Restorative yoga differs in form, but not in spirit, from the yoga practiced in the East. Restorative yoga emphasizes “being” rather than “doing.” Students settle gently into position and remain in only a few poses for long, restful periods of time. Props like pillows and blankets are often used to support the body. Classes are designed to be nurturing and nonjudgmental, so that even the very inflexible can feel comfortable and experience deep relaxation. Students are encouraged to work only within the range that feels right for their bodies, no matter how large or small that range may be. Once a sense of ease is found in restful poses, more active poses can be pursued gradually.
Andrea Gonzales, a student in Peal’s class who has experienced back problems, enjoys restorative yoga because it “feels safer.” Gonzales says that on several occasions, she has become teary in class because relaxing and stretching feel so good.
What the research says
In 2005, a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice Medicine reviewed 70 separate pieces of research probing the relationship between yoga and both cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance syndromes, including Type 2 diabetes. The review determined that yoga may be instrumental in improving the core indicators associated with both. Improvements were evident in glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, and blood pressure.
How does yoga have all of these positive effects? Researchers speculate that yoga activates the “relaxation response,” a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, Director Emeritus of the Benson–Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, to describe the effects of meditation on the nervous system. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing slow down, and brain waves become slow and smooth, replacing the choppy, agitated brain activity that occurs under stress. As the vascular system relaxes, uptake of oxygen increases, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach tiny capillaries within tissues. The relaxation response also boosts immune function and counters the negative effects of stress-induced adrenaline and cortisol, which can include high blood glucose.
A report by physicians in Delhi, India, in 2005 found that when 20 study subjects with Type 2 diabetes practiced specific yoga asanas for 40 days under the instruction of a yoga expert, they experienced significant decreases in fasting and after-meal blood glucose and in waist-to-hip ratio, or tummy bulge. The study concluded that yoga asanas were an effective adjunct to diet and drugs in diabetes management.
Of special interest to those with neuropathy, in 2002 the same team of physicians studied people with Type 2 diabetes who had mild neuropathy. Slight improvement in nerve function occurred after 40 days of yoga asanas for 30–40 minutes per day, while in a control group that performed light walking, nerve function deteriorated. The asanas used in this study include some that require diligence and attention rather than exertion, such as tadasana, or mountain pose, in which a person stands on both feet with his palms together in front of his heart; and shavasana, or corpse pose, practiced lying flat on the floor while bringing awareness to the body and systematically visualizing every internal organ as relaxed.
Caring for emotions with yoga
Many people with diabetes frequently feel guilt related to their blood glucose control, weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol, as well as anger or sadness due to the challenges of coping with diabetes. The experience of receiving yoga instruction in a supportive atmosphere free of judgment can provide a much-needed respite from these feelings.