The number 108 has always been considered a sacred number in Yoga, and its Hindu roots, but its auspicious qualities are not contained to just one system and show up throughout in practices and rituals across the world. Here are a few of our favourites;
There are 108 nadis, that leave the Anahata (heart centre), one of which, the sushumna or central channel is our ultimate route to enlightenment. In Ayuverda, there are 108 marma points that direct the subtle flow of vital life energy.
108 is a harshad number, a Sanskrit word meaning great joy, which describes a number whereby the number itself is divisible by the sum of its digits. In this case, 108/9 = 12. Interestingly, in Vedic astrology there are 12 constellations, and 9 chandrakalas, or arc segments. There are also 12 solar houses, and 9 lunar houses.
Plus, in numerology, the symbology of 1 - 0 - 8 gives us perhaps the simplest analogy of yoga meditation teaching,
1 symbolises a single pointed awareness, i.e. the verticality of the breath,
0 represents remaining open, or ridding oneself of preconceptions, or the distraction of the senses, and,
8 signifies uniting with the flow of the infinite.
In Japan, a bell is chimed 108 times at the end of the year, with each ring representing one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.
And one more... this time with a little more detail,
The Upanishads describe the cycles of reincarnations (samsara), driven by samskara and karma, and the desire for ultimate liberation (moksha) that can be achieved through the practice of yoga. Throughout the course of this journey the Yogi is able to understand the trappings of the material world, or prakrti, to see their truest self, or Atman, as an extension of Brahman, or the universal consciousness.
Supposedly, there are 108 stages on the journey through the Atman to unity with the Brahman, which we might also call enlightenment. As we work through the 108 salutations in a Yoga Mala, we are symbolically undertaking this journey in macrocosmic scale on our mats as we achieve a level of focus and intention that helps us to break down the samskara (perhaps we could call them potential karmas) that are warping our vision and allow us to see more clearly, and as such, move more closely to our ultimate goal in the coming year.
So, if the purpose here is to dissolve our Samskara, what exactly are Samskara?
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait highlights the prefix 'sam' means 'planned, or thought out', whilst 'kara' means 'the action undertaken', therefore the total meaning is 'the impression or the impact of the action we perform with full awareness of its goals'. A samskara then is a habit, and the stronger a habit becomes, the less we are able to clearly control our own mind when we approach actions affected by that habit. When a habit is strong enough, it removes consciousness from our interactions, shrinking ourselves around its confines. If a samskara is left for long enough it becomes a vasana, literally a 'colour', whereby we become unable to see our world without the effect of this coloured overlay. If unattended still, this becomes part of karma, and therein affects our destiny through lifetimes, trapping us in samsara.
Through the physical practice of a Yoga Mala, our samskaras are revealed to us, such that in the fire and austerity of our practice we are able to dissolve them, and move forward seeing more clearly, and more closely attuned to our deepest desires and sankalpa.