Mala beads go back thousands of years and are found in many different cultures. They were created as a tool to help keep the mind focused, and keep count of mantras during meditation or prayer. While this is their main purpose, there is no rule that says you have to recite mantras with them. Malas can be used by anyone, at any time, and simply breathing with them is beneficial. Many people wear them as a piece of meaningful jewelry to remind them to breathe and relax throughout the day, or place them on their yoga mat during practice to help remind of their goals and intentions.
There are many different styles of malas out there. They are made of different materials such as wood, gemstones, or rudruksha seeds, knotted, unknotted, tassel, no tassel. One style is not better than another, and in my opinion, they are all beautiful. It really just depends on personal choice and how you plan on using it.
The thing that most malas have in common are the number of beads. A full length mala contains 108 main beads. The number 108 is considered to be a sacred number of the universe for a number of reasons, and it is also said that there are 108 different styles of meditation. Smaller malas contain a division of 108, such as 54, or 27 and you can also find malas as bracelets.
For those who choose to use their mala for reciting mantras, I place small spacer beads at every 27th bead. This gives you the option for completing shorter meditations. Spacer beads do not count towards the 108, but are simply placed along the mala so you will feel the difference with your fingers and know its time to end your meditation.
Overhand knots are place between each bead to provide even spacing in order to help you recognize the individual beads, and slide them between your fingers more easily. This also prevents beads from cascading across the floor if your mala should ever break.
The large bead at the bottom of the mala is the "guru" bead. It signifies the end of one round in the meditation cycle. When you reach the guru bead, it is considered disrespectful to cross over it, so you reverse direction, and go back the other way. The guru bead is said to store the energy of your intentions and send them off to the universe.
Finally, the tassel at the end of the mala represents the sacred lotus flower. When a lotus is growing, it starts in mud. It goes through many stages of growth before emerging from murky waters as a beautiful flower. It is said that we go through the same type of growth as a lotus and must emerge from the "mud" in order to bloom.
How you decide to use your mala is a personal choice, but since it serves as a symbol of what you most hope to attain through your meditation, yoga practice, or life in general, they should always be treated with care and respect.