You hear this number a lot in yoga, but why? What does it mean? When people ask me about the number’s significance, I find myself pausing, wondering where to start explaining. There’s no one specific answer, and some of the explanations, while significant, can seem a bit esoteric to someone looking for something concrete. The meaning of the mystical number 108 is open to much interpretation – indeed, it seems that more and more significance gets attributed to 108 as time passes. Fans of the TV show LOST will recall that the theme of 108 ran through virtually everything of significance: 108 was the sum of “The Numbers” – 4 + 8 + 15 + 16 + 23 + 42 = 108. To prevent a potential global catastrophe, the person manning the station had to enter a series of numbers into the computer every 108 minutes. 108 x 5 = 540. 540 was the number of days until “your replacement” would arrive at the Hatch. On and on ad infinitum did the creators of LOST scatter 108 easter eggs into the show’s theme, but why?
In part, because the show was all about mystery, and part of the mystery and significance surrounding 108 is that it can be found in SO MANY things both ordinary and extraordinary: There are 108 stitches on a regulation baseball, for instance. 108 cards in an Uno deck. Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter. On New Years in Japan, the church ring a bell 108 times to rid the 108 evils in the body. You can have a ball figuring out all of potential links to 108 found everywhere, but maybe it’s not so crazy and coincidental after all: there are just too many facts to support its significance.
As it is relates to the practice of yoga, there are 108 beads on a traditional mala. A little bit of digression here for the purpose of explanation…a mala is a strand of beads. (Yes, Virginia, those beautiful strands of beads that you see people wearing that we have for sale at Satya – they actually MEAN something!) Similar to a Catholic rosary, mala beads are used for prayer, and specifically for the repetition of mantra, or a group of words repeated over and over with intention for the purpose of meditation or reflection. When we meditate, we use our malas as a tool, either to keep track of how many mantras we have recited or as a physical reminder of the beginning and end of each breath or silently repeated prayer. The practice of using malas to meditate is called Japa Mantra. In all honesty, malas help you focus and pass the time. It becomes something tangible to do as you meditate so that your mind will remain harnessed and you’ll be less likely to become bored, achy, tired, or distracted. It helps with one-pointedness, allowing just enough distraction to keep your interest while serving primarily as a tool of focus. Personally, I don’t count beads when I meditate, but instead use the texture and feel of my favorite mala, given to me by my teacher Lisa after the completion of my first certification, to further the expansiveness and significance of each breath or my favorite mantra.
And now, back to 108. A significant aspect of yoga is the relation of the subtle body to the physical realm. In the subtle body, there are energy channels called nadis that move prana, or life force, through the chakra system. There are said to be – you guessed it – 108 nadis converging to form Anahata, the heart chakra. (this is just one of many examples. more on chakras and the subtle body in my next post – as one of my dear teachers says, “eat the elephant one bite at a time.”) To celebrate a significant date, such as the summer and winter solstices, somebody’s birthday or an anniversary or occasion, you’ll often find yoga studios gathering people together to practice 108 surya namaskar, or sun salutations, a fundamental series of movements which typically begin a yoga class or practice. This is a pretty daunting task, even for a seasoned yogi, which is why we often do them in rounds, with participants taking turns.
In the world’s most ancient religious traditions, 108 is held as a significant and holy number. In Islam, the number 108 is used to refer to God. In Jainism, 108 are the combined virtues of five categories of holy ones, including 12, 8, 36, 25, and 27 respective virtues. The Sikh tradition has a mala of 108 knots tied in wool, and as mentioned above, in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, a traditional mall is made of 108 beads of varying materials.
In Hinduism, which is inextricably linked to Yoga, the meaning of 108 is profound. The addition of digits 1+0+8 = 9, the number 9 being related to Brahma, the creator god, and one of the mythological Trimurti of “ruling” gods, along with Vishnu and Shiva. The ancient Indians excelled at mathematics and numerology, and the pattern of 108 appears in many forms (get ready to have your mind blown):
The number 108 connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth: The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters. You can imagine how this fact has influenced the practice of yoga, where much significance is given to the balance of Earth and the Celestial realm. At a foundational level, the word “Hatha,” as in the physical practice of yoga, is the alignment of sun (ha) and moon (tha), a balance of opposing forces, dualism, masculine and feminine energies. In Sanskrit, the language of yoga, there are 54 letters in the alphabet. Each has masculine and feminine, Shiva and Shakti, and 54 times 2 is 108. Nearly all of the ancient Vedic texts, which are the philosophical and foundational works of Hinduism, carry a theme of 108 in one form or another: for instance, there are 108 Upanishads. It has been said that 1 stands for God or higher Truth, 0 stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 is of course a recognized symbol for infinity. The numbers 9 and 12 have much significance in many spiritual traditions: 9 times 12 is 108. Also, 1 plus 8 equals 9. 9 times 12 equals 108. 108 is a Harshad number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits (Harshad is from Sanskrit, and means “great joy”). There are said to be 108 lies, 108 earthly desires and 108 evils and deceptions in mortals. Then there are the Powers of 1, 2, and 3 in math: 1 to 1st power=1; 2 to 2nd power=4 (2×2); 3 to 3rd power=27 (3x3x3). 1x4x27=108.
See what I mean when I say that I often don’t know where to start explaining the significance of 108? But these are some of the myriad reasons, none more important or “correct” than others (and wait! there are even more…) that will give you an idea of the scope of the mythology surrounding the number. Now you have something interesting to discuss at your next cocktail party, or with the person seated next to you on a plane, and who knows? The person with whom you’re speaking may even chime in with more meanings.
For Satya’s one year birthday on January 23rd, 2013, we’ll be holding an open gathering to practice 108 sun salutations. We hope you’ll join us for a few.