Welcome back to this week’s blog, where we continue with our theme of breath awareness.
This post will look at something called 3-Part Breath, or Dirga Pranayama in Sanskrit.
Last week, we focused on Belly Breath, which looks at diaphragmatic breathing. This technique encourages the practitioner to focus solely on the expansion and contraction of the belly to increase lung strength and capacity.
This week, as the title suggests, we will be taking this a little bit further and adding in a couple more steps to the process to create what is called “3-Part Breath” which is sometimes referred to as “Full Yogic Breathing”. In Sanskrit, it is called Dirga Pranayama.
Like last week, this post will cover:
What is 3-Part Breath?
What are the benefits (and contraindications) of 3-Part Breath?
How do I do 3-Part Breath?
What is 3-Part Breath?
This breathing awareness technique is concerned with smooth inhalation and exhalation of the breath in three stages.
Stage one is breathing into the belly (or diaphragmatic breathing, as covered in this post).
Stage two is then continuing the inhalation into the chest, feeling the ribs expand laterally away from each other.
The third stage is when the inhalation peaks in the clavicular area – the upper chest and throat area, and you may be able to discern the chest lifting vertically upwards.
On the exhalation, the upper chest drops down, the ribs return towards each other, and the belly drops back in.
What are the benefits of 3-Part Breath?
There are numerous benefits and contraindications regarding 3-Part Breath, a non-exhaustive list of which is given here. As always, consult with your trusted medical professional before attempting any new breathing technique to make sure it is the right fit for you and your unique needs.
Let’s start with the benefits.
Like Belly Breathing, it can be done (almost) anywhere, anytime, with the exception of driving, operating machinery, or being involved with something that requires your full attention. I love doing this early in the morning before anyone needs me and before I’ve even brushed my teeth or had my tea or coffee.
It is especially beneficial for reducing stress, as it encourages long, deep, slow breathing, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and bringing us into our Window of Tolerance, a term coined by Siegel in 1999 (more on that here). This in turn helps us to stay calm and grounded for longer periods of time, and more resilient during future stressful periods.
It helps to build awareness of the breath, which is essential in developing a supportive, sustainable asana practice (the physical practice of yoga popular in the West, especially). To know why breath awareness is so important for our physical yoga practice, check out this post for the science behind the breath. To increase breath awareness during our asana practice, 3-Part breath can be done at the beginning of practice, essentially setting the stage for a breath-focused (and therefore rejuvenating and calming) practice.
It helps us to develop a connection to our bodies. Being aware of where the breath is going on the inhale, and what parts of the body are involved during both the inhale and exhale, can help sustain an appreciation for what our bodies does for us autonomously.
So, what about some contraindications?
According to this post by Tummee, there are none, except that you should practice under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher. Given that Belly Breathing has some contraindications (find out more here and here), and 3-Part Breath incorporates components of Belly Breathing, I would utter a word of caution and reemphasize the need to check with a medical professional before starting this technique.
How do I do 3-Part Breathing?
Once you have clearance from your trusted medical professional, then you are ready to set yourself up for 3-Part Breath. If you have access to a yoga teacher who can guide you through this process in real time, then I strongly recommend doing that before attempting to follow the instructions below. Use your discretion here, do what you feel is right for you.
I will list some step-by-step instructions below, but if you’d prefer to follow along with a video, scroll down to find a great short video by Kripalu that blends both Belly Breathing and 3-Part Breathing together.
Find a position that suits you best. If you are completely new to this, I recommend trying this a few times while lying down, face up, with your knees bent, and resting in on each other. Otherwise, come to a comfortable seated position on the floor or on a chair. If you are on the floor, check that your knees are below the line of your hip bones. If not, elevate your hips by sitting up on a blanket or cushion, and support your knees by placing a cushion or rolled-up blanket (or yoga blocks if you have them) underneath your knees.
Place both hands on your belly (though this is optional, so if this doesn’t feel right for you, drop your hands by your side or into your lap). We start with a few rounds of Belly Breathing. Breath in through the nose and feel your belly expand, then exhale through the nose and feel the belly drop back in. Repeat this for a few rounds.
On the next inhale, breath slowly in, feel the belly expand.
Keep inhaling slowly and bring your hands to your lower ribs (your floating ribs), fingers pointin in toward each other (they don’t need to touch). As you inhale, feel the ribs expand laterally and your fingers pull away from each other.
Bring your hands to your upper chest, just below your throat, and you may be able to feel your chest rise up a little to the sky. This might be a little difficult to discern at first.
Begin the exhale, feel your chest drop down towards the floor, the ribs pull back in, and the belly drops back in.
Repeat this for 3-4 more rounds. If you’d prefer not to use your hands as a guide, and rely on internal awareness of how the body is moving in tune with the breath, that is absolutely fine.
After you have completed a few rounds, return back to normal breathing in and out of the nose, and just take stock of how you feel. What do you observe? Try to be non-judgmental about this, especially if you feel nothing has changed. As with all things, this takes practice.
This is one of my favorite techniques to practice, as it helps me to understand how the breath is three-dimensional. The belly expands and retracts forward and backward. The ribs expand oppositionally sideways. The chest lifts up and drops down along the vertical line.
It also helped me, over time, to notice how much calmer I could feel after a few rounds (some days need more rounds than others), and how much better I felt after practicing in the morning and before bedtime.
The breath is so much more than simply breathing in and out.
Anyway, as promised, here is that video.
If you’d like to know how to get set up to practice yoga safely and sustainably at home, fill in your details below and my free Home Yoga Prep for Beginners guide will fly into your inbox.
Next up, we will look at another one of my all-time favorite breathing techniques and some fascinating science behind it.
Until then, much love,
Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press.
Hi, I'm Ellie Smith. I'm passionate about sharing how the practices and principles of yoga can enhance our public speaking presence. Whether you're a university student, new or returning professional, or simply want to boost your confidence behind the mic, I'm here to help guide you on your yoga journey so you can go from the pose to the podium with ease.