The fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama, means breath control.
I can confidently say that breathing exercises affect all parts of our being and help integrate all systems and functions of the body. We can even tap into our energy sources, emotional and psychological states with simple yet effective breathing techniques. In yoga, pranayamas are used to regulate and purify your vital life force energy called prana.
The breath is very unique, as it has the ability to be regulated by the conscious and subconscious mind. This allows us to use breathing exercises to regulate our nervous system. We can practice breathing exercises, such as dirga pranayama, also known as the three-part breath, to calm our sympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight response. This means it increases our stress response by increasing our heart rate, adrenaline and blood flow to our skeletal muscles. It is our parasympathetic nervous system that regulates our blood pressure and facilitates digestion, healing and growth. Living with the sympathetic nervous system on high means our body does not get a chance to rest and digest, leaving it prone to illness or injury. We can use breath to switch into the calming aspects of our nervous system and utilize the full capacity of our lungs.
Dirga pranayama is a breathing technique that divides the breath into three parts. This creates a full and complete breath that has an even length between inhale and exhale. It can have dramatic effects on our practice through its ability to calm the sympathetic nervous system. It can help decrease pain, stress and anxiety levels. It provides body awareness, which is a great tool for bringing the mind inward, creating a grounded and relaxed state. Dirga pranayama is often used at the beginning of a yoga practice to help settle and prepare oneself for asanas or meditation.
The three parts refer to the belly, ribs and chest. Try following these simple steps to explore this breathing technique.
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, close your eyes, let go of tension in the body. Bring awareness to your natural breath, observe your inhale and exhale as you breathe through your nose.Slowly lengthen your inhale. Expand your belly as you inhale – filling it up like a balloon.
- As you exhale, slowly expel the air out from your belly and draw your navel towards your spine to empty.
- Repeat long, slow belly breaths a few times to get the hang of it.
- On the next inhale, fill the belly as before. When the belly is full, continue to fill the rib cage, allow the ribs to expand in all directions.
- On the exhale, let the air go first from the rib cage, letting the ribs come closer together, then from the belly.
- Practice breathing first into the belly and then the rib cage a few times.
- On the next inhale, expand the belly, then the ribs. When they are full continue to fill the chest. Imagine your heart is right in the middle of your breast bone and you are breathing into and expanding your heart.
- On the exhale, let the breath go first from the upper chest, then from the ribs and lastly the belly. Therefore the rhythm is as follows:
- Inhale: 1-belly, 2-ribs, 3-chest; Exhale: 1-chest 2-ribs, 3-belly
Continue this sequence at your own pace, trying to use a long, soft and slow breath. Over time this breathing technique will feel effortless. The transitions between each of the three areas with start to blend smoothly and the breath will feel as one.
Remember, you will get good at whatever you are practicing. Why not practice calming your nervous system, bringing awareness inside and being present in the moment!
Beth Hollis, BHSc., MPT, CKTP