Crystals, incense, mala beads, Sanskrit: what are these things?
Walking into a yoga studio for the first time can be intimidating. If you are new to yoga, the studio can seem like a strange place. It may smell weird, because of burning sage or incense. There might be unfamiliar symbols on the walls, maybe the om symbol in Sanskrit, or maybe a display of crystals. Maybe the instructor wears mala beads wrapped around her wrist, looking like a stack of beaded bracelets. What are these things, and do you need them?
The short answer is no, you don’t, but they can enhance your practice, as well as adding some fun to your routine. These items also parallel some Christian traditions.
Incense is a gum, spice, or other element that is burned for the sweet smell it produces. Christian tradition holds that the incense symbolizes the Holy Spirit and our prayers rising to heaven. Incense has traditionally been used as part of the liturgy to cleanse and purify.
Good liturgy is designed to stimulate … a response in us, by exciting the senses and feeding our imagination. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides colour, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain ‘chinks’ and ‘tinkles’. (Anglican Catholic)
In yoga, we burn incense for similar reasons. Incense and sage can be used to clear the space, clearing out any negative energy. It helps set the stage for a yoga or meditation practice, and it invites us to use our sense of smell.
The drawbacks: Some people are very sensitive to smells, so don’t burn too much. Also, smoke alarms.
The benefits: It clears negative energy.
Do you need it? If you find a scent you like (and I love burning sage) it can be a nice way to create your own ritual for practice.
More than just pretty rocks, crystals are to be appreciated as part of God’s creation. Some people believe that crystals have healing powers. God’s earth is a healing earth, and crystals come from the earth, so perhaps there is some truth to that belief.
Albert Einstein said everything in life is vibration, and just like sound waves, your thoughts match the vibrations of everything that manifests in your life. Therefore, if you think crystals have healing potential, the positive vibes of the stones will amplify those thoughts. (Energy Muse)
I think crystals do have good energy. I wear jewelry with crystals, including a rose quartz bracelet (for love and healing) and a lapiz lazuli bracelet (for inner peace, and also because I love the blue color). I have an amethyst necklace which I don’t wear, but I keep because amethyst is said to reduce anxiety. Also, I have a clear quartz on my desk, which I set there with the intention to set clear, specific goals. Every time I look at it, I am reminded of my intention.
Benefits: Crystals have healing properties, but they need to be cleansed periodically and also used with intention. For example, they can be cleansed by placing in moonlight or sunlight, by washing in salt water, or by passing through the smoke of burning sage.
Drawbacks: They may just be pretty rocks that need to be dusted. Who knows?
Do you need them? No. But having a beautiful crystal on your desk to remind you of your intention doesn’t do any harm.
Similar to Rosary beads, mala beads contain 108 beads, plus one larger “guru” bead. Mala beads aren’t jewelry, although sometimes people do wear them as such. During meditation, the mala beads help you keep track of your place as you repeat your mantra. The beads are held carefully in the right hand and counted with your thumb and second finger. At the “guru” bead, it is customary to send gratitude to your teachers.
This is similar to the way in which rosary beads are used.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, praying the rosary should feel like meditation. As you move through each decade, you’ll fall into a gentle rhythm that will quiet your thoughts and help you concentrate on the Mystery. (Quora)
Benefits: Mala beads can enrich your meditation practice, especially if you like using a mantra.
Drawbacks: Mala beads should never touch the ground. Also, they can become addictive—my friend Judy has over 100 mala beads!
Do you need them? No, but they can be a nice enhancement to your meditation practice.
The language of the sages, Sanskrit is an ancient holy language. The Yoga Sutras were written in Sanskrit. Sometimes a yoga instructor will cue poses in Sanskrit, and some practices (i.e. Ashtanga) cue exclusively in Sanskrit. Many times when I write about a certain pose, I’ll write the “common” name for the pose (like Butterfly or Cobbler’s Pose) and then to clarify I’ll include the Sanskrit (Baddha Konasana). However, knowing Sanskrit is not necessary for your practice, or for your teaching. Some styles of yoga (Forrest Yoga, for example) say not to use Sanskrit at all, because it’s not your language.
As far as a parallel to Christianity, I can’t find one, except as a reminder to us all that the Bible wasn’t written in English. It was written in ancient Greek and Hebrew. Oh, and Jesus spoke Aramaic.
Benefits: If you enjoy learning languages, Sanskrit is a fascinating one. Also, some poses are just fun to say in Sanskrit: Utthita Hasta Padagustasana, for example.
Drawbacks: Most Americans, including me, mispronounce Sanskrit to the point where it’s sometimes called “Ameri-skrit.” While it may be fun to say Prasarita Paddotanasana, it is important to treat the language with respect. As a teacher, I am always careful to use both the Sanskrit and the “common” name of the pose, so as not to confuse anyone.
Do you need it? No, but it can add a new dimension to your practice.