Think about it: our first act in life is to take a breath, to bring air into our little newborn lungs for the very first time. And our very last action in this life is to release our breath in a final exhale. In between, our breath is a constant companion. We continue to breathe all day and all night: an involuntary, physiological action that we can also willfully control in order to support the health and vitality of our bodies. Pretty cool, eh?
If you’ve been in class in the past week, you’ve discovered (or re-discovered) your 3-part yogic breath (also called dirgha pranayama – see link for easy instructions). As a quick reminder: this is a deep, full inhale into the belly, ribs, and chest, followed by a deep, full exhale from the chest, ribs, and belly. This particular breath is so simple, so beneficial and has no counter-indications at all – which means that it is a great practice for everybody at all times!
Besides breathing more deeply, what exactly are the benefits of this 3-part breath, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked! The benefits are many, so without further ado, let’s see what dirgha pranayama can do for you.
- Increases your lung capacity: In our day-to-day lives, we breathe to about 20% of our total lung capacity. And most of us breathe fairly shallowly, only into the upper lobes of the lungs. Here, we’re consciously drawing air down into all three lobes, engaging the diaphragm and helping to oxygenate the blood.
- Releases stale carbon dioxide: As you exhale fully from the chest, ribs and belly and draw your navel in toward the spine, you’re ridding yourself of any excess carbon dioxide hanging around in your lungs.
- Increases body awareness: Engaging in 3-part breath allows you to feel your body, to bring awareness to the belly/low back, front and back ribs, upper back/chest as you breathe in 360 degrees. This practice will also show you if you’re a “reverse breather”. When asked to take a deep breath, some people will breathe into their chest and pull their navel in on the inhale, and then exhale by pressing their belly out and collapsing the chest….which means they’re only breathing into the chest. With practice, you can gently begin to allow the belly to expand like a balloon on the inhale first, then inhale up into the ribs and chest. This is a much fuller, deeper breath.
- Helps to calm and balance the system: We all know that taking a few deep full breaths has a very calming effect on the body/mind, especially in times of stress or anxiety. The 3-part breath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the body’s “rest-and-digest” activities, balancing the sympathetic nervous system (the body’s “fight-or-flight” response). Research even supports the use of yogic breathing as an alternative to medication in the treatment of anxiety.
- Boosts energy and increases vitality: At the same time that it promotes calmness, the dirgha breath can have a profound affect on your energy levels, allowing fresh oxygen and nutrients to be more easily distributed to all the cells in your body. This helps the brain and all of the organs to function optimally.
- Brings you right into the present moment: Pranayama practice in general helps to focus the mind and dirgha breath is no exception. Anytime we engage this breath – during class, in meditation, in the midst of a stressful situation, while standing in line at the grocery store, even while sitting and noticing a negative thought pattern – it gets us out of our head-space and into our bodies. Bringing attention to the breath means we are right here with what’s going on in this moment – just this inhale, this exhale.
- Allows you to feel your life: This may seem more like a challenge than a benefit at first blush, but repeating a slow, deep 3-part breath can sometimes invite what’s just below the surface in the emotional realm to come up. Joy, sadness, fear, anxiety, love, compassion, empathy – it all arises. This process is part of the body’s way of purifying and clearing out – it balances our tendency to suppress big feelings.
- Promotes wellness and good health: Any time we’re breathing deeply into the belly, we’re helping digestion by massaging the internal organs with the movement of the diaphragm, increasing blood circulation and helping with blood-return to the heart, and strengthening the immune system by helping prevent infection of the lungs and other tissues. In short, we’re supporting the workings of this entire intelligent machine: the body!
To be fair to all the other yogic breathing practices, many of these benefits apply to other forms of pranayama as well. And I’m sure this is not even an exhaustive list of all the good things dirgha breath can do for you – especially since we are all different and experience things differently. So my invitation to you is this:
Put all of this information to the side and discover the ways in which the 3-part breath can benefit YOU! What is your experience? What do you notice? How can this practice support you in your life?