Every yoga practitioner should master the three-part breath (Dirgha Pranayama) before taking up pranayama. It's an excellent breathing technique to calm down and learn how to link the breath to the mind.
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 yoga breathing called Dirgha Pranayama steps in. Even the simplest form of it can improve health and wellbeing. Luckily, it is an easy pranayama technique that can be done by anyone, regardless of the experience with yoga.
What is Dirgha Pranayama
Dirgha Pranayama, also called the three-part breath, is a yoga breathing technique that involves slow and deep breathing while filling up the abdomen, chest, and clavicular region. This 'three-part' technique is a form of integrative training to a) prolong breathing, b) use your full lung capacity, and c) build a body-breath-mind connection.
The three parts refer to the abdomen, rib cage, and upper lobar (chest). The pranayam 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)
Regular practice of Dirgha pranayama reduces stress, corrects poor breathing habits, and increases inner focus.
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.' Through deliberate breathing, the pranayama leads your awareness to the breath. Or in other words, it is an excellent resource to experience prana and a mind-breath connection that is the foundation of advanced yoga practices.
Three-part Breath: Steps and Instructions
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Recommended Poses: Corpse or Easy Pose
Duration: 15 Breaths
Step One: Prepare
Get into any comfortable cross-legged yoga 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 2: 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 3: 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 4: Three-part breath – 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 few steps are mentioned to break down the practice. You don't need them to perform the three-part breath. Repeat step four 10 to 15 times or as long as desirable. Also note, there is no breath retention in dirgha pranayama. Mastery of the three-part breath is attained when you can do it with an even, smooth, and continuous flow.
Three-Part Breath 30-second Version: As you inhale, 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. Dirgha pranayama is equally beneficial to relax the body and mind in preparation for yoga and meditation.
Other well-known benefits of the three-part breath include lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Some yoga texts state that it kindles Agni - the metabolic fire - and thereby improves digestion. Dirgha pranayama may also provide some relief in insomnia or other sleep disorders.
Contraindications and Precautions
The three-part breath is considered safe for everyone. That being said, 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 adding dirgha pranayama to your yoga routine.
As ever, pranayama is always done on an empty stomach. Wait for 3 hours after a meal before attempting dirgha pranayama. Practice it in a well-ventilated space. Pollution, incense sticks, fumes, or poor ventilation are counterproductive and potentially harmful.
Dirgha Pranayama: 5 Practice Tips
Dirgha Pranayama is generally performed at the start of a yoga asana, pranayama, or meditation routine to calm the mind. However, you can use three-part breathing as a calming technique at any time safely.
For yoga asana, you can use the three-part breath right before postural practice. You can practice the three-part breath in Corpse Pose, Crocodile Pose, or any 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 dirgha pranayama, combine deep breathing with yoga-based 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 practice 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 before or while you practice the three-part breath. It is not mandatory, but it undoubtedly relaxing.
Once you master dirgha pranayama, you can combine the three part breath with other pranayama techniques like Viloma, Ujjayi, and use Sama/Visama Vritti.