, water buffalo, and oxen. This is partly due to the traditional lifestyles in these regions, where livestock is essential to people’s livelihood. Using the bones of animals raised for sustenance avoids unnecessary waste and allows the animals to be of service long after they’ve passed. Because of the strong Buddhist influence in these regions, you can easily find ethically-made bone malas from Tibet and Nepal. Stark and striking, bone beads are often carved to look like skulls, yet another reminder of life’s transitory nature.
Sandalwood mala beads are carved from the wood of sandalwood trees that grow naturally in Asia and East India. Revered across multiple traditions, sandalwood is considered holy and has long been used in Buddhist and Hindu ceremonies. Meditating with a sandalwood mala is believed to bring the wearer closer to the Divine, calm the mind, and stimulate the Third Eye Chakra. Because sandalwood is naturally fragrant, sandalwood malas often have a subtle scent, one that’s deliciously woody and even a little bit spicy. This unique aroma is of the most prized aspects of sandalwood and is said to inspire tranquility and awareness during meditation. Those who want a more fragrant meditation experience or like to feel grounded through scent will enjoy sandalwood beads.
Rosewood is a prized wood from India and has long been used to make Buddhist rosaries. This wood’s dark, striking color is associated with grounding and protection: meditating with Rosewood beads is said to dispel negativity and bad vibes. Connected to divine goddess energy, Rosewood is also associated with the Heart Chakra, the body’s center of compassion, love, and forgiveness. Anyone wishing to soften their heart or open themselves up to more loving relationships may benefit from using rosewood mala beads. Rosewood beads are smooth and incredibly lightweight, an excellent option for beginners and seasoned meditators.
Lava Stone Malas
Lava stone mala beads are cut from volcanic rock, which is formed when molten lava cools and hardens into a striking black stone. Associated with the Root Chakra, the body’s center of strength and balance, lava stone is a top choice for anyone seeking stability: meditating with lava stone is said to ground the spirit in the healing energies of the earth. Unlike wood beads, which tend to have smoother finish, lava stone has a grittier texture. Many find its rough façade satisfying on the hands and helpful for building awareness during breathing. Lava stone’s porous surface also has the extra benefit of being a natural oil diffuser: adding a few drops of any essential oil to your lava stone mala transforms your meditation into an aromatic experience.
Lotus Seed Malas
The lotus flower is one of the most cherished symbols in Eastern spirituality. Growing naturally in ponds, the lotus must struggle through muck and mud before it rises above the water and blossoms in the sun. Because of this miraculous transformation, the lotus flower has long represented purity, spiritual growth, and triumph over obstacles. Malas made using lotus seeds allude to the lotus’s inspiring journey, reminding you that the most beautiful blossoms often emerge from the muddiest of circumstances. Smooth and lightweight, lotus seed malas are a powerful reminder of your own inherent strength and fortitude.
Bodhi Seed Malas
Bodhi seed beads are actually seeds of the Ficus religiosa, a type of fig tree that grows throughout India and Southeast Asia. Bodhi seeds are auspicious and a vital symbol in Buddhism. According to legend, when the Buddha was seeking enlightenment as a young man, he vowed to meditate under a fig tree until he discovered the answer to humanity’s suffering. After 49 days, he finally attained enlightenment. The tree he sat under was later honored as the original Bodhi tree, Bodhi being the Sanskrit word for enlightenment.
Bodhi seed malas are a beautiful way to honor this story and to fuel your own spiritual practice with a similar sense of patience and commitment. Bodhi seeds beads range in size and tend to be on the smoother side, with traces of tiny cracks and grooves that imbue your mala with an earthy appeal.
When you’re choosing a mala, it’s important to remember there’s no such thing as the “right” mala: there’s only the mala that’s right for you. Knowing the materials that go into making these unique tools can help you decide which mala will enhance your personal practice.