Dirgha pranayama or Three-part breathing is a technique to fully utilized the respiratory organs and thus use lungs at its fullest capacity. Do you know how? Well, by extending our depth of breath!
Have you ever noticed the depth of your breath or simply, on inhalation, up to where the air produces movements in your body? Take a moment and see your breathing depth.
If your body is stable while breathing, you will found movement in the chest area only, not a major expansion in ribcage or abdomen muscles. Chest breathing is usually when we are in a ‘fight or flight’ situation. This is a sign of shallow breathing that is making stress a habit of our bodies.
To overcome this shallow breathing, one must do the practice of involving full torso in the deep breathing process. In this article, I will describe a deep breathing technique called Dirgha pranayama or three-part breathing.
Dirgha Pranayama means Deep Breathing
Dirgha is a Sanskrit originated term translates into “deep” or “prolonged” or “long”. When Pranayama added with it, it becomes a systematic technique to manipulate our Prana (or in simple language breath).
Combining both terms together makes its interpretation as the expansion of breath for a prolonged period as compared to normal breathing. By expansion of breath, here I am referring to increase the amount of “Prana – vital life energy” we are filling in the body.
Understand it in this way:
In three-part breathing, by manipulating Prana to pass through all major parts of the upper body we let it travel inside the body and hence increase the period of breath retention. This prolonged period of breathing in Sanskrit is referred to as Dirgha (deep) Pranayama. In yoga, this is the only breathing technique that lets you fully involve all respiratory organs therefore it’s also called “Full Yogic breathing” or “Complete breath“.
Physiology of Three-Part Breathing
Often our natural pattern of breathing limited up to chest only (thoracic breathing). Because of the limited motion of the chest, our diaphragm (a domed sheet of skeletal muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen) doesn’t reach the lower part of the lungs.
In this case, the oxygen we take doesn’t fully exchange with the blood which further produces comparatively less energy. This is the reason (shallow breathing) we tired up after little work & feel stressed.
In contrast to this, three-part breathing involuntarily goes beyond the chest and fills all 3 lobes of the torso with oxygen:
- First, complete filling of the lower abdomen
- Second, the extension of the chest & side ribs
- Finally extension of upper chest area through the lengthening of collarbone and shoulders
While exhaling, breath comes out in reverse order 3 → 2 → 1.
Diaphragm muscle place a vital role in three-part breathing. When we deeply breathe in Dirgha pranayama, diaphragm muscle comes in contact with the lowest portion of the lungs. Here some small blood vessels reside to carry oxygen to the cells. These small blood vessels usually don’t get a full share of oxygenated air in shallow breathing. As we inhale in three-part breathing, diaphragm contracts to reach these small blood vessels and full oxygen exchange take place. This exchange of oxygen also encourages a path for outgoing carbon dioxide.
Hence, by increasing the oxygen exchange in three-part breathing, heart-beat and blood pressure gets down.
Dirgha Pranayama Steps
Before going into this breathing exercise, find a quiet space around where no one can disturb you for about 10-15 minutes. One can perform three-part breathing in the following postures:
- If you’re Okay with your back and have practiced Pranayama before: Choose any seated cross-legged posture (easy pose or lotus pose) and sit comfortably with your sit bones firmly grounded, spine erect, eyes closed and shoulder relaxed. Observe your natural breathing cycle for a few breath counts.
- If your back hurts in sitting and you’re a beginner in Pranayama: Lay down on your back, either fully extend your legs out (as we do in Savasana) or bend knees and bring soles on the mat to make it a little more comfortable. In this pose, you’re more likely to feel the movements of the abdomen and rib cage part.
In both postures, wear loose clothing to ensure your abdomen part is fully relaxed and its movement isn’t restricting by anyway.
- Now slowly start observing your breath coming in and out of the nostrils and try to be aware of those subtle sensations produced by breath. For 5-6 breaths, observe in this way.
Begin by placing your left-hand palm on the lower abdomen and breathe slowly deep in & out.
- On the first part of Dirgha Pranayama – As you breathe in, feel the air traveling down to fill the abdomen. Realize with your hand how tummy is expanding out like a balloon up to the end of complete inhalation.
As you breathe out, feel the inward coming of the abdominal wall to its natural position. Gently press your navel in to help your abdomen to expel the complete air.
Repeat this belly breathing for about 5-6 breaths and then move to the next part.
keeping your left hand as it is, place the right hand over the edge of the right side rib cage.
- On the second part of Dirgha Pranayama – As you breathe in, first fill the abdomen up to your limit, further draw a little more air in and send it to expand the middle torso (ribcage). Feel ribcage movement with the right hand.
On the exhalation, first let your ribs compress naturally and then, let your belly move inward toward the spine. This will expel complete air from the middle and lower torso.
Breath 5-6 times in the same manner into your ribs & belly and then move to the next part.
Keeping left hand as it is, slide your right hand little up over your chest.
- On the third part of Dirgha Pranayama – First, fill the air in your abdomen, then in ribs, and finally expand your chest and collarbone to give the air a little more space for filling in. This is called a complete breath.
On the exhalation, expel breath in reverse order. First, empty your chest, then ribs, and finally your abdomen.
Now do all three-part together in one time. As you inhale deeply, lift your belly out, expand your side ribs, and raise your chest up. On the exhalation, first, drop your chest and collarbone down, then contract your side ribs and pull your abdomen in. It’s called one round of complete yogic breathing.
At this point, you can release your hands and continue doing three-part together at your own pace for 10 rounds. Doing three-part breathing with no strain just for 5 minutes and see how your mind calm and the body is relaxed.
Benefits of Dirgha Pranayama
- It has been seen that during pregnancy, a woman usually breathe through her chest area because the diaphragm is unable to beat the weight of the fetus. After pregnancy, the habit remains the same. Dirgha pranayama helps to improve this habit and let women breathe completely.
- It helps to reduce Hypertension or High Blood Pressure. By doing this deep breathing, our blood vessels become relax and widen 1 which reduces the increased blood pressure.
- This breathing helps to strengthen the digestive system. Because in this deep breathing we intentionally draw the belly in & out, it massages the abdomen organs to strengthen the digestive system.
- Our immune system also gets stronger by the practice of this Pranayama. Since about 70-80% immune system lies in the digestive tract 2, by belly breathing, movements of lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) to the targeted place in the body becomes easier. Hence, the immune system gets stronger.
- In the case of Hypoxia or Hypoxemia 3 (when the body doesn’t get proper oxygen), three-part breathing is helpful to retrieve the oxygen level in blood.
- The full inhalation nourishes the body with enough supply of oxygen. Also, the full exhalation throws out stale CO2 accumulated in the lower parts of the lungs. This detoxifies the body.
Dirgha pranayama usually asked to practice at the beginning of a yoga class as by changing breathing into a deep level one’s state of mind can easily be calmed.
- Long deep breathing in this Pranayama saves breath counts for a longer duration. This is the reason ancient yogis used to live a longer life.
- If one’s mind is not stable because of hemispherical imbalance then this breathing can balance both the hemisphere.
- Dirgha Pranayama helps create awareness in the present moment. It calms the mind as all the focus is on the way of breathing that you are currently doing.
- Dirgha pranayama slows down your thoughts and prepares your mind for meditation.
Following things should keep in mind while performing Dirgha Pranayama:
- If you’re suffering from asthma or emphysema then practicing dirgha pranayama can be difficult for you. So consult your doctor.
- Sometimes drawing breath for an extended period can cause dizziness, so it’s better to return normal breathing if you’re feeling so.
- Don’t strain at any point during this breathing to draw breath furthermore if not comes naturally. It can hurt the respiratory organs.
- Can deep, slow breathing lower blood pressure? https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/can-deep-slow-breathing-lower-blood-pressure
- Allergy and the gastrointestinal system https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
- Hypoxia and Hypoxemia https://www.webmd.com/asthma/guide/hypoxia-hypoxemia