Here in Toronto, it’s hot right now, and so my dogs are doing a fair bit of panting. And this reminded me that I haven’t covered panting on this website yet, and so that’s what I’m going to do today.
Panting is a great exercise for waking up the ribs and diaphragm. For many people, if you just say “PANT!”, they will pant very high up in their ribcage, which is contrary to one of my primary “rules” for breathing, which is to try to keep all the breath action as low as possible, and far away from larynx, neck and shoulder areas. So, though we know how to breathe in a panting style instinctually, we almost always need to review the concept, slow it down, and try to take it away from any tension or effort in the upper part of the body.
Step One: review the simple breath
Breathe into your core, allowing your belly to be soft and your lower ribs mobile. Allow the air, as it enters your body, to move your tummy outward, and your ribs wide, from just above your waistline out towards your elbow. (Of course, those areas are actually drawing the air IN, and the air isn’t filling them, but let’s just use that image to do it for now.) Once you feel fairly full, let the air fall out of you, by releasing it with a silent, open-throated sigh-like quality.
Step Two: Fill the glass, pour it out, and then fill it half-full
That was a simple, basic, core breath. Panting is just smaller breaths that happen more rapidly, and we want to “source” those small breaths from the same place—low down in the body, not up high. To do this, we’ll start again in the exact same way, from the bottom. Imagine that you have a tall glass that you’re filling up. Fill it from the bottom, at first all the way up to the brim. Again, pour it back out. (If you need to wait a second for your next impulse to breathe, that’s probably a good thing.) Now, try a filling breath, but only fill the “glass” halfway up. When you hit the halfway mark, immediately let the air “pour out” with a silent, open-throated sigh. Do the ½ full version twice.
Step Three: Halving the volume
We’re going to repeat this halving of the volume we’re breathing a few more times. So the next breath will be ¼ full. Pour it out. Live in that space for four breaths. Next, it will be only ⅛ full, and you should explore that volume for 8 breaths. (See the pattern?) Fill it, and pour it out each time, each time focusing on the breath low down, with a silent, open-throated exhalation.
Finally, try to breathe at 1/16 of the volume that you started at. You won’t be able to know how much air you’re actually moving, but imagine that you’re doing half the size of breath you did in the previous step, and you’ll be fine. Should you do it 16 times? That might be a bit too ambitious! You can certainly work your way up to it. 8 is fine to begin with, and you might eventually be able to find the ease that you could go all the way up to 16. What’s most important is that the panting NEVER become effortful, that the size of the breath stay small and in the lower part of your body.
Step Four: Replace what you spent
We’ve been doing this starting with an inhalation. Now that we’ve gotten the sensation of a tiny breath, we can flip this on its head and focus on the idea of the exhalation starting us off. The heart of the matter, I feel, is to breathe out a tiny bit, and then merely replace the amount you spent. There no longer is a need to pant to 16—5 or 6 puffs of air at a time is plenth.
To enhance your awareness of this, purse your lips a little bit so that the air you exhale makes a tiny fricative sound on the way out (IPA aficionados will know that this is the sound represented by the symbol [ɸ].) Of course, pursing your lips in this manner probably means that you’ll make that noise both on the way out and on the way back in! If you relax your lips just a little, you may be able to silence the incoming breath.
Step Five: Midpoint, Empty and Full Panting
When we’re at rest, our lungs are neither full nor empty. There is always some residual air sitting in our lungs. If, without breathing in to begin, you just breathe out from wherever you are right now you’ll discover that you have got quite a lot of air sitting in reserve, actually. As panting is merely a tiny fluctuation in the volume of air in your lungs, we could do that fluctuation from a midpoint, at rest, position, we could do it from a state of being fairly empty, or we could do it when we’re quite full. We’ve been doing the midpoint version all along. Let’s try the Empty version next.
Without breathing in to begin, gently breathe out most of the air you currently have in your lungs. Then, pant from that position by puffing out a tiny bit of air and then letting that tiny puff replace itself. The inhalation will probably “bounce” right back on a kind of elastic recoil of the ribs and lungs, so you won’t have to “take” any kind of breath. However, you may have to work hard not to allow too much air to come back in, as filling back up at this point is easier than pushing more air out. Do that for 5 or 6 cycles, then take a break for 5 seconds or so, and then do another set of 5 or 6 cycles.
For the Full version of panting, we want to start from a state where our breath system, our “glass”, is pretty full. Inhale breath deep into your core and wide into your side and back ribs until you feel pretty full. Take a moment to feel that full sensation without closing your vocal folds, or glottis. This is really important—for the panting to work, you must really try hard to keep your throat wide open. Now, using the muscles of your diaphragm and lower side and back ribs, pant from the bottom of your class. Do that for 5 or 6 cycles, take a break — big sigh out, wait, fill down again — and then repeat another cycle of 5 or 6 pants. I find that it is more challenging to do this kind of panting, so I have to go a little slower.
I like to imagine that that Full version is done with a glass with a rubber bottom and that I’m expanding the bottom of the glass by pulling down and wide on the bottom of the glass, rather than way up at the top. I know people who like to imagine that their glass has an inlet valve down at the bottom of the glass, so that the new air is imagined to enter from their belly button, or even through their butt! Try it, if it doesn’t gross you out too much.
Watch out for gradual changes in the volume of your panting, regardless of whether you start from the empty, midpoint or full status. It’s easy to have an imbalance between the amount of air going out and coming back in, and so you may slowly inflate or deflate yourself. Try to keep each cycle roughly the same; if you find yourself puffing up or collapsing, just release all the air, take a cleansing breath, and start again.