How to Practice Three-Part Breath in Yoga
In yoga, breathing exercises (called “pranayamas,” in Sanskrit) are an important component in developing your practice. According to an ancient text, the Yoga Sutras, compiled by the sage Patanjali in 150 BCE, pranayama is the fourth of the classical Eight Limbs of Yoga. Practicing pranayama helps to regulate and purify your vital life force energy (called “prana,” in Sanskrit). In yoga, it is believed that when your prana becomes unbalanced, you become susceptible to illness and disease in body, mind, and spirit. By bringing awareness to your body and consciously practicing breath-control exercises, you can bring positive changes to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Three-Part Breath — Dirga (or Deerga) Swasam Pranayama (DEER-gah swha-SAHM prah-nah-YAH-mah) — is often the first breathing technique taught to new yoga practitioners. The “three parts” are the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest. During Three-Part Breath, you first completely fill your lungs with air, as though you are breathing into your belly, ribcage, and upper chest. Then you exhale completely, reversing the flow.
The full name comes from two Sanskrit words. “Dirga” (also spelled “Deerga”) has several meanings, including, “slow,” “deep,” “long,” and “complete.” “Swasam” refers to the breath. Therefore, this practice is sometimes also referred to as “Complete Breath.” It is also often simply called “Dirga Pranayama.”
Benefits of Dirga Pranayama
Practicing Dirga Pranayama teaches you to breathe fully and completely. Ineffective breathing is a common problem in today's modern world, compounded by poor posture and long periods of sitting or driving. When you breathe shallowly (called “chest breathing”), the air only enters your upper chest and very little enters your lower chest. This causes a lack of oxygen to your blood vessels, which can create strain on your heart and lungs.
Learning to breathe deeply will increase your oxygen supply, which, in turn, will help to decrease stress and anxiety levels. Additionally, focusing on your body during Three-Part Breath brings awareness to the present moment and calms your mind. According to studies, you can inhale and exhale up to seven times as much air (and oxygen and prana) during a three-part breath than in a shallow, chest-based breath. This deep breathing is the foundation for other yogic exercises, such as meditation and cleansing kriyas.
Three-Part Breath is often used at the very beginning of a yoga practice to settle in and prepare oneself for practice and meditation. This technique is particularly beneficial in everyday life because it requires no special sound or position to achieve a grounded and relaxed state of awareness.
When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.
As with all breathing exercises, always approach the practice with caution, especially if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma or emphysema. Never attempt any pranayama for the first time without the guidance of a qualified and knowledgeable teacher. Stop the exercise if you become faint or dizzy. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
You can practice Three-Part Breath in any comfortable position in which your spine is straight and your abdomen is not compressed. Some options include:
- An upright seated position, such as Easy Pose (Sukhasana).
- A seated position on a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
- Lying down fully extended in Corpse Pose (Savasana), or in Modified or Supported Corpse Pose with your knees bent or with a bolster under your knees.
- Lying in Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana), with your feet pressing together and knees dropped open.
- Close your eyes. Relax your face and body, and breathe naturally through your nose.
- Place your left hand on your low abdomen, a few inches below your belly button, and place your right hand on the outer right edge of your rib cage.
- Begin to focus your awareness on your breath as it moves in and out of your body through your nose.
- On your inhalations, feel the natural lift of your belly, followed by the expansion of your ribs.
- On your exhalations, feel the slight compression of your ribs, followed by the drop of your belly. Exhale completely, pressing very gently on your abdomen to help expel air.
- Next, bring your left hand to your chest, placing it in the center, just below your collarbone.
- As you inhale, breathe all the way into this area and allow your chest to rise slightly. Then, exhale completely.
- As you continue to breathe, keep your awareness on this three-part movement. As you inhale, your belly lifts, your ribs expand, and your chest rises. As you exhale, your chest drops, your ribs contract, and your belly softens and lowers.
- Continue at your own pace, gradually letting the three parts of the breath flow smoothly without pausing.
- Release your arms and focus your mind on your breath, continuing the three-part breath with full and complete inhalations and exhalations.
- Continue for up to five minutes, or for as long as you feel comfortable.
Modifications & Variations
Three-Part Breath is calming and soothing during times of stress and anxiety. Once you are very comfortable with this practice, you can slowly begin to modify it. To further invigorate the mind, body, and spirit, begin to make your inhalations and exhalations the same length. For example, inhale for a count of five, then exhale for a count of five. Once you are very comfortable with that variation and have no dizziness or shortness of breath, you can gradually increase the length of your exhalations until they are twice as long as your inhalations. For example, inhale for a count of five, then exhale for a count of ten.
When practiced correctly, Dirga Pranayama will invigorate and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. Be careful never to force the breath or to breathe too deeply. It's important for your lungs to feel comfortably full, but not strained. Let your breath be easy and smooth. If your breath becomes strained or you start to feel dizzy or anxious, stop the exercise and let your normal breathing pattern return.
Complete Breath for a Full Life
Practicing Dirga Pranayama can bring peace, balance, and overall wellness to your life on many levels, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. You can practice it many times throughout your day — even two or three breaths will have a positive effect! Remember to keep it easy and relaxed, and you will discover the benefits of pranayama spilling over into all areas of your life.