Popular images of yoga often show a sinewy person folded, pretzel-like, into a joint-defying pose, perhaps while balancing on one leg, to boot. While impressive, such images often scare people away from the very practice they are promoting or celebrating, namely yoga. That’s unfortunate, because yoga has benefits for everyone, no matter how flexible or sinewy.
Yoga’s benefits are not just physical, although regular practice can dramatically increase flexibility, strength, stamina, and balance. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word for “yoke” or “union,” and the practice of yoga emphasizes the integration of physical and mental health through performing various postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and sometimes meditation and chanting. That combination can help calm the mind, reduce mental stress, and enhance mental focus. Yoga also has a spiritual component; how much that aspect is emphasized in a yoga class depends on the instructor and the class setting.
Part of what makes yoga suitable for anyone, regardless of physical condition, is its philosophy of “being in the moment.” On a physical level, that means doing the postures to the best of your ability, whatever that is. If you can stand on one foot and hold the other above your head, that’s fine. If you can stand on one foot and hold the other only an inch off the ground, that’s fine, too. Being in the moment also means not comparing yourself to others or even to yourself at a different time. It means doing the best you can at this moment.
On a mental level, “being in the moment” encourages you to focus on the sensations in your body — particularly the sensation of breathing — at this very minute and to allow yourself not to think about the past or the future. For many people, this isn’t easy, but the benefits of practicing this type of meditation can include feeling more relaxed and being able to deal with life stresses more effectively.
Yoga and diabetes
Any practice that enhances physical fitness and helps with stress reduction has special value for people with diabetes. Physical activity burns glucose in the short term and also builds muscle, which is the body’s glucose-burning “engine.” The more muscle you have, the more glucose you burn, even at rest. Regular aerobic activity (the type that gets your heart rate and breathing rate going for an extended period of time) also reduces the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, both of which commonly occur in people who have diabetes. How much of an aerobic workout you get from doing yoga depends on the type of yoga you do and the intensity at which you practice, but the flexibility, agility, and strength you gain from doing any type of yoga will increase your ability to engage in other forms of aerobic exercise.
Stress reduction is often an unaddressed element of diabetes self-management, but uncontrolled stress can disrupt even the most diligent efforts at maintaining tight blood glucose control. Besides taking an emotional toll, stress causes a physiological response in the body, prompting the release of “fight or flight” stress hormones into the blood. Because these hormones spur the release of stored glucose or fat into the bloodstream, stress can cause elevated blood glucose if you don’t have enough insulin in your system at the time. If you don’t realize what is causing your blood glucose to run high, you may, in turn, feel even more stressed.