Updated: Jul 1, 2020
In order to understand the meaning of the term "matra" we need to realize the logic behind the concept of matra in Yoga. Pranayama can also be defined as a way of regulating and controlling the breathing process. A single breath can be segregated into its four components, or acts: Inhalation, retention, exhalation & suspension. Almost all the techniques of pranayamas are meant to achieve control over these basic four processes of breathing ( inhalation, exhalation, retention & Suspension) first individually and then as a complete sequence which forms a breath. In yoga, along with gaining control on these basic processes via practicing pranayama, equal importance is given to the relative harmony between the four acts of breathing.
A certain degree of coordination & harmony is naturally present between the basic four processes forming the breath, still the ultimate aim of a yoga student is to derive the highest possible measure of benefits from practicing pranayamas by achieving the ideal combination of the mutual coordination among these sub processes of breathing. After one has practiced the four acts of breathing for a sufficient duration one now qualifies for beginning to understand the technical nuances and differences between the four acts of the breathing process. This comes from the experience one goes through by regularly practicing the four processes of breathing.
Next natural corollary to the practice of pranayama is the awakening of the consciousness with respect to the respiratory rhythm. The awakening of the consciousness has to be achieved voluntarily by regulating the intervals, and duration of, and in between each of the four respiratory processes. This voluntary act aids by helping one know and control the involuntary function of the respiratory act. This can be made possible mainly by regulating the time of inspiration ( puraka), expiration ( rechaka) and the intervals falling between these two ( kumbhaka & sunyaka). In order to learn about regulating these respiratory durations one must learn to measure time related to respiration, matra a Sanskrit term which translates to "a unit of measurement" in English was devised by the ancient yogis for the same purpose.
What is Matra in Yoga?
Matra in yoga pranayama is a time measuring unit which is used to ascertain the duration of the individual processes, and the intervals between these processes of breathing. Such a measuring of time helps the practitioner to become aware of the amount of time needed to master the acts of breathing individually and in coordination with each other so that a optimal combination - for maximum benefits- of these acts for a particular sequence is achieved. Constant training of the student of yoga in matra gradually helps to establish a natural harmony and coordination forming a calculated ( empirical ) rhythm in the sequence and intervals involving the act of breathing which imparts the maximum possible physical, mental benefits.
Since the effectiveness of Mantras in mantra yoga is also based on a calculated rhythm, matra naturally finds its use in learning to chant mantras the right way for deriving maximum benefits from the same. In the yoga sutras of Patanjali one comes across the description of pranayama in terms of its three qualities: desh ( space up to which an inhalation, exhalation can be felt outside the body & the depth - towards the feet- of the impact of kumbhaka inside the body ), kala ( the duration for which it is done), and sankhya ( the number of repetitions of one cycle ( round) of pranayama that needs to be done). Matra helps to calculate the kala, or duration attribute of pranayama.
Thus matra can also be be explained as a certain quantity, or extent, or a moment of a fixed duration. Following the proportions of the recommended matra for each sub process for a given pranayam forms a significant part of the considerations one must follow for benefiting the maximum from pranayama practice.
What quantity of time should be fixed as Matra?
Ancient yogins didn't have the luxury of using the likes of a modern time clock in order to measure or fix the time involved in a particular action. Through observation they became aware of certain natural rhythms, each with its unique duration, like the duration between the sun rise and the sun set, the beating of the heart, duration of each breath ( which is different for different individuals under different states of mind, and the length of seasons etc. As the need to measure the act of breathing was realized newer techniques of attempting to fix the basic unit of duration - against which to measure the over all length - began to emerge.
The proliferation of the various schools of Hatha yoga, and the various stages the art of breathing progressed through gave birth to myriads of units for measuring time in pranayama. What ever unit of time is used the bottom line remains the same; persistent training on matra is a must before learning any techniques of the breathing processes, or sequences known to pranayama. As per one source the time taken to produce the ticking sound three times by snapping the middle finger with the thumb is one Matra. The time lapse between moving the palm of the hand around the knee three times can also be taken as Matra. One ancient authority attributes the time span taken to clap three times as a Matra, or it is the time taken to move the index finger around the knee and then snap it with the thumb. The problem with the description of the above mentioned four techniques is that the speed of the movements to be made for each of them should neither be very slow or very fast; which is too subjective and thus open to different interpretations by different individuals.
Taking the time span covered by a blink of the eye lids as Matra helps objectify the same to some extent. With the advent of a time clock the yogis began to realize that the time measure as advocated by all these techniques some where approximates to 1 second of the modern time measurement system. One of the measures of time is also known as Ghatika which is nearly equal to 25 mins of the modern metric system. Goraksha has given a simple ratio of time measurement for the basic four processes of breathing based on the assumption of Matra being equal to one second.
The standard ratio of time duration for a single round of breathing sequence as advocated by Goraksha is 1:2:1; the time period of retention of the breath ( Kumbhaka) is double the time period of inhalation, and the time span of the exhalation ( Rechaka) is equal to the time span of the inhalation ( Puraka). Suspension ( Sunyaka) has been omitted from the single round of respiration as it is considered as the end act of the cycle the duration for which has been kept as infinite, depending on the capacity of the individual. A beginner can start by inhaling for 4 seconds ( Matras), then holding the breath ( Kumbhaka) for 8 seconds ( Matras) and finally exhaling for 4 seconds ( Matras) to complete one round of respiration.
Practice this ratio of breathing consistently for a week and then add 1 second at the beginning of every week till the count ( Matras) reach 8:16:8. This ratio will allow for around two breaths per minute which is good enough for a lay student to begin with. It is recommended that a beginner must start with having control of the Matra for inhalation and exhalation only, retention or suspension can be added after a minimum level of control has been established on the basic two acts of breathing. The ratio of breathing processes as established is also known as the rhythm of pranayama and an effort is made to master this rhythm by the serious practitioners of yoga.
The rhythms of matra ( counts) as established for different pranayamas can be categorized as Visamavritti rhythms, and the Samavritti rhythm. "Visama" stands for unequal and vritti is the one matra ( count); the breathing ratios which have unequal counts for each sub process of breathing come under Visamavritti rhythms like 1:2:1. "Sama" means equal and the term Samavritti encompasses all the rhythms which have equal matras ( counts) for all the sub acts of breathing like 1:1:1. Different pranayama practices like Anuloma Viloma, isolatedl practice of only Sunyaka breathing sub-process, and Ujjayi pranayama etc. would have different breathing ratios for different levels of lung capacities reached.
Matra is a unit of time decided upon through various techniques, and which is used to measure the duration of each act of respiration. One cannot progress on something one cannot measure. Moreover matra helps in establishing the most benefiting ratio in the sequence of the breathing process which would not have been possible without some as Matra against which the breathing processes can be measured and standardized.
A committed practitioner of yoga pranayama must first master the sense of awareness of the unit of time ( matra) involved in the basic processes of breathing - inhalation , exhalation - before attempting to understand the more complex matrix of the higher pranayamas.