3 – part breath: dhirgha pranayama

Dhirgha (दीर्घ ) Prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम )

Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma,  a cooling breath, is the process of elongating the breath using specific techniques. Dhirgha breath is often referred to as Dhirgha Shvāsam, Deep Yogic Breath. This is often the first breathing technique taught to new yoga practitioners.

  • Dhirgha (दीर्घ ) has several meanings – “slow,” “deep,” “long,” and “complete.”
  • Shvāsam is the breath.
  • Prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम ) is collection of breathing practices.

This practice is also called as the Three-part Breath. The three parts are:

  • diaphragm
  • thorax
  • clavicle

Instructions

Seat

  • Establish a most comfortable seat with spine straight, shoulders relaxed and neck and head aligned. There is no rule that you must sit on the yoga mat in a difficult pose to work with your breath.
  • If you are bothered by the aches and pains its best to use as many props as you need like blocks, blankets, stool or a chair – in order to be comfortable enough to forget your body and focus only on the breath.

Identifying the 3 parts

  • First, place hands on your upper portion of your abdomen, just below the chest cavity (diaphragm). Inhale and notice the expansion in your abdominal muscle, which is actually the movement of the diaphragm moving down making room for the breath in the lower part of the lungs. Repeat.
  • This is Part 1 – Diaphragmatic Breath.
  • Next, place your thumbs under your armpits and fan out your fingers around the ribcage. Inhale and observe muscles of the chest (thorax) expand and contract. Repeat.
  • This is Part 2 – Thoracic Breath.
  • Lastly, place your hands just below the bony part of your shoulder (clavicle). Inhale and observe the movement in your shoulder muscles. This movement is very subtle and may not be observable for a long time but improves with practice. Repeat.
  • This is Part 3, called the Clavicular Breath.
  • Once you are familiar with identifying the three parts, you don’t need to place the hands in these specific areas each time you practice. With your eyes closed, just direct your attention to these three parts and follow the breath.

Variation One

  • Inhale in this order – Part 1, 2 and 3, followed by an easy exhale. Repeat 5 times.
  • Next, assign 1 count for each part on the inhales . This will total to 3 counts per inhale. Follow with an easy exhale.  Repeat.
  • Increase counts by 1 count after a week only if you have established a daily practice.
  • For example; if you increase the count by 1, you are actually adding one count for each part, essentially adding three counts to the total. Now, you will have two counts for each part for a total of 6 counts.

Variation Two

  • Inhale an easy breath and begin the exhale in this order –  Part 3, 2 and 1. Repeat 5 times.
  • Next, assign 1 count for each part on the exhales. This will total to 3 counts per exhale. Follow with an easy inhale.  Repeat.
  • Increase counts by 1 count after a week only if you have established a daily practice.
  • For example; if you increase the count by 1, you are actually adding one count for each part, essentially adding three counts to the total. Again, you will have two counts for each part for a total of 6 counts.

Variation Three

  • Inhale in the order Part 1, 2 and 3 and Exhale in the order Part 3, 2 and 1.
  • Use 1 count per part to begin for a total of 3 counts for inhale and 3 counts for exhale. This constitutes One Round. Repeat 5 times = five rounds.
  • If you are doing 2 counts per part, your inhale will be 2+2+2 for a total of 6 and your exhale will also be 2+2+2 for a total of 6 counts. This constitutes One Round. Repeat 5 times = five rounds.
  • This is the complete practice of Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma, 3 part breath.
  • Do not increase counts and rounds at the same time. If you are feeling dizzy or breathless, return to previous count or to Variation 1 and 2 for another 2 weeks.

 Practice Tips

  • Variation Three is the technique that is mostly presented in books and articles on Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma. I used Variations 1 and 2 as it was helpful for me in the beginning (still do at times).
  • Initially, the transitions from one part to the next may feel choppy. Eventually the breath will flow through the three parts as one complete, deep breath.
  • Inhalation always starts at the diaphragm (filling lower lungs), then moves upward to the thoracic area (filling mid lungs) and finally to the clavicular area (filling upper lungs).
  • Exhalation always starts from the clavicular area (emptying upper lungs), downwards to the thoracic area (emptying mid lungs) and finally to the diaphragm (emptying lower lungs).
  • Both inhalation and exhalation are always performed through the nose.
  • Although Dhirgha breath can be practiced at bedtime to release stress and improve quality of sleep, the instructions provided above are for seated Prāṇāyāma practice.

Benefits of Three-Part Yogic Breath 

It is best to practice this Prāṇāyāma and experience the benefits first hand. The following are some of the benefits gleaned from various sources.

  • Consistent practice of Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma will lengthen the breath and strengthen the lungs preparing the breath for more difficult Prāṇāyāma practices.
  • Deep breathing infuses the blood with extra oxygen and stimulates the body to release tranquilizing endorphins, reducing anxiety and making it an effective stress management technique.
  • Deep rhythmic yoga breathing reduces the work load for the heart, decreases heart rate leading to a more efficient, stronger heart.
  • This Prāṇāyāma increases lung capacity and eliminates toxins and stale air. It also helps to balance emotions and reduce stress, which can improve immunity and make you less susceptible to allergies and colds.

My Practice

At the start of the practice I was unable to maintain the same length for both inhales and exhales. After struggling for a few weeks, I decided to try working on inhales (Variation One) and exhales (Variation Two) separately for a couple of weeks to see if it made a difference. It absolutely did. In a few weeks I was ready to introduce Variation Three.

When I had to skip the practices for a week or more due to colds, flu or other sickness, I needed to start at the beginning of my practice. You will experience these restarts as well. With regular practice, my restarts are slowly getting more efficient.

Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma is teaching me to breathe fully and completely. It is this breathing practice that sets the tone for my daily Prāṇāyāma. I also use it for centering before asana practice. While my posture has improved because of asana, this breath reminds me to maintain a good posture during the day. This helps to keep the chest open and breath healthy.

What I discovered along the way is that Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma was also training me to redirect my restless energy and manage my emotional triggers a little better.

Each time I fail to maintain my composure overpowered by the stubborness of my ego, instead of retreating with resentment or shame, I am slowly learning to let go with a long, slow exhale.

Each time I think I have made progress, I jinx myself into taking a long downward pride-slide in the practice before resuming the tedious climb.

Each time I become aware that I am actively bringing my mind back to the breath, I am realizing that it is short-lived. As tempted as I am to add another slash to the success column, I am learning to simply notice it and be grateful.

Spring is the worst season for me, and I rely on pills and nasal sprays. But “this too shall pass” when blooming is complete. I am happy that the rest of the year is managed with only Jala Neti, nasal wash and Prāṇāyāma.

                                                                                                                                      Next post: Ujjaiyi Pranayama

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

3 thoughts on “3 – part breath: dhirgha pranayama

  1. Pingback: ujjayi pranayama – victory breath – yogajivan

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