Inhale, exhale. It’s no secret that breath is the foundation of any yoga practice. Uniting the breath, body and mind dissolves past and future, firmly anchoring us to the present moment. Of all the breathing techniques yoga has to offer, Three-Part Breath is one of the simplest, and yet most powerful. Known in Sanskrit as Dirgha Pranayama, this breath can be embraced by beginners and advanced practitioners alike, whether on or off the yoga mat.
Three-Part Breath is a calming, grounding and physiologically profound practice - and the best part? It’s easy when you know how.
How is your breath right now? Is it deep or shallow? Long or short? Laboured or at ease? On average, we take 16 breaths per minute, each one a little different from the last. Of these 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths per day, how many are you actually aware of? Chances are, very few.
Thankfully, breathing is a mechanism that takes no thought. Our bodies breathe life into us each and every moment, requiring neither awareness nor effort. And yet, connecting mind and breath incites profound change – both physiologically and mentally.
Ineffective Breathing vs Diaphragmatic Breath
Ineffective breathing is endemic to the modern world, compounded by poor posture and the stresses and strains of contemporary living. On a day to day basis, most of us engage in an unhealthy pattern of shallow, chest breathing, in which very little air reaches the lower chest. As a result, the blood vessels do not receive enough oxygen, creating strain on the heart and lungs. In addition, by initiating the breath from the upper chest, the diaphragm becomes underused and weak. The diaphragm is a supple, muscular divide between the abdominal and thoracic cavities, vital for creating space for the lungs to inflate.
Dirgha Pranayama is a diaphragmatic breath using the abdomen and diaphragm, as well as the chest, to allow a deeper inhale and a more complete exhale. When the lungs have space to expand to their full capacity, oxygen supply is increased, allowing more tasty nourishment to reach your hungry cells.
In addition to improving respiration, the diaphragmatic movement involved in Three-Part-Breath also strengthens the diaphragm and surrounding abdominal muscles. With regular practice, the development of muscle memory will enable you to take fuller, more complete breaths, even when your body is on auto-pilot.
Calming the Nervous System and the Mind
Several studies have shown that pranayama breathing exercises not onlyimprove lung and cardiovascular function, but that there is a direct relationship between breath rate and autonomic nervous system state; whether or not our body is in fight-or-flight or rest-and-digest mode can be determined in part by our breath. By kick-starting the parasympathetic nervous system and rousing the relaxation response, Three-Part-Breath helps to lower heart-rate, facilitate digestion and relax the muscles.
Just as it calms the nervous system, Dirgha Pranayama is particularly effective at calming the mind. It’s widely known that our breath changes in response to emotion; ever had the sudden realisation that you were holding your breath at work? How about those shallow and rapid breaths that accompany anxiety or long gasps inhaled in shock?
Associated with nerves, stress and anxiety, shallow breathing can be agitating for the mind, perpetuating the very state from which it came. The deep, rhythmic motion and focus required for Three-Part-Breath is meditation in its simplest form. The mind is navigated away from preoccupations with past and worries about the future, concentrating only on the present moment, the present breath. In this way, Dirgha Pranayama is also an effective way to deepen your connection with yoga and mindfulness practice. (Learn more in How Conscious Breathing Can Boost Your Yoga Asana Practice.)
Three-Part Breath: Simple and Accessible
Still not convinced? Perhaps the greatest thing about Three-Part-Breath is that it is as simple as it is accessible. Unless you have asthma or respiratory problems (in which case – consult your doctor first) this technique can be practiced by anyone and everyone, whether young or old, newcomer or expert.
It requires no special skills or abilities, simply the presence of a mind, body and breath. What’s more, it can be practiced in any comfortable position in which the spine is straight and the abdomen is not compressed (ie. sitting on a chair or the floor, lying down or even standing). If you are a beginner, it’s best to practice whilst lying down on the back (legs extended or knees bent and supported by a bolster or pillow) as you will be able to feel the movement of the breath more clearly.
Practicing Dirgha Pranayama
To give it a go, follow these 5 simple steps:
- Close your eyes, relax the face and body, soften the heart and shoulders. Allow your breath to flow naturally through the nose. Place both hands on your belly, a few fingers below the belly button. Notice where you feel the natural movement of the breath – belly, ribs or chest?
- Begin to deepen the breath toward the pit of the belly, expanding right down into the lower abdomen. Feel the belly inflate like a balloon with each inhale and soften towards the spine with each exhale. Continue for 5 deep breaths.
- Keeping the right hand on the belly, slide the left hand to the outer left edge of the ribcage. This time, send the breath down into the belly as before, and then expand up into the ribs. As you inhale, the belly expands before the ribs. As you exhale, the ribs soften before the belly. Continue for 5 calming breaths.
- Again keeping the right hand on the belly, slide the left hand up to the centre of the chest – just below the collarbones. Once again, take a deep inhale down into the belly, expand into the ribs and this time send the breath all the way up to the chest. Imagine your breath in 3 parts. Inhale: belly, ribs, chest. Exhale: Chest, ribs belly. Continue for 5 grounding breaths.
- Enjoy this Three-Part-Breath for as long as you feel comfortable. Use your hands as a guide: inhale from the bottom hand to the top, exhale from the top hand to the bottom.
Don’t worry if this breath feels unusual or challenging at first; we so rarely breathe with all the space available to us. If you find that your breath doesn’t flow smoothly, it feels strained or you become dizzy or anxious, begin by practicing only steps one and two. As you gradually work your way up through the steps, each Three-Part-Breath should feel easy and smooth. With practice, you will be able to bring each inhale and exhale to the same length for an even deeper sense of calm.
We all know the vital importance of breathing - after all, it is one of our most basic physiological functions. And yet, too few of us take the time to check in with our own breath. Inherently automatic as it us, we take our breath for granted, mindlessly leaving our bodies to do all the work. Learning to unite with and deepen your breath is a truly transformative practice. (Learn more in The Power of Breath: An Introduction to Pranayama.)
Next time you feel anxious, stressed or even just a little short of breath, invoke Dirgha Pranayama and breathe your way to a more grounded and relaxed state of awareness.