Then, in late 1995, it happened. Two days after coming down with the flu, I went into respiratory failure and spent the next three days unconscious in intensive care on a respirator. Later I was told I nearly died.
During my long recuperation I had ample time to contemplate my predicament. I had to come to terms with the fact that the medicines I had been taking were no longer helping me. I knew my asthma was severe enough to be fatal, and might be unless I took proactive steps to improve my circumstances. I had to find something new.
A question had nagged at me ever since I was first diagnosed. What change had occurred in me that now caused me to react so severely to triggers that, in the past, were harmless? I think this is a relevant question whether one has had asthma a few months or for years. What is going on inside this particular body, right now, that causes me to have asthma?
It is so easy to define asthma by its symptoms. The majority of treatments, in both allopathic and complementary medicine, are designed to alleviate those symptoms. However, symptoms are not the cause of asthma, and I knew from years of practicing and teaching yoga that treating symptoms without considering the whole person seldom solves the underlying problem. So I set out to learn why certain triggers cause the body to react with an asthma attack.
As I read everything I could find about asthma, I was intrigued to discover that several prominent experts on breathing, including Dr. Gay Hendricks, author of Conscious Breathing (Bantam, 1995), and Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, a pioneer in the use of breath retraining for asthmatics, consider the malady to be more a disturbed breathing pattern than a disease. I began to wonder if my breathing patterns had been so thrown out of sync by the stress of coping with pneumonia that the changes had become chronic. Of course, I was acutely aware that my breathing was disturbed when I was having an asthma attack; now I began to consider the possibility that my breathing might be significantly disturbed even when I had no symptoms. Was it possible that my disordered breathing was actually a cause of my asthma and was perpetuating it? Could it also be that disordered breathing was sabotaging my attempts to help myself through pranayama? Not only did these ideas help me to make sense of my condition, they also gave me hope. If the way I breathed was causing my asthma, then retraining my breath might alleviate my problems. Excited by this prospect, I dived into learning more about how the body breathes.
Respiration, like other essential bodily functions, is involuntary. Our bodies are programmed from birth to perform these functions automatically, without having to think about them. Respiration is unique, however, since it can be voluntarily modified by the average person. This capability is the basis for breathing techniques that have been part of the yoga tradition for thousands of years. For asthmatics, these techniques can be the foundation for a program of breath retraining that can help them manage their disorder.