Of all the numbers that mystics and numerologists like to use to explain how the universe works, 108 is probably the one that holds the most significance for yoga and meditation practitioners. Its special meaning is mirrored in countless different interpretations and contexts, from mathematics and astronomy to religious rites, spiritual practices, and even medicine and architecture.
108 is considered a sacred number in many spiritual traditions, a number that symbolizes the wholeness of existence and the universe. It is a so-called Harshad (which in Sanskrit means “joy-giving”) number, an integer divisible by the sum of its digits. In astronomy, the number 108 intriguingly connects the sun, moon and earth: the diameter of the sun is 108 times that of the earth, and the distance between sun and earth is approximately 108 times the diameter of the sun. Similarly, the diameter of the moon multiplied by 108 equals the distance between earth and moon. A five-pointed star (which is a common symbol for human being) has exactly 108 degrees between any two adjacent points, and a pentagon in its center with interior angles of 108° as well.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, 1 represents the Divine or the universe, 0 symbolizes the emptiness or completeness at the beginning of a spiritual journey, and 8 stands for infinity and eternity. It is said that there are 108 energy lines (nadis) converging to form the heart chakra. Ayurveda knows 108 sacred intersection points (marmas) that hold the vital energy in the body. There are 108 known Upanishads, sacred texts of wisdom of the ancient sages. Hinduists knows 108 names for female deities, 108 forms of Indian dance, 108 types of meditation, 108 sacred sites (pithas) throughout India, 108 steps that lead up to most temples, and 108 alleged stages the soul has to pass through until it can reach enlightenment. Legends even tell of Indian sadhus who could reach such deep states of meditation that they required only 108 breaths a day. To this day, the significance of the number is still deeply rooted in India: if you ever happen to get in the undesirable situation to need medical help while traveling the country: 1-0-8 is the national emergency phone number.
Translated into the context of yoga practice, 1 is said to represent the focus on one thing and the verticality of breath as it flows through the body, 0 is for having zero senses and preconceptions when stepping on your mat, and 8 stands for uniting with the flow of infinity. Yogis traditionally do 108 sun salutations on solstices and equinoxes in order to express their gratitude and devotion to the practice. Occasionally these are performed as 9 rounds of sun salutations composed of the 12 asanas in a Surya Namaskar, again totaling 108. Some schools of meditation teach that the practitioner should perform 100 cycles of a mantra meditation for himself, plus 8 extra rounds for those who don’t have the opportunity to practice meditation themselves. Pranayama is traditionally taught and practiced in at least 108 repetitions to unfold its full effects.
A mala necklace traditionally consists of 108 gemstone, wood or seed beads that are kept together by a 109th guru or buddha bead. For me, the 108 beads have a very practical benefit: they are the perfect counting aid for meditation. Taking 108 deep and conscious breaths – one for every bead that glides through my fingers – takes me approximately 15 minutes – the perfect timespan for a daily meditation.
Breath counting meditation is a mental training method that has been used for many centuries to align the brain with a certain intention. It is one of the simplest meditation techniques, and for me personally it is sort of a foul-proof ways to focus my mind and find relaxation. Counting involves many different functional aspects of the brain and is therefore an excellent way to withdraw your attention from the various outside stimuli your mind tends to follow. Whenever your thoughts wander off you can gently direct them back to the count and your breath. With time you will find it much easier to purposefully focus your mind on just one thing.
The next time you wear or use your mala beads, take a moment to become aware of all the ancient meanings behind the number of beads it is made with. Try my breath/counting meditation technique, repeat a mantra or affirmation for every bead you touch, offer 108 prostrations, or develop your own way of honoring and harnessing the magic of the number 108.