They say that Camel will strengthen your spine, Cobra will open your heart, and Crane will give you flight. Combine them all together and what do you get? The core of a health-and-wellness regimen practiced by some 15 million Americans, including an increasing number of people with type 1 diabetes (T1D). That’s right, we’re talking about yoga.
An Eastern tradition of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines incubated in India, the practice of yoga stretches back at least 5,000 years. But modern medicine is just now beginning to figure out how it benefits the human body. Clinical research over the last few decades has pinpointed remarkably specific benefits of regular yoga practice:
- increased circulation
- improved regulation of the stress hormone cortisol
- higher levels of the stress-zapping neurotransmitters dopamine, GABA, and serotonin
- molecular-level evidence of reduced inflammation
The findings from this small mountain of research are so compelling that scientists are now delving deeper, conducting studies on yoga’s effects on everything from HIV to cancer to menopause to autoimmune diseases. And in the T1D community, a growing number of people have reported that yoga makes a real difference in their blood-glucose control.
Practicing yoga and managing T1D share an important characteristic?they are both lifelong lessons in balance. In the case of yoga, it’s not just about twisting yourself into a pretzel while standing flamingo-style on one leg (although you can do that?it’s called Eagle Pose). It also involves balancing your breathing patterns with your movements, balancing the contraction of some muscles against the softening of others, and balancing physical challenge with acceptance of your own physical limitations. A person with T1D must also become a master of balance: carbohydrate intake balanced with insulin doses, stress balanced with increased blood-glucose testing, and?stop me if this sounds familiar?challenge balanced with acceptance.
A certified yoga instructor who has lived with T1D for 20 years, Andrew Bell spends a lot of time contemplating these parallels. “In yoga and in balancing blood sugar, we must give it our best to hold things steady, remain as centered as possible, and always let go of what no longer serves us,” he says. Andrew credits his yoga practice with increasing his sensitivity to the subtler factors—such as thought patterns—that can influence his blood-glucose control. And as he ardently attests, anyone can learn it.
For the uninitiated, yoga can appear unapproachable—something you can do only if you’re already in good shape. But one of the best things about yoga is its “come as you are” attitude. Aside from a yoga mat, you need no special equipment, and no prior training. Competition is discouraged?everyone learns at his or her own speed.
Spoiled for choice
Yoga comes in numerous different shapes, sizes, and speeds?the American Yoga Association counts more than 100 distinct schools of yoga?so the first question to ask yourself if you’re new to the practice is: What do I hope to get out of it? Ashtanga and Bikram will work up a good old-fashioned sweat, while Kundalini and Sivananda will challenge your meditative and philosophical muscles. Because choosing a style of yoga can be a daunting task, we’ve created a cheat sheet to get you started. Just don’t be afraid to try different styles.
As with any new exercise regimen, talk to your physician and/or endocrinologist first. Although thousands of people with T1D swear by yoga’s health-promoting power, the practice can affect blood-glucose levels in unpredictable ways.
Stay tuned to JDRF.org for the next article in our yoga series—all about pumps, CGMs, and other equipment in the yoga studio.
The information in this article is offered for general educational purposes and is not intended to replace professional medical advice. You should not make any changes to the management of type 1 diabetes without first consulting your physician or other qualified medical professional.