Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What are Mala Beads?

Mala beads - those strings of beads you see in the little basket at your studio, or wrapped around peoples wrists or subtly tucked under their collars. You've seen them in other Eastern practices such as on Buddhist monks, or Indian renuciates, even clicking through peoples fingers as you watch an episode of PBS. But what are they? What do they really represent?

I found this beautiful article in Tricycle, Winter 06 that offered a lovely explanation of mala beads as it relates to the Buddhist tradition. Yogic philosophy is not that far removed from the Buddhist traditions and my research into both have found more similarities than differences.

From Tricycle, Winter 2006 (Clark Strand): "'All beads are worry beads - from the Pope's rosary all the way down to those little wrist malas...' worn by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. People of every religious tradition will claim that their beads are for praying - for appealing to a higher power, for collecting the spirit or concentrating the mind - and while this is indisputably true, that is not their primary purpose. Beads are for worry. They answer a human need so basic it actually precedes a religious consciousness - and that is to fret over things...The difference between the Buddhist mala and the various Western-style rosaries is simply that it makes this explicit in the symbolism of its beads."

"The message of the Buddhist mala is 'Don't worry about things; worry about the fact that you are so worried all the time, and address the foot of that."

This is from Wikipedia:
Mantras are often repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can think about the meaning of the mantra as it is chanted rather than thinking about counting the repetitions. One mantra is usually said for every bead, turning the thumb clockwise around each bead, though some traditions or practices may call for counterclockwise or specific finger usage. When arriving at the head bead [the largest bead with the tassel], one turns the mala around and then goes back in the same direction. This makes using the mala easier as the beads will not be so tight on the string when you use them.

The 109th bead on a mala is called the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. Counting should always begin with a bead next to the sumeru. In the Hindu, Vedic tradition, if more than one mala of repetitions is to be done, one changes directions when reaching the sumeru rather than crossing it. The sumeru thus becomes the static point on the mala.

"The larger...bead at the end of the mala is the equivalent of the crucifix on a Catholic rosary. It is the teacher - and the teaching - we keep coming back to with every cycle we pray." (Tricycle, Clark Strand; Winter 2006, pg 40):

There are numerous explanations why there are 108 beads, with the number 108 bearing special religious significance in a number of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

Hindu tradition holds that the correct way to use a mala is with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. The index finger represents ego, the greatest impediment to Self-Realization, so it is considered best avoided (as with the ego) when chanting on a mala.

Malas are also used in many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, often with a lesser number of beads (usually a divisor of 108). In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 bead malas are common. In China such malas are named "Shu-Zhu". These shorter malas are sometimes called 'prostration rosaries', because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations. In Tibetan Buddhism malas are also 108 beads: one mala counts as 100 mantras, and the 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all sentient beings (the practice as a whole is dedicated at its end as well).


A wide variety of materials are used to make mala beads. In Hinduism, Vaishnavas generally use the Japamaala of Tulsi beads. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions call for the use of bone (animal, most commonly yak) or sometimes human, the bones of past Lamas being the most valuable. Others use wood or seeds from the Bodhi tree or seeds of the Lotus plant. Semi-precious stones such as carnelian and amethyst may be used, as well. The most common and least expensive material is sandalwood. In Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayana, materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.

Care of the beads
"Every Buddhist tradition stresses that the beads must be cared for as if they were a precious sutra or a Buddhist robe...considering we use them to recite mantras. Then there is the fact...the mala is meant to be worn when not is use. Thus to use a mala is both to take up a spiritual text and to clothe onself in the truth of the Buddhist way. (Tricycle, Clark Strand; Winter 2006, pg 40.)

This was another interesting article on the meaning and use of malas in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions: Mala Beads

If you are interested in what different types of beads mean or would like to obtain your own worry beads, Japa Mala Beads has some great descriptions. A Google search will turn up other sites as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

David Sweson Talks

I had meant to post this earlier. The workshop at the Yoga House, Edina, MN was similar to his talk here.

"Real" Yoga with David Swenson
By Cara Jepson
March-April 1999

Yoga Chicago Website:

"I'm not here to talk you through the first series," David Swenson told us. "If you wanted to do that, you could have had Suddha plug in the tv and pop in my first series video. Afterward you could have mailed your questions to me in Texas." His joke set the tone for David's N.U. Yoga Center-sponsored ashtanga workshop in January. The weekend-long intensive was a cheerful potpourri of nuts-and-bolts instruction, energetic encouragement, partner exercises, lively conversation and, yes, plenty of yoga humor.

David began practicing yoga with his brother when he was 13. He was introduced to ashtanga in 1973 by David Williams, and first studied with K. Pattabhi Jois when he came to the US in 1975. David has been to the Ashtanga Research Center in Mysore countless times, and had plenty of Pattabhi-isms to share. When asked about the merits of the increasingly difficult ashtanga series, he said (in guruji's accent), "First series, very important. Second series somewhat important. Third series-only for demonstration."

The workshop began with a Q and A in which we discussed the foundations of the ashtanga system, including ujjayi pranayama.

"The breath acts as an indicator or barometer of your practice," David explained, and demonstrated marichyasana A. First he scrunched up his face and snorted loudly, straining his chin toward his shin; then he relaxed into the pose and breathed inaudibly. "The lights are on but no one's home," he said after the second example. "They're day-shopping. This happens a lot with people who are very flexible."

The three bandhas, or locks, are also integral to the practice of ashtanga yoga. He compared them to energy valves. Uddiyana bandha is a contraction three inches below the navel. Jalandhara bandha is achieved by tucking the chin into the notch in the collarbone.
"Where's the mula bandha?" he asked, and then answered his own question. "As a Brazilian woman at one of my workshops said, 'It's in front of the anus and behind the vegetables.'
"But it's more subtle than gross muscles," he added after the laughter died down. "And unfortunately you can't see mula bandha unless you practice at one of those nude yoga clubs."
"Locks are like 'Star Trek.' They start to de-materialize at the end of the inhale, and re-materialize at the exhale. They should be there throughout the practice, but the reality is that they come and they go."

As his first teacher, David Williams, told him, "Real yoga is what you can't see. It's invisible."
"Otherwise you would have to tell people with physical limitations that they can't do yoga," David said. "Yoga is about union. You can't exclude people.

"You don't have to do this to do yoga," he said, and placed a foot behind his head. "If you're not flexible, don't worry-there will always be someone with more flexibility, more strength, better hair."

He explained the "physics of flight," or how to "float" through vinyasa. The key is to remember the locks, use the gaze and propel the hips and sit-bones upward. "Your legs will follow," he assured us. Then we broke into groups to practice.

He showed us variations for each pose in the primary series, including vinyasa. "If you skip vinyasa, concentrate on breath. If you miss one, it's not like there isn't another one coming. There's a Vinnie around every corner, waiting for you."

Then he began to sing and march across the stage. "Vinyasa is the way to go! / Jump on back and feel the flow / Upward dog and downward too / Take your feet and jump on through."

He showed us adjustments for many of the poses, and revealed a number of secrets, such as how to come up from upavistha konasana (grab the big toes, lean forward and push the legs down before lifting the head and pulling up the feet).

One of the more unusual exercises was "Seven Suns," or seven versions of surya namaskara A. We did it quickly (to free the mind), slowly (to cultivate consciousness), with eyes closed (to develop an internal awareness) and with our breath in sync with the other students (to deepen the breathing). We also scrutinized another student's salutation (to bring a more critical eye to our own practice) and talked our partner through the process (for depth of understanding) . Finally, we combined them to discover the "essence" of the sequence.

At one point, David was asked whether the fast-paced, trial-and-error nature of ashtanga is compatible with the alignment-based Iyengar system. There are more similarities than differences, he said. The Iyengar style is like a photograph, while ashtanga is many images being pulled through a movie projector. "In ashtanga you see the whole thing. In Iyengar you see the detail in each photo.

"Ashtanga is more about energy than creating the perfect shape. The level of alignment I like to see is enough that injury is not likely to occur."

He advised against yoga cross-training. "If you combine both, you could lose the best aspects of each. But you should not be frightened of other systems of yoga. I'm not a traveling ashtanga evangelist. This just happens to be the system I have fallen in love with.

"It may be monotonous, because it's a sequence, but it has a purpose. It addresses everyone's weaknesses and strengths."

Another question, about his long-awaited practice manual, revealed that it should be available in the spring. David is also working on a second book, which will cover ashtanga, the Mysore experience and the different series. He said he plans to include pictures of "a variety of different bodies" in each pose, and will soon be seeking photo submissions. "Yoga is not just me doing the asanas. I want to show the full range of body type, age, strength, flexibility and color. Ashtanga is for everyone, but the poses don't look the same on every body.

"Real yoga lives in everyday interactions, like being nice. It's the unity we can create around us. If it were just about gymnastics, then Olympic medalists would be swamis and gurus. "

Friday, March 14, 2008


(David Swenson c/o Yoga House)
I had the opportunity to attend a weekend intensive workshop with renown Ashtanga instructor David Swenson (see picture). This was not my first time in his presence: I did my initial 40 hour teacher training in 2004 in Burlington VT with him and his wife, and attended weekend workshops in 2006 and 2007. I find his style approachable, instructive and fun. I will also admit, this was one of the more intensive workshop weekends I have attended: 1 ½ hour guided Primary Friday evening; 1 ½ hour guided Primary on Saturday morning, followed by a 2 hour breakdown of backbends and inversions (yes, we worked on headstand) and 2 ½ hours in the afternoon where we did the Primary sequence again with Secondary sequence added on. Sunday was another guided Primary and in the afternoon a breakdown of the jump thru, jump back and the jump forward.

I love doing workshops. Not only is it a chance for me to gain instruction from some fabulous teachers, but it’s an opportunity to study different styles, to immerse myself in the nuances of the Ashtanga tradition and to challenge myself. I have been to workshops by David Williams, Doug Swenson, Govinda Kai, Manju Jois, David Swenson, and Michelle Syme. While all are teaching the same sequence, no two instructors approach the Primary series in the same manner. This is fascinating to me.

For example, David Williams doesn’t do headstand. At all. He doesn’t like how it feels on his neck so therefore he omits it. He also emphasizes that yoga should be fun, because if you enjoy it today you are more likely to do it tomorrow.

Doug Swenson has developed a Sahdna Chi style of yoga that gently flows from one posture to the next. While he likes the Ashtanga sequence, he feels that "working outside of the box" improves the postures in the Ashtanga sequence.

Manju Jois and Govinda Kai are traditionalists. You begin with the opening invocation, move methodically through the sequence and end with a closing invocation. The sequence is counted and called out all in Sanscrit. This is followed immediately with pranyama exercises and chanting (yes, in Sanscrit). Michelle is also a traditionalist, but likes to play music during her classes.
David Swenson does what I call a ‘contemporary’ practice. He may or may not start with the opening invocation. He may or may not do the "Om’s". He counts the breaths mostly in English, adding the Sanscrit counting only after the class is moving. He encourages modification. The reason he omits the Om’s and the chants is because there may be someone in the class who’s beliefs do not encompass the traditional aspects of the practice.

Workshops can be daunting. You are moving out of your classroom and away from the teacher you have become familiar with. The situation is no longer comfortable - new place, new routine. The workshop instructor may count things differently, may have you do something different in your poses or even do a slightly different sequence from what you are used to. They may challenge your world view in subtle but significant ways. And this is why I love workshops. They challenge me to go beyond what I have gotten used to, open my mind to new ideas and refresh and invigorate my practice.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Yoga Etiquette

Last week I attended a mandatory "Respectful Workplace" training session and one gentleman in the room boldly raised his hand after the introduction of the seminar and trainer and sarcastically asked, "Why are we doing this? Didn’t we all learn this in Kindergarden?" The trainer was very patient in her reply, "Yes, but sometimes we need a reminder and the idea or concept of "respect" has different meanings for different people in todays society." I confess, I had snickered and laughed when I saw I was required to go, but much to my surprise, this was a well conducted session.

Many of the items we discussed during the training apply to more than just a workplace - respect is applicable to every aspect of our lives, the groups we belong to, our families and our greater communities. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss a bit of "yoga etiquette".

Attitude of Gratitude
I have been hearing this one for years and have always enjoyed it. Be thankful for the small and large things that come your way be they positive or negative. Be expressive and positive in words, acts, and feelings. Find contentment in all tasks.

Let the instructor know if you are new to class
Many classes are open sessions, which means there is usually a core group who comes regularly and then a spattering of people who come as schedules permit. This way you let the instructor know you are new to them and gives the instructor an opportunity to discuss the class with you.

Let the instructor know if you have any injuries
Even if you are a regular, the instructor doesn’t know what you are bringing to that days class. Maybe you fell over the weekend and strained a wrist. Perhaps you have a recurring injury that has manifested itself again. This way they know not to adjust you or can offer modifications that will assist you in your recovery.

Avoid stepping on other peoples mats
This seems an obvious thing, but it is surprising how many people walk willy-nilly over others mats. Your mat, be it your own or a borrowed one, is your sacred space for this session. Honor that space. If the room is especially crowded, try and walk the edges as best as possible.

Wipe down borrowed mats
If the studio offers mat wipes, wipe down your borrowed mat after your session. Doesn’t hurt to wipe it at the start either.

Let the instructor know if you need to leave early
It is disconcerting for the instructor to suddenly have a student roll up their mat an leave 15 minutes before class is finished. The instructor is left wondering, Did I offend? Did they hurt themselves? What happened? This way the student can leave without awkwardness and the instructor can facilitate final poses for that person.

Try to arrive on time
While work, family, and driving conditions do affect this, try to arrive on time. It is awkward when a person arrives late to a class who have already settled into pranayama and now the whole row must shift over disrupting the flow. If you are late, allow the instructor to help you find a space. It may not be where you want to sit, but they often see a spot that will offer the minimum amount of disturbance to the rest of the class.

Refrain from talking during class
It is distracting for the students and instructor when best friends are carrying on "coffee talk" or running commentary in the back corner. Please save friendly conversation for before or after class.

Some studios begin class with no talking to allow people to ground and center themselves before the session starts. If the roomful of people is quiet, honor that. If you are visiting a studio where people are quite chatty at the start of class, honor that too. Yoga is a community and for some talking before class strengthens that communal bond.

Stagger your mats
If you line up with the people around you, you will be swatting hands and limbs all through your session. If you alternate mats (one mat forward, one back, one forward) it gives everyone a bit of additional space to move freely. Plus by doing this ahead of time the whole row won’t have to adjust again at the start of class.

Let the instructor know immediately if an adjustment does not work for you OR if you DO NOT want to be adjusted
Everybody is different and has different personal space. A good instructor will stop and thank you for your feedback. This prevents injury and ill feelings on the students behalf and worry and anxiety on the instructors.

As with the list I was given during "Respectful Workplace Training", there are numerous others. I invite you to add comments about any positive experiences that you may have had or what you may consider to be respectful in a yoga session.