The Power of Yoga in Diabetes Management

August 18, 2020
Diasome.comDiasome BlogThe Power of Yoga in Diabetes Management
Rachel Zinman
Rachel Zinman was diagnosed with diabetes in 2008. At first, the doctors weren’t sure whether it was type 1 or type 2 diabetes, since she wasn’t a typical candidate for either. It took nearly six years to for her to get the right diagnosis and she finally knows that she's a type 1 LADA diabetic. She has practiced yoga passionately for 37 years. She still practices passionately and has been teaching nationally (in Australia) and internationally since 1992. She's also a mother, musician, published author of Yoga for Diabetes, How to Manage your Health with Yoga and Ayurveda (available on Amazon) and an amateur filmmaker. Rachel is absolutely sure that yoga is for everybody, and it's her mission to share what she's learned with the diabetes community, as well as to raise awareness about type 1 and type 2 diabetes among yoga teachers both locally and globally.
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My name is Rachel, I was diagnosed with latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), a form of type 1 diabetes, 25 years into my career as a global yoga teacher and yoga teacher trainer. The diagnosis came as a huge shock. Disbelief and shame hounded me for years after my diagnosis. How could someone as fit and healthy as me get something like diabetes? The truth is that there is so little we really know about the cause of this condition. What I have come to realize is that there is no “reason why” I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It happened. Now, it’s my response that matters and this is where yoga comes in.

Yoga means wholeness or oneness. It is based on the premise that we are perfect as we are, regardless of age, body type, health condition or mental or emotional attitudes. Think of a tree, for example. A tree goes through stages and phases and it might be barren in winter, budding in spring, fruiting in summer and deciduous in autumn. When looking at a tree, we likely see it as it is without imperfections. We just see a tree as it is. Yoga teaches us to see things as they are, rather than how we think they should be or want them to be.

When I am on my mat in a yoga pose, I observe what’s happening in the moment and rather than focusing on my limited flexibility, instead of berating myself for not being flexible enough I bring all my attention to the breath. It’s in the act of observing my breath that my mind is drawn out of its habitual need to identify with difficult thoughts and emotions, such as expecting more from myself.  

Focus Your Mind

Giving the mind a neutral focus is a powerful tool when it comes to diabetes management. In studies performed by Dr. Herbert Benson, who coined the term “the relaxation response”, patients performed a repetitive activity with the intention to let go of thoughts. He discovered that they experienced an immediate parasympathetic nervous system response (also called “rest and digest” as opposed to the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic response), which was attributed to better digestion, improved sleep and concentration, pain reduction and overall acceptance of their condition. The activity could have been anything repetitive, including knitting, running, praying, or even breathing.

In yoga practice, breathing is sometimes overlooked, because we tend to rely on yoga for improving flexibility and strength. Although flexibility and strength are certainly powerful components of the yoga system without thoughtful breathing, yoga would just be another form of exercise. It’s the union of the body with the breath that sets yoga apart. If you can learn to manage your breath, you can take control of your response to a stressful situation, like trying to manage your diabetes day in and day out.

Observe Your Breathing

The first step in controlling your breath is to recognize how you breathe. Some of us breathe using our chest whereas others generate breath in the belly. One isn’t preferred over the other but taking a full diaphragmatic breath is ideal. Think of deep, spontaneous natural breaths that you may take when you’re super happy and relaxed. A deep, natural diaphragmatic breath is a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, which is what you want. The more time you spend in “rest-and-digest” mode, the better able you are to manage emotions.

Breathing deeply and fully also brings more oxygen into the system and circulates something the yogis call “prana”. Prana means life force. Prana is absorbed from the air, by the food we eat and by our natural surroundings.

When we take full diaphragmatic breaths consciously, we are reminding our body-mind system that this is our most natural breath. With long-term practice, we can train the body to ‘remember’ to breathe this way when we are faced with an external or internal stressor, rather than reverting to shallow “stressed” breathing habits. It’s that simple.

Think of the Breath as Your Secret Weapon

What’s wonderful about breathing is that anyone, no matter their age or ability, can do it. In fact, because we may take our breath for granted, we can forget how important it is. Breathing is the basis of living and yoga is about bringing more life-energy into your body.

Why not start observing the breath right now? I’ll take you through a simple practice that will leave you feeling calm, centered, and focused. You can either read the instructions below or join me in the following video practice.

Practicing the Full, Complete Breath:

Begin by sitting or lying down with one hand on your belly and one hand on your upper chest. Take a few moments to observe your breath. Do you feel it more in the chest? Or more in the belly? Notice what is happening without judgement. There is no right way to breathe.

Next, place both hands on the abdomen, tips of the middle fingers touching. Become aware of the breath. Notice the inhale and the exhale.

On the inhalation, expand the abdomen so that the fingers come apart. On the exhalation, feel the abdomen releasing and relaxing, fingers coming together. Repeat this a few times.

Place your hands on the sides of the ribs. Have your thumbs at the back of the ribcage and your four fingers at the front.

On the inhalation, feel how the sides of the ribs expand and lift. On the exhalation, notice how the ribs come together and the abdomen relaxes as above. Repeat this a few times.

Place one hand on the belly and one hand just below the collarbones.

On the inhalation, feel the abdomen and side ribs expand, and the upper chest and collarbones lift. On the exhalation, feel the abdomen, ribcage, and upper chest relax all at the same time. One movement should melt into the next. Practice this full complete breath a few times. Then relax and come back to natural relaxed breathing.

Have a simply wonderful day!

Rachel can be found at:

Blog: www.yogafordiabetesblog.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/yogafordiabetesblog

Facebook: www.facebook.com/yogafordiabetesblog

YouTube: www.youtube.com/yogafordiabetes

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Diasome seeks to serve people with diabetes by developing cutting-edge therapies and by serving as a forum for our community to educate and inform others about the challenges and successes in living with diabetes. We actively seek perspectives from the rich and diverse world of clinicians, scientists, thought leaders and people with diabetes. To share your unique perspective with us, email Diasome at info@diasome.com

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