Yoga for Diabetes

Regular physical activity is an important part of diabetes self-management. But let’s face it, it’s not always easy to get and stay active. What if there was a way to reap the benefits of physical activity while a) enjoying what you’re doing and b) not having to huff and puff or fight someone for the treadmill at the gym? If you’ve been asking yourself this very question, then yoga might be right for you!

What is yoga, anyway?

Yoga has become very mainstream these days, with yoga studios and classes popping up pretty much everywhere. Yet, some people regard it with a bit of skepticism, wondering if it’s just too “New Agey” for them. In reality, yoga is about 5,000 years old, according to the Yoga Alliance website. Yoga is a mind, body, and spiritual practice stemming from Indian philosophy. Yoga exercises, called asanas, are positions that can improve physical health and, at the same time, provide emotional and spiritual benefits.

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Who’s doing yoga and why?

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.5 percent, or 21 million, adults practiced yoga in 2012, up from 6.1 percent in 2007 and 5.1 percent in 2002.

Why the increase in yoga? Here’s what the survey uncovered:

• More than 85 percent of U.S. adults who did yoga perceived reduced stress as a result of practicing yoga.

• Nearly two-thirds of adult yoga users reported that as a result of practicing yoga they were motivated to exercise more regularly, and 4 in 10 reported they were motivated to eat healthier.

• Adult yoga users were more likely to report feeling better emotionally than users of dietary supplements.

Other benefits of yoga

There’s no doubt that yoga is a great way to calm the mind and unwind from the day’s stress. But yoga has so much more to offer, and you might be surprised at what yoga can do for your body and your mind. Benefits include:

• Improved muscle strength and endurance
• Improved flexibility and balance
• A lower body-mass index (BMI)
• Less weight gain
• Reduced neck and back pain
• Improvement in asthma symptoms
• Lower blood pressure
• Lower blood sugars
• Better lipid (blood fat) profiles
• Less cancer-related fatigue
• Improvement in menopausal symptoms (e.g., hot flashes)
• Improved body image
• Sharper concentration and awareness
• More mindfulness (staying in the moment)

How can yoga help your diabetes?

Yoga’s benefits are pretty impressive, and the above list may be just scratching the surface. Can doing yoga really help to lower your blood sugars? It’s very possible. However, not everyone will experience the same drop in blood sugars; some of this depends on the type of yoga that you do, as well as the level of intensity at which you practice. On the other hand, because there’s a link between stress and higher blood sugars, you may find that, with regular practice, over time, your blood sugars are better managed.

Better blood sugars with regular yoga sessions are backed up by research, as well. A study published in 2017 in the journal Current Science showed that yoga is “efficacious in the management of diabetes,” improving not only blood glucose, but other parameters that go along with diabetes as well, including liver enzymes, blood lipids, quality of life, anxiety, and depression. Other studies indicate that people who practice yoga have lower A1C levels, improved sleep, and improved mood.

Types of yoga

There are many different types of yoga to choose from. Some are more intense than others, so if you’re a yoga newbie, do a bit of research before you sign up for a class. Here are some of the more common types of yoga:

• Hatha: A gentler, slower form of yoga in which you hold poses for a certain length of time.

• Vinyasa: A more vigorous yoga that will keep you moving from pose to pose.

• Iyengar: Yoga that uses props, such as blocks and straps, focusing on form and alignment.

• Bikram: Yoga sequences practiced in a heated room. This form of yoga may not be safe for some people, and may increase the risk for low blood sugar.

• Kundalini: a more physically challenging form of yoga combined with chanting, singing, and meditating.

• Yin: A yoga that balances your body and your mind through stretching and holding poses for several minutes at a time.

You might start off with a gentler type of yoga, such as Hatha yoga, especially if you’ve never done yoga before. Many studios will let you try a class at no charge; this is a great way to see if you like the style of yoga and also find out if the instructor is a good fit for you.

Becoming a yogi

Kudos if you’re ready to get your downward dog on. Before you unroll your yoga mat, however, take some steps to make sure that you’re safe to start.

• Always check with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise program. If you have certain diabetes complications, such as retinopathy or foot problems, there may be some yoga poses (asanas) that aren’t safe for you to do. You may have other limitations, too, if you have arthritis or osteoporosis.

• Start slow and be gentle with yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and push your body too far, especially when others in your class are bending and moving with ease. It takes time to increase your flexibility and stamina. Don’t compare yourself to others — yoga isn’t a competition. Listen to your body — and your yoga teacher.

• Breathe! Breathing is the foundation of any yoga practice. Don’t hold your breath when you practice your asanas.

• Bring your meter to yoga class. Kirsten Ward, MS, RCEP, CDE, an exercise physiologist and certified diabetes educator notes, “Blood sugars can drop significantly during yoga. Check your blood sugar before, during and after doing yoga.” And don’t forget to bring treatments for low blood sugars, such as glucose tablets or glucose gel.

• Go easy on the eating before your class. Kirsten recommends sticking with a light snack, such as fresh fruit. Stay away from heavy, high-protein, or high-fat foods.

• Drink plenty of water throughout your yoga session.

• Wear yoga pants, or any comfortable pants or shorts and a fitted top (baggy, loose tops will slide up and down during certain poses). Invest in a pair of yoga socks to protect your feet and prevent you from slipping.

• Stop if you feel pain, or become dizzy or lightheaded.

• Stay for the savasana, which is the final resting pose in yoga. Savasana helps to calm and relax you, and gives your body a chance to assimilate all of your hard work.

Yoga can work for everyone. Heck, if LeBron James and Tom Brady can do yoga, why can’t you? Give yoga a try and reap the benefits!

Want to learn more about yoga and diabetes? Read “Get Moving With Yoga” and “Yoga: Uniting Body, Mind, and Spirit.”