Matra (Breathing Unit)



Mātra मात्र : measure, measuring rule; extent; quantity; length of time or life; unit of measure, foot; ; duration or space of time; unit of time, moment (in the popular sense); metrical unit (time required to pronounce a short vowel); musical unit of time (of which there are three); correct measure, order.


Matra and Pranayama

Patanjali gives three criteria for measuring pranayama, namely, space (desha), duration (kala) and number of rounds (sankhya). Space is both outer and inner with reference to the body. Outer space is the area upto which the impact of the incoming or outgoing air is felt during puraka and rechaka. Inner space is the area from the feet to the head where the impact of kumbhaka is felt in the form of sensations like those of the touch of an ant moving on the surface of the body. The duration was traditionally measured by a unit called mātra.


The control of the breathing occurs according to mental counting. This allows the regulation of each breathing unit (inhalation, full-lung retention, exhalation, empty-lung retention). Various measures of a matra are mentioned in ancient texts. For example, it is given as the time taken to turn the index finger around the knee and then snap the fingers. On the average, this amounts to about 1 sec. 25’’ and 1 sec. 50’’.

Counting is crucial and pranayama can also be described as being a mastery of the temporal rhythms or a system of measuring. For example, time is also measured in gathika, which is about 25 min.


Two counting rhythms matter for us:

  1. Visamavritti: [1/4/2/0]
    1 unit inhalation, 4 units full-lung retention, 2 units exhalation, 0 unit empty-lung retention
    Examples are [4/16/8/0] or [5/20/10/0] and so forth
  2. Samavritti: [1/1/1/1]
    All lengths are equal.
    Examples are [4/4/4/4], [5/5/5/5], and so forth
    Generally, during the retentions, ashvini mudra is applied with the contractions following each beat.

Note: Vritti वृत्ति (vṛtti): circular movement. Visama विषम : odd, not even. Sama सम : equal; identical. phil. tranquility, one of the six cardinal vertues.