There is a profound teaching in the yoga tradition called the Three Malas, which can shed light on the root causes of low self-esteem, help us deepen our understanding of ourselves, and rebuild our self-esteem in small steps.
In this context, the word “mala” can be translated as a “cloak” or a “veil.” The three malas are like coverings that conceal our true nature. Like the tarnish on a piece of silver that dulls its shine, the three malas obscure our consciousness. Yoga is the process of polishing off that tarnish so that you can remember that you are a one-of-a-kind human being full of love, joy, and radiance—no matter what kind of package you arrived in or what your challenges are in life.
To do this, you have to understand what the Three Malas are and figure out which ones are obscuring your consciousness. That’s why you’ll often hear me asking my closest friends and students to please tell me if they see me going down the “mala rabbit hole.” In turn, when I see a friend going down the “mala rabbit hole,” I will often make a joke of it and say, “Do we need to do a de-malafication here?” The Three Malas, though usually painful to examine, are really gifts that allow us to reframe our beliefs about ourselves as well as our actions—so having a sense of humor and removing these cloaks is your best strategy for personal and spiritual growth. The result? Radical self-esteem.
Anava Mala is the cloak of uber-low self-esteem and insecurity. If you’ve gone down the Anava Mala rabbit hole, you’ll experience a deep feeling of separateness and a complete preoccupation with yourself—like the anorexic who obsessively looks in the mirror and thinks she is fat, when she’s actually emaciated.
When this mala, or veil, gets really thick, we become so preoccupied with ourselves that we rarely consider the consequences of our actions and how they might affect others. So we end up not only hurting ourselves but lying, betraying, and withholding clear communication from others.
Often the easiest way to “de-malify” Anava Mala is to ask for a reality check from someone close to you who is kind and loving. Show your vulnerability and ask for them to help you consciously work on your low self-esteem and insecurity. They may need to point out, on a regular basis, exactly why you are an incredible human being, despite any perceived flaws you may be fixating on. On the mat, laugh at yourself when you find yourself falling from a pose or getting frustrated with yourself, instead of striving for perfection.
The good news is that when you climb out of the Anava Mala rabbit hole, you can see your insecurities and low self-esteem through the eyes of compassion, accept them, and release them so you can grow.
Maiya Mala is the cloak of worrying about what everyone else thinks of you. It’s what motivates, us when we start dating someone new, to hide the not-so-attractive aspects of ourselves—the person who burps, farts, has meltdowns, gets stressed out, and has a dark side.
When someone has gone down the Maiya Mala rabbit hole, they begin to behave like the man who wants all of his neighbors to know what a good samaritan he is, while behind closed doors, he's cheating on his spouse.
How can you “de-malify” Maiya Mala? Make a firm commitment to tell the truth and show the “real you” to others. On the mat, stay present with your practice and enjoy being exactly where you are, instead of trying to impress your teacher, your classmates, or even yourself.
The good news about Maiya Mala is that when you “snap out of it,” you realize that being vulnerable and sharing the most authentic version of yourself may repel some people, but it usually will attract many more. Most people want to hang out with someone who is genuine and comfortable in their own skin—foibles and all.
Karma Mala is the cloak of helplessness, which makes us feel like we have no agency or power to act. It’s what happens when the world is falling apart around us, and we go into denial instead of stepping up to deal with the consequences or circumstances in front of us. It is the head-in-the-sand approach to life.
To de-malify Karma Mala, sometimes the best thing to do is to remember that you are not alone and ask for help. No one can make big changes in their lives without support. Knowing you are not alone could be the difference between feeling helpless and taking that first step toward making a change. This is true on the mat, too. Make time to practice with other yogis. Ask them how they were able to get into a pose you’re working on or to spot you in a balancing asana. Ask the teacher for help when you are stuck or confused.
The good news is that when we finally lift our heads out of the Karma Mala rabbit hole, and begin to see ourselves as normal and accepted, we can rebuild our self-esteem—and our lives—one step at a time.
This article originally appeared on Amy Ippoliti's blog and was adapted with her permission.