The word “yoga” has a number of definitions, but can mean union, join or literally, ‘yoke,’ (harness). In yoga we learn to join our breath to our movement. Our breath is a bio-chemical wonder. It goes on below our conscious radar thousands of times a day without our involvement. As we inhale, we receive fresh oxygen, prana, or life-force energy. As we exhale we release carbon dioxide, or that which no longer serves us. Through effortless inhalation and exhalation, we sustain our bodies delicate bio-chemical balance.
With simple observation of the natural breath we can gain awareness of the present moment. Breath in, breath out is one of the easiest forms of mediation. (Read our earlier article on mindfulness).
As you deepen your physical practice of yoga (asana) you may encounter practices of pranayama. Pranayama is the way we can regulate or control the breath (prana, or life-force energy and ayama: which means to extend), meaning we awaken our ability to control the flow of life-force energy within the body. Through control of the breath we can gain control of our body, mind, and spirit. Eventually we can learn how to direct prana throughout our body. This practice or knowledge can be incredibly useful in times of stress or when you need rejuvenation.
Three-part breath or Dirga pranayama
Three-part breath is often one of the first types of breath practice taught to beginners and it is a fantastic pranayama for anyone to practice, at the start of a yoga class, during a yoga class, sitting in your car in a traffic jam or even when you are sat on a bus! If you are new to pranayama, we suggest that you practice first with an experienced teacher. Also remember that if you have breathing or respiratory problems (asthma, emphysema) to be careful, listen to your body at all times and stop if you become dizzy or lightheaded.
To start we will walk through each of the three parts separately, and put them together at the end.
When first learning the technique we suggest that you begin in constructive rest pose. Lay on your yoga mat face up, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Take these first few moments to connect with your breath. Inhale, and count how long it takes for you to inhale. Then match the length of your exhale to the length of your inhale (example: if initially you breathe in for a count of four; exhale for a count of four). With each following breath extend your breath by one or two counts (with a little time maybe you can reach a count of 8, 10 or 15).
Now bring the palms of your hands onto your hip bones with your fingertips facing toward your pelvic bone. And start to breathe in such a way that as you inhale, your belly inflates like a balloon and your hands rise. Exhale and your hands and belly fall. Deep belly breaths. This is the way we breathe when we are born. Deep and full breaths into the belly. You might actually see and feel the belly rise on an inhale and sink toward the spine on the exhale. Use a little muscular energy to squeeze the belly toward the spine and empty the entire breath, preparing to receive a fresh full breath.
After a few minutes of belly breathing, move the hands to the mid-section of the torso just under the bra line (if you were to wear a bra). Here the breath expands laterally or from side to side. Feel the rib cage expand like an accordion as the breath enters and exits the body. You may also be able to feel the intercostal muscles that lay between the ribs. These are the muscles that facilitate the expansion and contraction of the chest. Initially this area can be difficult to access so, use a little muscular energy from the hands to help push out the breath. This can help you gain access and awareness to this part of the torso.
After a few minutes of breathing into this mid-section of the torso, move the hands up to just below the collar bone. Once again breathe in such a way that as you inhale the hands raise and exhale use the muscular energy of the hands to press the breath out of the body. This upper region of the torso is the area of more shallow breathing so you might not notice as much movement here. Spend a few minutes breathing into this section as well.
We will now put the three parts together. It is important to remember this is a single inhale and exhale done in three parts. You may want to move your hands through each part until you get the hang of directing the breath into these different sections of the body.
Start by exhaling completely… Then receive a fresh inhale all the way to the lower belly. Completely inflate the lower belly, continue to draw the breath in and expand through the mid-chest region. Then top the breath off by breathing into the upper region.
Exhale from the top, mid-section, lower belly. Squeeze the breath out (pull the belly toward the spine) ready to receive the next breath. Inhale from the bottom of the torso to the top. Like filling a glass of water, from the bottom to the top. And then empty the breath from the top to the bottom, like pouring water out from a glass.
Practice several rounds (or minutes) of this three-part breath. Fully maximize the breath capacity of each section of the torso. Once you have completed your pranayama practice, release all control over your breath and allow your natural and spontaneous breath to return. Allow a few moments for this to happen organically.
The final stage of this breath practice (pranayama) is to use your powers of observation and notice which part of your torso you naturally breathe. Are you naturally a deep belly breather? Or do you breathe most naturally into your mid-section or upper chest?
With the power of breath, we glimpse understanding of the present moment and proceed with a calm, quiet, open mind.
Health and Wellbeing Mentor and yoga teacher
La Crisalida Retreats