Every yogi should master the three-part breath (Dirgha Pranayama) before taking up advanced breathing practices. It's an excellent technique to calm down and link the breath to the mind.
Our diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located between the thoracic cavity and abdomen. It separates the cavity containing the heart/lungs from the stomach. The diaphragm contracts to make space in this thoracic cavity. This allows us to fill the lungs with air optimally. More air equals more oxygen. From digestion to cognition, every system needs oxygen and prana.
Modern life is bestrewn with inactivity, excessive screen time, processed food, and other infirmities. They result in stress and incorrect habits that strain and weaken the breathing apparatus over time. The most prevalent issue among these is chest breathing. Chest breathing limits the diaphragm's range of motion and increases anxiety. In stark contrast, numerous studies indicate deep and diaphragmatic breathing reduces stress and has a positive effect on mood and cognition   .
"If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly." - Dr. Andrew Weil
That's where the three-part breath or Dirgha Pranayama can help. Even the simplest form of it can improve your health and wellbeing. Luckily, it is a straightforward practice that can be done by anyone, regardless of the experience with yoga.
What is the Dirgha Pranayam (Three-Part Breath)?
Dirgha Pranayama is a yoga breathing technique that involves slow and deep breathing while filling up the abdomen, chest, and clavicular region. It is a form of integrative training to prolong breathing, use full lung capacity, and build a body-breath-mind connection. Regular practice of Dirgha pranayama reduces stress, corrects poor breathing habits, and increases inner focus.
The three parts refer to the abdomen, rib cage, and upper lobar (chest). Practicing it acquaints you with the three chambers of the lungs and the mechanics of breathing. A good deep breath involves the following -
Diaphragmatic breathing (the abdomen)
Thoracic breathing (the rib-cage)
Clavicular breathing (collar bones or upper chest)
Etymology and Meaning
Three-part breath is called Dirgha Shvasam or Dirgha Pranayama in yoga. The Sanskrit word Dirgha means 'long in space or time'. Shvasam means 'breath'. Thereby, Dirgha Pranayama means to lengthen the space and time of the breath.
Another meaning of Dirgha is deliberate. Dirgha pranayama helps bring awareness to the breath. Through the three-part breath, you can experience prana and a mind-breath connection that is the foundation of advanced yoga practices.
Three-Part Breath Instructions
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Recommended Poses: Corpse or Easy Pose
Duration: 15 Breaths
Prepare: Settle down on a mat
Get into any comfortable posture. Place your right hand on the stomach (covering the navel) and your left hand on your chest. Close your eyes and perform gentle and even breathing for a minute or two. Observe the breath and block out external distractions.
Step 1: Breath from the diaphragm
Inhale and breathe into the diaphragm. Allow the lower belly to rise and expand fully. As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles and draw in your belly towards your spine. Expel as much air from the lungs as possible without straining.
Step 2: Add thoracic breathing
As step one, take a deep inhale. Once your abdomen expands, allow the air to expand your thoracic region (rib cage) as well. When you exhale through the nose, squeeze the air out of your rib cage and belly until they’re empty.
Step 3: Three-part breathing – The Actual Practice
Now we add the third and final step. As you inhale, your abdomen will expand, followed by your rib cage, and finally, the in-breath will fill up your upper chest (around the pectoral muscles). As you exhale, you will expel air in reverse order. From the upper chest, then the rib cage, and then the belly. In this step, you have ve performed what is known as the three-part breath in yoga.
The first two steps are mentioned to break down the practice. You don't need them to perform the three-part breath. Repeat step three 10 to 15 times or as long as desirable. Also note, there is no breath retention in dirgha pranayama. Mastery of the practice is attained when you can do it with an even, smooth, and continuous flow.
Three Part Breath 30-second Version: As you inhale, you fill the belly(1), expand the rib cage(2), and bring out the collar bones (3). As you exhale, the collarbones relax(1), the rib cage sets in(2), and the stomach caves(3). Use your hands initially to feel the three different parts – belly, rib-cage, and chest. Observe the movement of the breath as each part expands on the inhale and relaxes on the exhale.
Dirgha Pranayama Benefits
Three-part breath promotes diaphragmatic breathing and oxygenates the blood. Several empirical studies indicate that deep, diaphragmatic breathing has a positive influence on mood, cognition, and the stress/relaxation response of the body. It is equally beneficial to relax the body and mind in preparation for meditation.
Other well-known benefits of three-part breathing include lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Some yoga texts state that it kindles Agni - the metabolic fire - and thereby improves digestion. It may also provide some relief in insomnia or other sleep disorders.
Contraindications and Precautions
Dirgha Pranayama is considered safe for everyone. Pregnant women, people with respiratory problems (asthma, bronchitis, etc.), patients recovering from a serious illness, and those suffering from chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease should consult their physician before performing any breathing exercise.
Pranayama is always done on an empty stomach. Wait for 3 hours after a meal before attempting the three-part breath. Perform pranayama in a well-ventilated space. Pollution, incense sticks, fumes, or poor ventilation are counterproductive and potentially harmful.
5 Practice Tips for Dirgha Pranayama
Dirgha Pranayama is generally performed at the start of a pranayama routine or right before meditation to calm the mind. However, you can use three-part breathing as a calming technique at any time.
For yoga asana, you can use the three-part breath right before postural practice.You can do three-part breathing in Corpse Pose, Crocodile Pose, or in any of the kneeling or cross-legged postures for pranayama. We recommend Savasana and Sukhasana for beginners.
Breathe without force or strain. Stay completely relaxed during the three-part breath.
Be mindful of jerks or irregularities in your breathing and correct them. The end goal is to have a smooth, even, and rhythmic flow while performing the three-part breath.
Once you master the three-part breath, combine deep breathing with meditation. Bring your awareness to a mantra, imagery, or the breath-mind connection.
To conclude, Dirgha pranayama is slow, deep, and conscious breathing. It involves filling the three chambers of the lungs - abdomen, thoracic region, and clavicular region - to increase oxygenation and induce calm. You can perform the three-part breath in prone or supine postures i.e. while lying down on your chest or back.
Try Corpse or Crocodile Pose, or any yoga posture that doesn’t restrict the lungs. We recommend using yoga bolsters and blankets in a restorative variation to open the chest as you practice three-part breath. It is not mandatory, but it sure is relaxing.
Once you master the practice, you can combine the three part breath with other pranayama techniques like Viloma, Ujjayi, and use Sama/Visama Vritti.