I found this beautiful article in Tricycle, Winter 06 that offered a lovely explanation of mala beads as it relates to the Buddhist tradition. Yogic philosophy is not that far removed from the Buddhist traditions and my research into both have found more similarities than differences:
“All beads are worry beads – from the Pope’s rosary all the way down to those little wrist malas…’ worn by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. People of every religious tradition will claim that their beads are for praying – for appealing to a higher power, for collecting the spirit or concentrating the mind – and while this is indisputably true, that is not their primary purpose. Beads are for worry. They answer a human need so basic it actually precedes a religious consciousness – and that is to fret over things… The difference between the Buddhist mala and the various Western-style rosaries is simply that it makes this explicit in the symbolism of its beads.”
“The message of the Buddhist mala is ‘Don’t worry about things; worry about the fact that you are so worried all the time, and address the foot of that.”
Usage of your Mala beads…
There are numerous explanations why there are 108 beads, with the number 108 bearing special religious significance in a number of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The 109th bead on a mala is called the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. Counting should always begin with a bead next to the sumeru. In the Hindu, Vedic tradition, if more than one mala of repetitions is to be done, one changes directions when reaching the sumeru rather than crossing it. The sumeru thus becomes the static point on the mala.
“The larger bead at the end of the mala is the equivalent of the crucifix on a Catholic rosary. It is the teacher – and the teaching – we keep coming back to with every cycle we pray.” (Tricycle, Clark Strand; Winter 2006)