Cystic fibrosis is an inherited, chronic disease affecting the lungs and digestive system of 30,000 children and adults in the U.S. and 70,000 worldwide. A defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening infections. As recently as the 1950’s the life expectancy of a person with cystic fibrosis was only about five years of age. Research and study over the intervening years have yielded better means of diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Those suffering from cystic fibrosis now live, on average into their late thirties. The disease affects the cells that line the surfaces of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, called epithelial cells. These cells act as an interface between the body and the outside world, providing a surface across which nutrients and waste products are exchanged. Mucus is a substance that’s coats the epithelial cells, keeping them lubricated. Invading microbes become trapped in this mucus, but the cilia lining these cells are constantly moving this mucus and bacteria up and out of the respiratory tract. Cystic fibrosis causes a thickening of the mucus that lines the airways and intestinal tract. In the respiratory tract the thick mucus is not removed by the cilia, leading to a build up of mucus and bacteria in the airways, often resulting in an infection. This thick mucus also covers the surface of the gastrointestinal tract, clogging the ducts in the pancreas that secrete digestive enzymes. This makes it difficult for people with cystic fibrosis to digest food and absorb nutrients.
Those who suffer from cystic fibrosis face the combined challenge of difficulty in breathing and the accompanying anxiety. In recent years some people with this illness have discovered that the practice of yoga has greatly improved their condition by strengthening the muscles of breathing, improving lung function, and reducing stress. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali says: I. 31—Duhkha daurmanasya angamejayatva svasa prasvasa viksepa saha bhuvah—Suffering, depression, anxiety, and scattered inhalations and exhalations are the results of the obstacles Patanjali lists in sutra I. 30—disease, stagnation, doubt, impatience, laziness, immoderation, illusions, lack of grounding, and instability. Sutra I. 31 is particularly crucial to the understanding of how yoga works. In it Patanjali implies a direct connection between Psyche and Soma— asserting that when we are in pain, depressed, or anxious our capacity for breathing becomes challenged. Since the Soma, particularly the breath, is influenced by the Psyche, it would seem to follow that the Psyche can also be influenced by the Soma, and in particular, by working on the quality of the breath. In the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, the breath is the foundation. We add the audio quality to the breath (ujjayi) to draw our attention into the sound as we lengthen and smooth out the breath. We begin to notice that each time we breathe it creates movement within us that rises up and expands with the inhalation (Prana) and flows downward and contracts with the exhalation (Apana). We add choreography to breathing through the integration of breath and movement expressed as Suryanamaskara (Sun salutation), the foundational vinyasa of the ashtanga system which invokes the qualities of the Sun—Heat for circulation, flexibility and purification, and Light for clarity, peace of mind, and happiness. On Saturday November 3rd I will be one of the yoga teachers at The Big Breathe, an all day yoga marathon at the Del Mar Fairgrounds (6am-6pm) to benefit those with cystic fibrosis.