When I was in college in the 80's I had been meditating for a while when someone introduced me to prayer beads or malas. Mala means garland in Sanskrit and they are used to count how many times you repeat a mantra. I was told that the more you used them the more "Japa" they would acquire, Japa being positive energy. Or at least that was what I thought my friend was telling me. Later I found out Japa means spiritual discipline in Sanskrit, but I suppose that the more you use them the more spiritual discipline you are using as well.
Most full malas have 108 beads to count and a guru bead that is larger to indicate that you have completed one round. Most wrist malas have 27 beads (4 x 27=108) and a guru bead. The number 108 has had a lot of varied meanings in math, history and religion through the ages. Like Stonehenge, other ancient places and many symbols we may never be able to pin down the exact meaning. I prefer the theory that it is not a number at all, but actually the symbol for a description of reality. (to get an overview of this interesting number go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/108_(number).
Hinduism and Buddhism are not the only spiritual practices that use prayer beads. Catholics have rosaries, Orthodox Christians have Chokti, Muslims have Tasbih and Wiccan's have prayer beads as well. Whatever type of prayer beads you choose to use is a personal and/or spiritual preference. My favorite mala is a homemade strand ( seen below) of 108 citrine and adventurine faceted beads. I don't actually count with them. I am not concerned about actual numbers of repetitions instead I use one round as a timer of sorts when I meditate with them.
One of the things I love about malas is that they are often made of natural beads, although I do have a plastic set. Fingering stones, seeds or wooden beads brings a bit of nature to me and helps me feel more grounded. This is especially nice in the winter when it is difficult for me to get outside due to cold weather. Mantras can be as simple as one word, a positive projection statement or simple counting: 1,2,3, 1-10, 1-108 etc. I choose based on my mood, my topic of concentration/inquiry or gratitude/celebratory tone.
Whether you use a mala, rosary or other type of prayer bead, the best advantage to using one is the mantra repetition which quiets the mind. I don't know if you are like me, but the near constant jabbering of the talking heads of my minds conversation with it's self ...can drive me crazy, cause me to lose sleep and make me feel overwhelmed. That is when a peaceful round with my favorite prayers beads is just what the doctor ordered. The timer function of one round gives me a breather/time out as well, which is useful for stress situations.
Prayer beads or malas are an indispensable tool in the medicine bag of inner peace. They are simple to make, or you can use a favorite necklace or bracelet. Easily located and purchased as well, they are portable, functional and can be used whenever the need or desire arises. I wouldn't leave home without one, especially one with lots of good vibes japa. ;-)