Pranayama, or breath control, is considered to be one of the branches of the 8-limbed path of yoga as it was described by Patanjali (in around 150 BCE in the Yoga Sutras).
Breathing techniques are the fourth pillar of the yogic path, right after the Yamas (external codes of conduct), Niyamas (internal codes of conduct), and the popular yoga asana – the physical yoga practice.
There are four more limbs that follow Pranayama, and those are; Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (one-pointed focus), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (bliss or enlightenment).
Breathing techniques, and more specifically yogic breathing, is an accessible way to practice yoga that does not involve any physical shapes and has benefits way beyond physical flexibility and strength.
Dirga breath, also known as yogic breathing or three-part breath, is an ancient breathing technique that is easy to learn and accessible for most.
It can be very beneficial whether practiced on its own or to accompany yoga asana and meditation practices, as well as help you self-regulate in daily life.
In this article we will discuss:
- Origins of Yogic Breathing
- Benefits of Yogic Breathing
- How To Practice Yogic Breathing
- When To Use Yogic Breathing
Origins of Yogic Breathing
Yogic breathing is one of the many types of pranayama that we first see described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
This text also describes other breathing techniques like Ujjayi breath, Surya Bedhana, Sheetali, Bashtrika, and Bramhari amongst others.
Dirga breath is translated from Sanskrit as complete, deep, slow, and long, which directly describes the fullness of the breath as it is performed in this pranayama technique.
Benefits of Yogic Breathing
This breathing technique has many benefits and it can be practiced safely by most people, including children.
Some of the benefits of yogic breathing are:
- Increased blood oxygenation
- Improved pulmonary function
- Assists in regulating the digestive processes
- Can support elimination
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Strengthens the immune system
- Pacifies the sympathetic nervous system
- Helps improve sleep
- Boosts focus and alertness
- Aids in restoring energy levels
- Balances the Prana Vayus of the energetic body
How To Practice Yogic Breathing
In Pranayama, the process of breathing is divided into three very distinct stages or parts:
The inhalation (breath enters the body)
The breath retention (Anthar kumbhaka is the retention after the inhale, and Bayha Kumbaka is the retention after the exhale.)
The exhalation (breath exits)
When practicing the pranayama technique of dirga breath – Puraka, the inhalation, is in itself performed in three parts which allows the entirety of the lungs to inflate. That is why this technique is also know as the three-part breath.
The traditional way of practicing dirga breath is in the posture of Sukhasana, however, we encourage you to find any comfortable seated position for you where your spine can be long, your shoulders relaxed, and you feel grounded.
If you rather, you can also choose to practice this breathing technique by laying down in a supine position, making sure that your back is lengthened and that your body is postured in a way in which you can let yourself relax.
Whether you choose to sit or lay down, you can use props and pillows to make the experience even more enjoyable. It is important to find physical comfort so that you can be fully present in the experience.
Before you begin
1. Rest your hands down on your lap or next to your body, and soften your gaze, or close your eyes if that feels safe for you.
2. Begin by breathing normally and notice what your breath is like; its rhythm, the lengths of the inhalations and the exhalations, and any tightness that arises in the body. Just observe.
3. Once you feel more in tune with what’s going on with your physical body and the cadence of your breath, start to even out your inhales and your exhales.
Notice how that affects you.
Now start to imagine that your torso and lungs are divided into three distinct parts:
- The bottom of your torso, which includes your abdomen and lower back, the bottom of your lungs.
- The middle of your torso, where your ribcage and mid-back are.
- The upper part of your torso, which is formed by your chest and upper back, right at the level of your shoulder blades and shoulders.
Starting the practice
1. Before you begin the practice of dirga pranayama, empty your lungs completely with your next exhale
2. Inhale putting all of your attention at the bottom of your lungs, allowing the air to expand in all four directions: front to back, side to side, top to bottom until your entire lower belly has expanded
3. During the same inhalation, allow the breath to rise toward your ribcage and midback, reaching the second stage of the inhalation, allowing the air to expand until the mid-torso feels full of air.
4. Finally, still on the same inhalation, allow your chest to expand, completely filling your lungs with air.
This completes the inhalation of the yogic breathing.
Finishing the practice
At this point, there will most likely be a brief, natural pause at the top of the inhale.
1. Exhale slowly, emptying the chest, ribcage, and belly, until there is no air left within, but for some that just won’t happen – that is okay, too.
2. From there, allow the exhalation to begin naturally but release the air in the reverse order. First empty from the top, allowing the shoulders, chest, heart, sternum, and upper back to release, and allow the breath to continue emptying from the ribcage.
3. Continue releasing the air from the midsection of your lungs as you draw your attention downwards and toward the bottom of the lungs. Expel the air from your abdomen, as you draw your belly button toward the spine and empty your lungs completely.
There may also be a brief Bayha Kumbhaka here, where your lungs are completely empty.
This completes one round of yogic breathing.
Feel free to repeat this pranayama anywhere from 3 rounds to 15 minutes, and notice how your awareness and your overall well-being shift.
Beginner Tips to Practice Yogic Breathing
If you’ve never practiced three-part breath before and you’re finding it a little bit challenging or confusing, consider trying this first:
1. Place your hands on your belly, and take a deep breath into the belly, as you notice it expanding outwards, in all four directions.
2. Exhale with your hands still on your low belly, as you observe and feel your abdomen contract inward and downward.
3. Now move your hands to the sides of your ribcage, elbows out, and shoulders relaxed. Breathe in, emphasizing the expansion of the ribs into your palms. Exhale to let the ribcage relax and gently contract inward.
4. Bring both hands to your chest and take another deep breath, accentuating the expansion into the chest, upper lungs, and back. Exhale to empty the upper chest.
Once you’re able to do this more comfortably, consider combining all three steps, to practice dirga pranayama in its traditional sense.
When To Use Yogic Breathing
Yogic breathing is a calming technique that soothes the nervous system. Hence, it can be used any time you feel like your nervous system is stuck in a sympathetic state, keeping you in fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Yogic breathing, like many pranayama techniques, improves blood oxygenation, which in return helps to lower stress levels and regulate blood pressure.
Here are a few scenarios in which you can use yogic breathing:
1. When you feel stressed out
2. When you want to wind down for bed
3. When you need to refocus and ground yourself
4. When you’re angry and need to cool off
5. When you arrive home from work and want to shift gears
Practice a few rounds of three-part breath and reap the immediate benefits.
Dirga pranayama is one of the safest pranayama techniques to practice for both beginner and advanced practitioners.
It does not have any counterindications, especially if you make sure that there is no breath retention (kumbakha) after the inhale or the exhale.
However, if you have any health conditions or concerns, we encourage you to speak to your physician and discuss if yogic breathing is appropriate for you.
Whether you’re new to the practices of yoga or you’ve been exploring them for a long time, incorporating a simple pranayama technique like the three-part breath either before or after practice, or at any other time of day, can deepen your practice substantially.
A very accessible and simple technique, yogic breathing has many calming benefits for the body and mind.
It is recommended for people of all ages to soothe the central nervous system and return to a resting state where the parasympathetic nervous system, in charge of resting and digesting, can take over.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to explore other accessible pranayama techniques, check out this article on Nadi Shodhana pranayama, a breath designed to help you find balance and harmony.