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Friday Q&A: The Three-Part Breath

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

Friday Q&A: The Three-Part Breath

Ladder by Melina Meza

Q: I was taught the way to breathe is through the belly to the chest and ending in the sternum area.  I saw a video from Leslie Kaminoff where he stated he does it the opposite way meaning sternum to belly. So, what does yoga teach us? Does it matter?

A: I’ll start right off with the assertion that from my perspective there is no one right way of breathing. And from my exposure to different styles of yoga and different modern lineages of yoga, I have often encountered conflicting recommendations on how to imagine the breath is moving in the body or how it is filling the lungs. But, as our reader points out, one of the more commonly taught ways of imagining, experiencing or encouraging the breath to come in on the inhalation is often called the three-part breath. In this variation, you imagine that you are filling your belly area with breath first (reflected in the belly gently expanding before any other part of the body or chest changes shape), followed by your lower chest, and lastly your upper chest. As an example, if you decided to do this over the course of a three-second inhalation, you could divide the filling or shape change of each area of your belly and chest into one-second increments. Remember you are not actually breathing into your belly, as your breath only goes into your lungs, which are located inside your ribcage! We suggest to our students that the breath is going into the belly during a full, relaxed breath because of the change in shape that takes place in that area of the body, when the breathing muscle—the respiratory diaphragm that separates the chest and abdomen—contracts and pushes down on the abdominal contents, leading to the outward bulge of the belly.

The exhalation is then sometimes said to exit in the opposite direction, from your upper chest first, your lower chest next, and your belly last. When performed in a relaxed, deep way, this breath is said to shift your nervous system to the Relaxation Response (Rest and Digest), slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, to name three typical benefits. But everyone experiences the breath differently, so not everyone will have those results, especially when first learning to breath differently. When I traveled to India in 2005, I was taught the style of breathing that our reader describes in his question, just the opposite of the more common three-part breath I just described. It is the same one Leslie Kaminoff describes in video that our reader mentioned. In this version of the three-part breath, you first invite your inhale into your upper chest, then your lower chest, and finally your belly. You then move your exhalation out of your belly first—with the assistance of the abdominal muscles contracting—then your lower chest and finally your upper chest. 

When I was first guided into this breath, I immediately recognized that it was the opposite of what I had been taught back home. But I was curious to try it and see what it felt like. My instructors at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram claimed this breath reflected the spinal movements that more naturally occur with inhaling (slight backbend of the spine) and exhaling (slight forward rounding of the spine), and stated that it would lead to a deeper, longer, fuller lung capacity. I have worked with both styles of breath over the ensuing years, and I can say for certain that one is not necessarily “better” than the other. 

Sometimes teachers of one method or the other will claim that the breath style reflects the movement of prana or internal energy in the body. Some sources state that prana moves upwards towards the head on inhalation, and moves downward on the exhalation, so therefore the first style of three-part breath reflects and supports that. Other teachers have suggested that there are energetic benefits to drawing the prana downward on the inhalation and releasing it upwards on the exhalation; and that inhaling downward towards the belly flips the digestive flame downward toward the lowest part of the belly, where the ancient Hatha yogis felt we stored all kinds of waste and toxins we needed to burn up. 

As I shared this potential difference of opinion with my friend and very experienced yoga teacher Susi Amendola, she promptly suggested the following:

“There is no one right way to breathe. There is just the ability to observe our habits and adapt if you discover that you are limited in your breathing capacity. Why are you reluctant to do a particular method of breathing: does it hurt, is it just weird and unfamiliar, or are you wed to a particular technique because you feel it is the “right way” to breath? These first two aspects are more interesting ways of assessing your breath than deciding which is the right way to do it.” 

I was reminded of the response of some of my fellow students back in India after we were first introduced to the second version of the three-part breath. Several said they would refuse to try the second version again because it was not the way they learned in their tradition, and it was therefore not something they were interested in learning.

So, when you are learning new pranayama techniques, consider giving it a try and notice how it makes your feel and how that jives with the purported benefits of the technique. If you are really struggling with either form of three-part breath, ask your teacher for guidance. Lastly, pick your teacher’s brain to see what other tidbits of wisdom about the breath you can learn.  Also, keep in mind that there can be an accumulated benefit of doing the breathing techniques regularly for a while, just as there is when doing your yoga asana home practice each day.  So add in a regular pranayama practice to your home yoga practice if you have not done so already!

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