108 Sun Salutes?! When? How? WHY?! Here we give an overview of the tradition and numerology around a Yoga Mala and some practical tips for performing or leading it.
In this article you'll find our thoughts on
What is a Yoga Mala?
When and Why are Yoga Mala performed?
How can I prepare to perform or lead a Yoga Mala?
What else can I expect during or after a Yoga Mala?
A note on practicing alone.
What is a Yoga Mala?
Mala means garland in Sanskrit. Think about garland pose, Malasana, with the arms wrapped around the body. Or a japa mala necklace: a continuous loop of beads used for prayer, mantra or meditation (and the inspiration for the Catholic rosary.)
A Yoga Mala is a loop of Sun Salutes performed continuously, usually for 108 rounds. If you aren’t familiar with a Sun Salute, see below for a slideshow demonstration of the poses of Sun Salute A:
Ardha Uttanasana Uttansana
The number 108 is significant in Hinduism, Buddhism, ancient Indian astrology, and yoga:
The Sun is 108 Sun-diameters away from Earth on average.
Moon is 108 Moon-diameters away from Earth on average.
The diameter of the Sun is 108x the diameter of the Earth.
An ancient Indian astronomic calculation of the speed of light used the number 108 (it was not entirely accurate by modern calculations, but pretty close.)
There are 108 Upanishads, which are a collection of Indian religious and philosophical texts from as early as 800 BCE.
There are 108 Puranas, or Sanskrit sacred writings on Hindu mythology from as early as 400 BCE.
There are 108 chapters of the Rig Veda, another ancient Hindu religous text.
There are 108 primary Tantras.
There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, where each has two forms: masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti), totaling 108.
There 108 sacred ritual sites for yogis and pilgrims throughout India.
In the field of Ayurveda, there are 108 marma points, where matter and concentration meet and...
108 nadis, or energy lines, that intersect at the heart chakra.
In the Hindu tradition, there are 108 attendants of Shiva and...
Lord Krishna had 108 followers.
In buddhism, the words of the Buddha are recorded in a book of 108 volumes.
A bell is chimed 108 times in Buddhist temples in Japan to finish the old year and welcome the new one.
There are 108 beads on a japa mala prayer bead necklace (plus one guru bead) and...
108 beads on a Catholic rosary.
Pranayama, mantra or prayers are often repeated in groups of 9, 12, 27, 54 or 108 by people of all faiths and traditions.
When and Why are Yoga Mala Performed?
A Yoga Mala is typically performed by an individual or group to mark a significant change. Auspicious times for a Yoga Mala could be...
at the summer and winter solstice, respectively the longest and shortest days of the year.
at the spring and fall equinox, the most even days of light and dark in the year.
on your teacher’s birthday.
to stay grounded in times of transition, like a birthday, a move, or a job change.
to acknowledge beginnings and endings, like new babies, marriages, and deaths.
to celebrate, honor or be aware of the repetitive nature of samskara, the turning wheel of habitual patterning from which we try to break free in meditation.
How can I Prepare to Perform or Lead a Yoga Mala?
1. Set an intention. Isn't the first step of any yoga practice to set intention?! No different for a Yoga Mala. Your intention for performing mala is important. This is a marathon of a practice, physically and mentally. So, establishing why you are there will shape and guide the rest of the process of preparation, help you make key choices, and keep you motivated when you inevitably wonder why in the hell you decided to commit to this!
2. Decide what kind of Yoga Mala you will perform. Already, your intention is guiding you in preparing. Choose a mala style that aligns with your purpose. WARNING: There is math ahead!
Traditional: the most traditional version includes 7 rounds of Sun Salute + 2 rounds of Sun Salute B = 1 set. Perform 12 sets. (9 rounds x 12 sets = 108 Sun Salutes.)
Shorter form: perform 108 rounds of Sun Salute A. (This is the version I have led most often, it takes around 2 hours to complete, plus time for Savasana.)
Uncounted: skip counting entirely and instead perform sun salutes until you feel absorbed and complete in them. While 108 is a significant number, there is nothing magical about it so depending on your intention for performing mala, you may not be attached to the specific number at all.
Personalized: if none of these systems speak to your intention, decide what does. This is, after all, YOUR practice. How will you perform mala?
3. If you are leading a group, decide how many leaders you have and how you will distribute the load of guiding the group.
I suggest having at least three leaders so that one person can call out the poses, one person can count and one person can rest or perform/demo sun salutes, switching roles at reasonable times.
Switching roles at the end of a set or every ten rounds is a good way to ensure that no one gets too tired in one role to be an effective leader.
If you decided to take breaks, maybe in Balasana, between sets, this could be a natural time to switch leaders or roles.
I suggest leaving one mat open at the front for the demonstrator rather than taking the time and distraction of switching mats around. Remember, you are guiding meditation in movement.
I avoid giving corrections and adjustments during a Yoga Mala. This is a moving meditation, not a time for teaching nor refining poses.
Get other studios, teachers or communities involved! This is a great time to collaborate and bring a whole town or region together. The more leaders, participants and energy collected, the more supported everyone will feel. Again, this is a marathon, so consider combining your resources.
4. Plan a counting system, if you will count.
Traditional: if you are performing 7 A’s and 2 B’s in every set, you will need three different colors of markers of some sort (small stones, buttons, coins, beads or shells work well.) You will need 7 of color A, 2 of color B, and 12 of color C. Start with all markers on one side of your mat. At the first forward fold of each salutations move one marker to the other side of the mat; color A for Sun Salute A’s and color B for Sun Salute B’s. When all markers of colors A and B are moved, move one marker of color C. (So, on every 9th Sun Salute you will actually move two markers, one of color B and one of color C.) Now you know you have performed 7 SSA’s, 2 SSB’s and thus, one set. Continue until all of color C are moved.
Shorter form: I use twenty markers; ten of color A and ten of color B. As above, I move one marker of color A in each first forward fold of a sun salute. When all 10 of color A have moved, I move one of color B. (Again, that means I move two markers, one of each color on every 10th sun salute.) Repeat ten times until all of color B have moved. Then I count 8 more rounds without marking the last 8.
I suggest that the person counting is NOT also the person calling poses. Cuing and counting are both difficult jobs to sustain for so long. If the counter and the caller are different, both jobs are more manageable. Of course, if you are performing a solo Yoga Mala, you will be counting for yourself, but you will not be calling poses aloud, and after a few rounds, you will automatically move the counters when you forward fold.
If you miscount or lose count, start over at 1... just kidding ;) If you lose count, don’t freak out!! While it is an auspicious number, there is nothing magical about 108. If you do 107 or 109, it is still a Yoga Mala. There is no shame in being a bit imperfect. Remember that your intention, concentration and community are more important than the actual number. Just make a best guess about where you are and keep going.
5. Decide how you will begin. Do you or does your studio or group have a standard invocation for practices? Or another opening ritual? Do you want to lead a warm up?
I like to begin a group mala with a short introduction of the significance of the number 108 as listed above, a VERY brief reminder of some safety considerations, and then I hold space for 3-5 minutes of quiet breathing and settling where I might invite participants to focus on their own intention for joining the mala. Then we dive in! I don't lead a warm up per se, but I do take the first 5 rounds or so a bit slower and let the group ease into the rhythm. If the leaders are tuned into the group well, you will feel when the rhythm naturally begins to pick up. There is usually a point when folks begin sweating and breathing fully and deeply into each pose, and then I know we are warming. There is also a point where the room goes a bit quieter - when I can feel that everyone is falling into their own inner space and becoming less reliant on the cues, more in sync with each other and at the same time less aware of each other*. (More on group awareness below.)
6. Decide how you will end. Absolutely, positively, definitely plan to take a long Savasana afterward! Don’t skimp! My golden rule for Savasana is 5 mins of rest for every 30 mins of asana. A Yoga Mala typically takes me 2 hours, so that’s a 20 min rest for good absorption. Savasana could also be open ended with participants leaving whenever they feel rested. Or maybe you want to hold the space open for seated meditation after bringing everyone out of Savasana together. If your studio or group has a standard closing blessing, you may want to use that. Or you may end by chanting Om or Shanti together before leaving.
At our spring equinox Yoga Mala this year, we will serve tea and cake after Savasana because that's how we roll. (*Our spring equinox mala has sadly been canceled due to corona virus restrictions on group meetings. But we plan to reorganize for a summer solstice yoga mala, and you can bet we will have cake there!)
What Else can I Expect During a Yoga Mala?
Above I mentioned something about group awareness. There is a special kind of awareness that I have experienced in a Yoga Mala where the leader becomes somewhat unnecessary because the group finds a rhythm of its own, independant of any one individual. Sometimes the leader is actually following the group, more like a commentator calling a game, rather than directing the group. And at the same time, each individual becomes less aware of the other people and is able to focus deeply inside themselves. It is true blending of energies and actions that is quite special and absorbing.
I have also had the experience that some of us get VERY attached to the intention to do 108 Sun Salutes. I have observed this in myself as well as others. And while that is the tradition of Yoga Mala, it is also something to avoid becoming fixated on. I always try to be clear the it is THE GROUP who will perform 108, and no one individual is responsible for completing every round. So, participants are always asked to take a Balasana break for one or several rounds and rejoin the action when ready. I make this invitation regularly throughout the yoga mala. I also invite anyone to stop the physical postures at any time, lay down in Savasana and stay mentally focused on the poses, the breathing, and the energy in the room for the remainder of the mala. Accurate self-awareness and self-assessment are crucial.
A Note on Practicing Alone
If you are practicing yoga mala on your own, accurate self-assessment is even more crucial! You may avoid the trap of performance pressure by practicing alone. But you may also feel the responsibility to complete all 108 rounds. I suggest that when the physical body tells you to take a break, you might take Balasana, Savasana, or a seated posture and breath and imagine yourself moving through the physical poses for a few rounds (don't forget to keep moving your markers!) Then your mind and breath can stay engaged in the process while the body rests. Your body can rejoin when ready...or not.
Have you led or practiced a Yoga Mala?
What was your experience?
Any tips to share for someone considering leading or participating for the first time?