Naomi Kingery, a teen with diabetes in Simi Valley, California, who became a yoga teacher with the dream of helping other teens, knows the impact that yoga can have on emotional well-being. “When you’re breathing deep, you’re focused,” she says. “You aren’t thinking about needles or blood sugar; you’re enjoying being in the moment.” Kingery is particularly passionate about the “relaxation pose,” in which students lie on their backs with their eyes closed: “For these few minutes, you completely let go of the world, which is so important for us diabetics, because our minds never stop.”
For people with diabetes who live with eating disorders such as anorexia or binge eating, yoga can provide an opportunity to uncover the emotional roots of these conditions. The idea of sitting quietly with your own thoughts and feelings can be intimidating, but it’s worth putting up with the initial discomfort if experiencing and identifying your true feelings lessens their power and leads to personal insight.
Setting realistic expectations
Ann Bartlett, who has had diabetes for 37 years, believes that yoga, as part of a variety of conventional and unconventional medicine practices, has kept her complication-free. “I own a wellness center and was encouraged to open it because my clients see me as ‘healthy to the core.’ Most never knew I had diabetes,” she says.
Beginners to yoga should not, however, expect sudden improvement in their fitness level or diabetes control or even expect classes to feel like a workout. According to Charles Matkin, a New York City yoga expert, those who come to yoga expecting vigorous exercise are likely to push themselves in the wrong direction. “Learn your stillness first,” Matkin says, “then fire it up.”
What is stillness? Words fall short, but Buddhist monk Tarthang Tulku may have described it best as “brief tranquil moments when the senses are relaxed and responsive…and the blessing of healing and knowledge flows forth.” Stillness, in yoga, is also the ability to let go of struggle and find ease in activity.
Another reason to start slowly is that yoga postures that look easy can be surprisingly rigorous. Serious injury can result in those who push too far, too fast. In a handful of extreme cases, abdominal hemorrhage has occurred from the “breath of fire,” and serious neck injury has resulted from headstands.
People with diabetes, especially, should make sure that their yoga-related goals are reasonable ones. A Google search of the words “yoga and diabetes” reveals thousands of excited claims that yoga can do everything for diabetes from preventing it to curing it completely. Although many people are able to make significant changes in their health that reduce the need for drugs or otherwise assist with diabetes management, even this should generally not be the goal of yoga for beginners.
Yoga offers people with diabetes an opportunity to connect with their own bodies with appreciation, acceptance, and gratitude and to experience the self as healed. Students often find that with this new awareness, they are willing to embrace diabetes self-management chores with new appreciation and acceptance. By rushing to get dramatic benefits from yoga right away, students might miss the real point of it. Yoga is in all cases, of course, never a substitute for medical care, but rather an integrative practice to be used in conjunction with your self-care regimen.
Special care and caution
In a person with diabetes, long-term glycosylation, or binding with glucose, of proteins can occur in almost any part of the body. Glycosylation damages nerves and tiny blood vessels and causes damaged collagen to accumulate in both the skin and the delicate structures surrounding joints. Seen more commonly in people with long-standing Type 1 diabetes, but also possible in those with Type 2, such changes in connective tissue can cause adhesions that result in unusually stiff shoulders, hips, knees, feet, or hands. People with muscle pain, joint pain or stiffness, decreased range of joint movement, swelling or deformities, or conditions such as frozen shoulder or carpal tunnel syndrome will need to pay careful attention to their bodies and remain cautious as they gauge what feels comfortable.