For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
You may have wondered what the significance of the number 108 is in yoga. For example, you may have read of people doing 108 Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) at the time of the spring equinox, or own mala with 108 beads. The number is considered to be so auspicious that 108 is the number for emergency services in India. So what is the significance of the number 108?
The number’s significance is open to interpretation, says Shiva Rea, a leading teacher of prana vinyasa flow and yoga trance dance who teaches all over the world. She is a lifelong student of Tantra, Ayurveda, bhakti, hatha yoga, kalaripayat, Odissi dance, and yogic arts. She notes that 108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga.
There are 108 mala on a string
Traditionally, mala—garlands of prayer beads—come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun), notes Rae. A mala is used for counting as you repeat a mantra—much like the Catholic rosary.
These beads are traditionally used as a tool for meditation, repeating a mantra as you touch each bead with your fingers until you complete the mala.To meditate with a mala, sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths and set an intention. If you have a mantra for this practice, chant it aloud or silently. Hold your mala in your right hand, draped between your middle and index fingers. Starting at the large bead in the center often called the “guru” bead, use your thumb to count each smaller bead. Pull the mala, pulling it toward you as you recite your mantra. Do this 108 times, traveling around the mala, until you once again reach the guru bead.
Others give other reasons for malas having 108 beads. Mala Collective points out that some believe there are 108 stages on the journey of the human soul, while others associate the possibility of enlightenment with taking only 108 breaths a day, while in deep meditation. Other mala designers have been taught that the number 1 stands for God, the universe or your own highest truth; 0 stands for emptiness and humility in spiritual practice; and 8 stands for infinity and timelessness.
And, yes, one can offer a yoga mala of 108 Sun Salutations says Rae.
Mathematicians and 108
Rae notes that renowned mathematicians of Vedic culture viewed 108 as a number of the wholeness of existence. This number also connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth: The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters. Such phenomena have given rise to many examples of ritual significance.
Mathematicians have also noted that the number 108 has an elegant divisibility and geometry, producing endless patterns. It also is the hyperfactorial of 3 since it is of the form, an abundant number, a semiperfect number and a tetranacci number and in Euclidean space, the interior angles of a regular pentagon measure 108 degrees each.
The sum of the parts may offer more clues to why the number 108 is sacred. Both 9 and 12 have been said to have spiritual significance in many traditions. 9 times 12 is 108.
In Buddhism, there is believed to be defilements, or “earthly desires” that humans experience. There is said to be 108 of these vices that we go through during our time on earth. These include experiences like arrogance, obsession, and violence. Each human experiences these earthly desires as a means to enlightenment. It is thought that in order to be free of suffering and attain enlightenment, humans must be free from all of these earthly desires.
108 Pithas and Upanishads
Pithas are sacred sites considered to be the seats of the goddess, associated with different part’s of the diety’s body. These sacred sites are scattered throughout India, all located near a body of water which is believed to be infused with the energy of the goddess. The 108 Pithas are important pilgrimage sites for the members of the Shakti sects of Hinduism.
Pithas were created from an origin myth recounted in the Mahabharata and the Brahma-purana. The legend involves the Goddess Sati, daughter of Daksa and wife of Shiva. When Daksa refused to invite Shiva and Sati to a sacrifice, Sati came to the sacrifice uninvited, and there committed suicide. As a result, Shiva became enraged, killed Daksa, and destroyed the sacrifice. Carrying the body of Sati on his shoulder he danced in a way that threatened the cosmos. In order to stop Shiva’s dance, the God’s caused the body of Sati to disintegrate, causing the parts of her body fell to earth.
The Upanishads are Vedic Sanskrit texts of Hindu teachings and ideals. The Upanishadic texts are part of the Shruti literature and are considered to be divine in origin. Scholars differ in opinion on the number of Upanishads and what constitutes Upanishads, but many believe there to be 108 of these ancient texts, adding to the significance of this sacred number.
108 and the Sanskrit Alphabet
The Sanskrit alphabet is also part of why this number is so significant in yoga. The sanskrit alphabet is comprised of 54 letters. Each letter in the alphabet has both a masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) energy. 54 multiplied by these two energies is 108.
108 Marma Points Cover the Human Body
Marma points are a juncture on the body where two or more types of tissue meet, yet they are much more than that. Marma points are intersections of the vital life force and prana, or breath. These points are thought to house the three Ayurvedic Doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
108 of these points cover the human body and the major Marma points correspond to the seven chakras, or energy centers of the body. Traditionally marma points are grouped into 3 categories; those on the legs and feet, Sanakha Marma, on the trunk, Madhayamanga Marma, neck and head, Jatrurdhara Marma.
These points of life force energy throughout the body are yet another reason why the number 108 is so sacred.