Lately I’ve begun noticing the popularity of mala beads – it seems like everywhere I go, I’m bound to spot them on someone’s wrist. But these bracelets and necklaces are much more than just beautiful accessories: Mala beads are handy tools that can enhance your life and help you become the best version of yourself. Not only are they used as a physical reminder of positive intentions, but they also assist in the process of mantra meditation and self-affirmation. Here you’ll learn more about all three of these practices – including some of the science behind how they work – and the way that your mala beads can be used to reap their rewards.
1. Physical reminder of positive intentions
The standard definition of intention is very much synonymous with an aim or a goal; it is something that you want to do or achieve. In fact, many psychological theories assert that intentions are important predictors of behavior (1). If we dig a little deeper, however, we find that an intention can have an alternate meaning. Phillip Moffitt of DharmaWisdom explains that ‘Setting intention, at least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are "being" in the present moment.’ In other words, whereas the first type of intention pertains to what you will do – what we’ll refer to as a goal intention – a being intention is all about how you feel and think. Both types of intentions can play an important role in our lives: one to take care of ourselves in the more external sense, and the other of our innermost state. They can be applied to health, relationships, career, spirituality, hobbies or any other area that can use some improving.
Here comes the catch…
The problem with intentions is that they can quickly go from inspired preoccupations to failure to launch. Then, of course, comes guilt and disappointment. ‘Why couldn’t I just…’ – a dreaded phrase that eats away at the confidence needed to ever set another intention again. In North America, this has actually transformed into a sort of cultural ritual – yup, you guessed it – at the turn of the new year.
One of the difficulties of seeing through our intentions is that we forget or lose focus. Anxiety or low self-esteem are also factors that may stand in the way (1). So what is it that can help us go from an initial resolve to a successful climb to the top of our chosen mountain?
One answer to that question is a mala, or in the case of goal intentions: a mala with a plan.
I intend to BE
Placing an intention on a mala is the simplest way to use it to your advantage. You’ve probably heard this expression before, ‘Out of sight, out of mind!’ By letting your mala represent your intention, you have an ever-present visual cue that will keep it at the forefront. Since the mala is worn on your body, it’s also a way of always feeling your intention. It functions as a kind, gentle reminder to nudge you along the path that you desire.
The mala can represent just one major intention for you. Alternatively, you can be more fluid and set small new intentions for each day, before an activity, or prior to entering a particular situation. Regardless, the intention needs to pertain to the way of thinking and feeling that you know will be of benefit for you.
Melissa Eiser from Mindfulness Minutes explains these intentions can be ‘a word or phrase you’d like to align yourself with.’ Her examples of potential words include ‘peace’ or ‘love’ and phrases such as ‘act with courage’ or ‘open your mind and heart.’ You can take a few moments to meditate over the intention. This simply entails sitting down, closing your eyes, and focusing on the state of being that you wish to embody and that the mala will represent.
I intend to ACHIEVE
Similarly, a mala can serve as a much-needed reminder of goal intentions, but the addition of a plan will further increase your chances of avoiding what scientists call the ‘intention-behaviour gap’(2). The power of planning has been demonstrated in a number of studies that revolved around physical activity. For example, in one study, it was found that intentions helped predict exercise levels. However, action plans resulted in exercise even a year later, whereas intentions alone did not have such a long lasting impact (3). Other researchers tested the effects of both an action plan and a coping plan. Coping planning helped intention setters who had already started exercising and wanted to continue to do so. On the other hand, action planning helped improve exercise rates for those who had a high intention to get active, emphasizing the importance of a strong desire in this process (2).
So what exactly do these types of plans consists of?
Action plans describe when, where, and how particular actions will be taken to achieve a goal. A coping plan, on the other hand, details the difficulties that could be faced and precisely what will be done to overcome them (think ‘if-then’ scenarios). These could be regarded as goal intentions, called ‘implementation intentions’ (1). When they are formulated, people become less easily forgetful about their intention because behavior is being prompted through situational cues (3).
Intending to help others: A win-win situation
The benefits of using a mala to set intentions for yourself are pretty clear. Regular exercise whips your body into shape. Reducing stress supports your mental health and prevents damage to vital bodily systems. Being more grateful enables you to feel happier and more at peace, and so on.
But what about striving to make your community and the world a better place? Setting intentions with your mala doesn’t have to start and end with yourself – it can be something that you extend outward through yourself. The amazing thing is that regardless of what intentions your mala will represent – whether they are explicitly geared for improving your life or the lives of others – things will likely come full-circle. That’s because doing good for others does good for you, too!
Involving 2016 adults, a study found that providing help to others was a more significant predictor of mental health than receiving help (4). This has also been documented among the elderly: volunteers had drastically lower rates of depression and anxiety while a longer study discovered that providing instrumental support to family, friends and neighbors reduced death rates (5, 6). Aside from all these benefits, helping others simply feels good! There’s even a name for it - ‘helper’s high’ – something that two-thirds of individuals experienced in the study that first documented this phenomenon (7).
So what are the physical processes that may be responsible for some of these wonderful effects? Brain scans have shown that altruism reduced stress-related mechanisms and boosted reward-related and caregiving-related activity within the brain, something that receiving support did not do (8). There maybe other physiological process resulting as well: students who watched a movie about Mother Teresa’s charitable work in Calcutta had increased levels of immunoglobulin (S-Ig A ) – an antibody that is vital for immune function. It stayed high even an hour later in students that maintained their attention on the ‘loving relationships’ that were featured in the film (9).
So go ahead, set an intention that inspires and energizes you! Whether the intention is a personal goal, a way to be mindful of your innermost being, or something that will help those around you – your mala beads won’t let you forget.
2. Mantra meditation
If you’ve never heard about mantra meditation (also commonly referred to as ‘japa’ meditation), it may seem like a mysterious or complex concept. The reality, however, is that it is very straightforward. A mantra is simply a sound, word, or phrase that is continuously repeated to achieve relaxation or a particular spiritual goal (10). To enhance its effects, breath work is often incorporated and a mala may be used to track repetitions and maintain flow. Mantras have been recited for literally thousands of years across a multitude of religions (10), but this particular term is derived from the East. In the Sanskrit language, ‘man’ translates to ‘mind’ and ‘tra’ to ‘tools’ or ‘instruments’. Together, mantra translates to ‘instrument of thought.’ There are many variations of mantra meditation such as: transcendental meditation, mantram repetition program, relaxation response, acem meditation, and compassion meditation. (11). At their core, however, they all share the same goal of increasing well-being through focused repetition of sound.
Sounds (no pun intended)….interesting! But does it work?
Most of us have heard that meditation is highly beneficial, but what about meditation that incorporates mantras? Students who were taught four different meditation techniques commonly rated mantra or vipassana meditation as their first choice. Both incorporate breath work as a central component and were described as ‘easier, more enjoyable, and more relaxing to practice.’ The additional mental stimulation of sound in mantra meditation contributed to how easy and pleasurable it was to practice (12).
Similarly, it was shown to drastically boost a sense of fulfillment in self-potential (‘self-realization’) and was more effective at inducing relaxation than a popular yogic relaxation technique (known as shavasana or ‘corpse pose’) (13). This is not to say that other forms of meditation or yogic practices are inferior. Rather, mantra meditation is highly user-friendly and may be a particularly great starting point for novice meditators. What’s more: its benefits have been reaped by people from all ages and walks of life. Nursing home residents, for example, chanted the sound ‘Om’ as part of a yogic relaxation program. It contributed to a reduction in depression and anxiety, had an invigorating effect, and was enjoyable enough that they looked forward to their mediation meetings (14, 15).
Your brain on mantra
Research has been conducted to explore the exact processes that may occur in the brain during this practice. One study found that repetitive speech ‘induces a wide-spread unidirectional reduction in activation in the human cortex’ which causes a decrease in ‘thought-related cognitive processes.’ The researchers suggest that this deactivation of thought is part of what causes the relaxing feelings associated with mantra meditation (10). Additionally, during compassion meditation, regions of the brain associated with empathy and feelings of happiness were shown to become active. The experienced practitioner chanted, ‘Ohm manu Padma hum,’ a time-honored Buddhist chant, and visualized the deity Chenrezig (16).
How to practice mantra meditation with a mala
1) Choose your mala
You may already have a mala that you love. If you don’t, check out our beautiful malas here. We have several different collections, and even design customized malas! Best of all, 100% of proceeds are donated to Trees for the Future, a non-profit dedicated to alleviating poverty and environmental degradation through the planting of trees.
2) Choose your mantra
Before you sit down to perform mantra meditation, you will need to choose your mantra. But what is the best one to use?
One scientist found that despite the assertion in transcendental meditation that each person needs to be assigned a unique mantra by a guru - this is not exactly the case. He reviewed academic literature and summarized that the benefits of mantra meditation have been replicated with made-up mantras or other non-spiritual focus words. These included improvements for physiological indicators such as blood pressure and heart rate (17).
On the other hand, a study found that completing 3 rounds of the maha mantra with a 109 bead mala each day for 4 weeks significantly reduced stress and depression, more so than placebo mantras. The maha mantra is derived from the ancient Vedas and goes as follows: hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare/hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare. After a month of no chanting, the positive effects of the maha mantra subsided, demonstrating the importance of regularly incorporating meditation practices into your life (15).
So what does all of this mean? The conclusion that I draw from these contradictory results is this: Just choose a mantra that you like - if it’s not getting you the results you were hoping for, switch it up and try another one. The choice of mantras is limitless, so you can experiment with different ones. The meaning behind the mantra might really resonate with you, or the sounds of the words might be what appeals the most. Regardless, go with what feels the best to you.
There are many simple mantras that you can start with, such as the ones suggested by mindbodygreen.
3) Start meditating
Equipped with a mala in your hand and a mantra in your mind, follow the simple step-by-step instructions below to begin mantra meditation. You may also find this short video tutorial helpful for learning this method.
1) Find a comfortable and quiet spot to sit (once you familiarize yourself with the mantra mediation technique, it can even be performed while walking).
2) Position the mala in your hand by hanging the first bead (the one immediately above the largest bead, also known as the ‘Guru’ bead) over your middle finger. Place your thumb on top of this bead.
3) Say your mantra loud enough that you can hear it. For maximum effect, you may choose to synchronise this with your breath by breathing in deeply and saying your mantra as you breath out.
4) Reach with your thumb for the next bead (which rotates the mala clockwise as you do so) and repeat your mantra.
5) Continue this process until you reach the Guru bead.
6) After completing one full rotation, do as many additional rotations as you need to reach a state of calm and relaxation. You can start with a couple of rotations, and work your way up with time and experience.
Now that we’ve covered mantra meditation we can explore one more valuable practice. It also harnesses the power of repetition and can be performed with the help of a mala.
Affirmations seem to be all the rage within the self-help movement. Recently I came across an article by a woman who made an astounding 1 million affirmations within 101 days – reportedly with wonderful results. And then there was the TEDx talk where a man described how listening to a home-made affirmation tape improved his temper within 30 days. According to Louis Hay, a popular motivational author, ‘Every thought you think and every word you speak is an affirmation. All of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, is a stream of affirmations.’ The problem is that much of this self-talk is negative. One blogger collected an illuminating list of statements from experts on the effect of negative thinking on our physical and emotional well-being, which in turn can affect our behaviour as well.
Self-affirmation is about taking control of these thought processes and consciously deciding to ruminate on what is positive and beneficial. More specifically, it is a process of reflecting on personal values and strengths (18). In psychology, self-affirmation theory contests that people, at their very core, are driven to protect self-integrity by preserving a ‘positive, moral and adaptive self-image’ (19). It is a way of adjusting our perspective - it moves our attention to the wonderful resources within ourselves and our lives.
This adjustment in perspective can reduce stress and defensiveness, expands our view from ourselves to see the bigger picture, helps us find meaning in what we’re facing, and allows us to respond to these challenges in healthier ways (20). In fact, self-affirmation has been shown to have a multitude of benefits through hundreds of studies (21).
Self-affirmation for the win
Self-affirmation can improve what scientists refer to as ‘hedonic’ and ‘audaimonic’ well-being – two very fancy words that pretty much amount to the same thing…happiness! To be more specific, the former occurs when positive emotions prevail over the negative ones. The latter, when psychological needs are satisfied, life feels meaningful, and experiences feel enjoyable, immersive, and energizing (22). It’s no surprise then that in a 3185 person study, engagement in spontaneous self-affirmation resulted in ‘greater happiness, hopefulness, optimism, subjective health, and personal health efficacy, and less anger and sadness’ (18).
Performance is another area that can benefit from some positive self-talk. When students were made to complete 30 challenging problems - within a time limit and under the presence of an evaluator…yikes! - chronically stressed students who participated in brief self-affirmation performed better than those who had not (23). Additionally, self-affirmation can help maintain self-control. Researchers believe this is likely because it increases what they refer to as ‘mental construal’ – how a person perceives the world around them. They provide the example of voting. One can view it as merely marking a ballet, or, as a chance to influence an election outcome. The latter interpretation encompasses the ‘global, superordinate, abstract features of an event’ – a part of the healthy, invigorating mindset that self-affirmation supports (24).’
In the face of criticism, self-affirmation can help reduce defensive physiological responses. The blood pressure scores of essay writers returned to normal after their evaluations quicker than their non-affirmed counterparts (25). But what if your social life is what gets your nerves going? A short, 15-minute affirmation was shown to boost both relational security (essentially how confident one feels in their interpersonal relationships) and social behaviour (reaction to self-threat and openness toward others). Astoundingly, these positive effects continued for several weeks (26).
Many of us are striving to get healthier, and self-affirmation can play a role here by boosting acceptance of valuable health messages (27). After women were educated on the importance of plant foods, for example, self-affirmation increased their fruit and vegetable intake. In fact, intake went up by about 5.5 portions throughout the week following affirmations in comparison to those who did not affirm (28). Having a healthy view of our bodies is perhaps as important as actually having a healthy body. Teenaged girls who self-affirmed had much higher levels of body satisfaction and felt less threatened from having to rate their shape and weight. This occurred not only due to an increase in their self-esteem, but also because their source of self-esteem was shifted away from their appearance (19).
Your brain on self-affirmation
Just like with mantra meditation, research has been conducted to pinpoint the effects of self-affirmation on brain processes. While reflecting on personal values, neural reward regions in the brain called the ‘ventral striatum’ are stimulated (21). Self-affirmation can also boost activity in areas of the brain responsible for self-processing, such as the medial prefrontal cortext and the posterior cingulate cortex. The parts of the brain that are responsible for valuation (the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex), also show activity during future-focused value affirmations (29).
How to use a mala to affirm yourself
There are different ways of affirming yourself, such as writing about a major personal value and why it’s so important to you – a method employed in some of the aforementioned studies. Another way that is easy and convenient employs a mala. It is very similar to mantra meditation, but instead of repeating a Sanskrit mantra, a chosen affirmation is repeated for each bead.
1) Choose an affirmation
In order to choose the right affirmation for you, think about what it is that you are facing. What areas of your life would you like to improve? What behaviors have been holding you back? Which thoughts, feelings, and attitudes are counterproductive? Once you choose what you would like to address, you can begin formulating your message.
Here are a few important things to remember:
• An affirmation needs to be fairly specific – a ‘wishy washy’ general statement that doesn’t directly pertain to what you are addressing will not be of much good.
• It should also be in the present tense – we want it to feel real and possible right now, rather than a continuously out-of-reach future state of being.
• Keeping affirmations realistic is also very important - they need to be attainable.
• One study found that a value affirmation (e.g. ‘This is what’s most important to me and here’s why..’) had a different effect than attribution affirmation (e.g. ‘I am attractive’ or ‘I am intelligent’). Whereas a value affirmation boosted ‘self-clarity’ (or in other words, heightened the sense of integrity and assuredness in identity) – it did not do the same for self-esteem. Attribution affirmation, on the other hand, boosted self-esteem but not self-clarity. This makes value affirmations better for conquering threats to integrity and self-image (for example, like the kinds that occur when you do something that doesn’t align with your values). Attribute affirmation is better for addressing and preventing the self-esteem issues that result from ‘self-depreciating social comparison’ (30).
If you don’t want to formulate your own affirmations or just need some ideas, there are plenty of examples on the internet. Here are some affirmations from livebold&bloom for happiness, love relationships, success, confidence, self-esteem, health, peace, mindfulness, and inner calmness.
2) Use your mala to repeat the affirmation
The beads on a mala can help keep you on track during your affirmations, serving as a sort of watch or guide that paces you along and prevents you from doing too few affirmations. You can be totally spontaneous about it, or develop a routine that you enjoy. For example, every morning you may choose to do one mala round of an affirmation to remain positive and grateful, such as: I choose to focus on all of the good and abundance that permeates every single moment. If you repeat it twice more during the day, that’s a total of 324 affirmations. Over the course of a week, you’ve listened to 2268 positive messages!
The beauty of mala affirmations is that you can do them whenever you feel like it. You can also come up with appropriate affirmations as the circumstances change in your day. Don’t shy away from putting some feeling into the words as you repeat them –silently or out loud - or evoking images of yourself achieving that which you seek to accomplish through your practice. You might also find it helpful to listen to relaxing music while you affirm.
So there you have it. Intention setting, mantra meditation, and self-affirmation.These are the three brilliant practices where mala beads can be employed to help you become the best that you can be. Do you already use a mala for anyone of these or are you planning on giving it your first try? Have you heard of any other interesting ways to put mala beads to good use? Leave your comments down below
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