There are three widely accepted uses for prayer beads:
There are two main types of Baha'i prayer beads. One consists of 95 beads, often with the first 19 distinguished by size, color or some other means, and will often have five additional beads that are strung below. The other main type has 19 beads strung with the addition of five beads below. This counts Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times (19*5). Bahá'í prayer beads often are made from wood, stone, glass beads or pearls.
Prayer beads, or Japa Malas, are also used in many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, often with a lesser number of beads (usually a divisor of 108). In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 bead malas are common. In China such malas are named "Shu-Zhu" (数珠）; in Japan, "Juzu". These shorter malas are sometimes called 'prostration rosaries', because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations. In Tibetan Buddhism malas are also 108 beads: one mala counts as 100 mantras, and the 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all sentient beings (the practice as a whole is dedicated at its end as well). In Tibetan Buddhism, often larger malas are used of for example 111 beads: when counting, they calculate one mala as 100 mantras, and the 11 additional beads are taken as extra to compensate for errors.
The Desert Fathers (third to fifth century) used knotted ropes to count prayers, typically the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). The invention is attributed to St Anthony or his associate St Pachomius in the fourth century.
Roman Catholics and some Anglicans use the Rosary as prayer beads. The Rosary (its name comes from the Latin "rosarium," meaning "rose garden"), is an important and traditional devotion of the Roman Catholic Church, combining prayer and meditation in sequences (called "decades") of an Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and a Glory Be to the Father, as well as a number of other prayers (such as the Apostle's Creed and the Hail Holy Queen) at the beginning and end. Traditionally a complete Rosary involved the completion of fifteen decades, but John Paul II added an additional five.
Roman Catholics also use prayer beads to pray chaplets.
Eastern Christians use loops of knotted wool (or occasionally of beads), called chotki or komboschinia to pray the Jesus Prayer. Although among the Orthodox, their use is mainly restricted to monks and bishops, being less common among laity or secular clergy. Among Russian Old Believers, a prayer rope made of leather, called lestovka, is more common, although this type is no longer commonly used now by the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "The rosary is conferred upon the Greek Orthodox monk as a part of his investiture with the mandyas or full monastic habit, as the second step in the monastic life, and is called his 'spiritual sword'."
In the mid-1980s the Anglican Rosary or "Christian prayer beads" was developed in the Episcopal Church. They have since been adopted by some Protestants. The set consists of 33 beads (representing the 33 years of the life of Christ) arranged in four groupings of symbolic significance. Many Anglo-Catholics use the "Dominican" rosary in addition to or instead of Anglican prayer beads.
The contemporary Pearls of Life, invented by Martin Lönnebo, Bishop Emeritus of the Linköping Diocese of the Swedish Lutheran Church, is a set of 18 beads, some round and some elongated, arranged in an irregular pattern. Each one has its own significance as a stimulus and reminder for meditation, although they can also be used for repetitive prayer.
The earliest use of prayer beads can be traced to Hinduism, where they are called Japa Mala. Japa is the repeating of the name of a deity or a mantra. Mala (Sanskrit:माला; ) means 'garland' or 'wreath'.
Japa mala are used for repetition of a mantra, for other forms of sadhana (spiritual exercise), and as an aid to meditation. The most common mala have 108 beads. The most common materials used for making the beads are Rudraksha seeds (used by Shaivites) and Tulsi stem (used by Vaishnavites).
In Islam, prayer beads are referred to as Misbaha or Tasbih, and contain 99 beads, corresponding to the 99 Names of Allah. Sometimes only 33 beads are used, in which case one would cycle through them 3 times to equal 99. Use of the misbaha to count prayers and recitations is an evolution of Muhammad's practice of using the fingers of his right hand to keep track. While in pretty wide use today, some adherents of Wahhabism shun them as an intolerable innovation, preferring to stick to the exact method believed to have been used by Muhammad. Their use as a religious item has somewhat diminished over the years, and many use them nowadays strictly as worry beads and as status symbols.
By selecting symbols and choosing the ways in which to work with them, non-denominational prayer beads can be personalized.
Non-denominational prayer beads can act as a focusing tool in prayer or meditation, adding a tactile element to those practices. They can be used as an anchor for affirmations and even projects (like writing projects.) When used with repetitive phrases they can provide comfort and ease the grieving process.
In his book, Simply Pray, Erik Walker Wikstrom offers a modern prayer practice that can be customized to meet individual spiritual needs. Using a set of 28 beads as a frame of reference, the practice includes centering and entering-in prayers, breath prayers and prayers of Naming, Knowing, Listening and Loving.