The Benefits of Yoga for Diabetes

by Annie B. Kay and Lisa B. Nelson

While the science of yoga for diabetes is still young, there are now several stud­ies, published in peer-reviewed medical journals that suggest clear improvements for people with diabetes. Findings from these small but high-quality, randomized, controlled clinical trials have shown signif­icant improvements in blood sugar levels as well as improvements in lipid profiles, blood pressure, body weight, and oxidative stress (a metabolic imbalance) in partici­pants who practice yoga and meditation on a regular basis.

Science has shown that elements of yoga, namely the mind-body practices of physical movement, yoga breathing, deep relaxation, and meditation, help to manage stress and can be part of a lifestyle that may improve blood sugar levels. While these elements are clearly beneficial, to split the aspects of the full practice in order to study it is a bit of an East-West conundrum. De­spite the research challenges, high-quality studies illuminating just how and why yoga is helpful for people with diabetes are tak­ing place at major universities around the world. Let’s take a deeper look at the key reasons why yoga is so helpful for people with diabetes.

Yoga is gentle movement

Let’s face it—not everyone with diabetes is ready to don spandex or start running a road race. If you haven’t exercised much lately beyond chasing your children or climbing the stairs to your apartment, the gentle stretches of yoga can be a way to invite more movement into your life. The risk of living a sedentary lifestyle is clear: Insufficient movement is associated with nearly every chronic disease.

Modern technology has made physical movement less necessary. Thanks to the Internet and personal computers, you can now work, shop, socialize, and be a fully productive member of society without ever getting off your couch.

Some styles of yoga are more challenging and vigorous than others. If you encounter a class that is too much, don’t give up. With the growth of skilled yoga teachers, classes are everywhere, including in your own living room via television or the Internet. Your practice can be modified for your body shape and fitness level, and you can progress at your own pace. The most important thing is to get started, and to practice at least a little bit—even for 10 minutes—regularly.

Yoga isn’t a “sporty” sport: It’s come as you are. For most practitioners, it is a quiet time for simple self-reflection. While yoga is generally gentle, athletes also find it helpful. Many athletes complain of tight muscles, and stretches can help warm-up and re-lengthen tight overworked muscles. It “gets the kinks out.” Yoga breathing is also popular for athletes, offering them better mental focus and the efficiency that comes with the ability to use your breathing for performance.

Yoga makes you feel good

When you do yoga, you breathe more deeply, stretch your muscles, and shift your attitude. Each of these elements of the practice can make you feel better.

To understand how conscious breathing makes you feel good, let’s step back and take a look at your whole nervous system. Your nervous system is subdivided into a central and peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is divided into two parts: the somatic, having to do with sensation and voluntary movement; and the autonomic nervous system, or ANS. The ANS regulates the involuntary processes in your body: those bodily functions you don’t need to think about them for them to happen. This includes your digestive organs processing food you eat, the beating of your heart, movement of your lungs, and other involuntary actions. The autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (calming and recovery) systems.

While it seems these two sides work in opposition, when in healthy balance they work together to keep you well and reacting appropriately to things around you. In our busy modern lives, however, many people are in a constant state of fight-or-flight activation. Constant sympathetic activation might also be called chronic stress. Yoga helps to release chronic stress and ease your body into recovery mode.

Breathing in a specific way—yoga breathing—supports this recalibration process. Breathing is one of the only physiological functions that is both voluntary and involuntary. You can choose to change the way you breathe, but if you stop paying attention to it, you don’t stop breathing. This aspect of breathing is why many yogis (people who practice yoga) consider it a vehicle between your mind and body.

The relationship between breath and emotion is complex and continues to be a hot area of research, though the yogis have been talking about that relationship for thousands of years. We all know what a sharp intake of breath means: that we are surprised or frightened. As it turns out, you can calm your mind by calming your breath. Functional MRIs give a glimpse of how yoga may rebalance brain activity by demonstrating a shift from a fight-or-flight pattern (emotional stress lights up the amygdala of the brain) to a more balanced one (the pre-frontal cortex, where complex reasoning occurs). In yoga, the breath is deeply tied to your energy level and indeed your overall life force.

Why does it feel good to stretch? Endorphins are neuroendocrine (nerve-hormone) factors in your body that, among other things, create the sense of relaxation and well-being that many people experience after practicing yoga. Stretching is one way to trigger the release of endorphins from your pituitary gland (a gland in your brain that secretes hormones that regulate homeostasis). Endorphins plug into receptors on the cells of your central nervous system and make you feel good.

How does yoga help shift your attitude? It’s all about the power of pause. Yoga and other wisdom traditions of the East cultivate your observing, less reactive mind, often called your witness. When you learn to activate this viewpoint, it tends to help you respond to life’s inevitable problems in a calmer, less emotionally hair-triggered way. Yoga and contemplative practices also include an attitude of nonjudgmental awareness. That is, you practice not labeling things in your world (and even parts of your body) as good or bad. The more you take a break from judging, the more room there seems to be for gratitude and appreciation. In the emerging science of positive psychology, these two emotions are strongly linked to overall happiness.

Yoga balances your lifestyle from the inside out

Your body is a complex collection of sys­tems interwoven into a dynamic whole. If you live an overall happy and healthful life, each of your systems tends to flow toward overall balance.

The movements of yoga make you more aware of the alignment of bones in your skeletal system, from the central axis of your spine to the major joints, down to the small bones in your hands and feet. Good posture and alignment tend to make you feel and operate better. How your skeleton moves in concert with your muscles and your connective tissue (fascia) becomes more apparent. While we are all asym­metric, your practice may point the way to coming into healthier alignment.

Your central nervous system, respirato­ry system (having to do with breath), en­docrine (glands that produce hormones), cardiovascular, and digestive system are all impacted by the movement and positions of the postures. The grounding, expansion and stretch, the slow rhythmic breath, and the mental practice of yoga all tend to make you feel well (which is not to say the jour­ney is free of discomfort). As you become more aware of the systems of your body and how they interact, your brain is also undergoing positive change. Feeling better tends to make positive change easier, and before you know it, you are experimenting with other kinds of healthier changes.

Yoga can help you keep your blood sugar in your target range.

Can you begin to see that yoga has a num­ber of potential benefits for people with diabetes? It multitasks! Because it is ex­ercise, yoga improves insulin sensitivity. When your liver and muscle cells become more sensitive to insulin, this allows glu­cose (sugar) to enter cells from the blood­stream, which helps you reach your blood sugar targets.

By increasing muscle mass through strengthening poses, yoga can improve your metabolism, helping you maintain a healthy body weight. Studies suggest that regular practice helps normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels. By inducing a feeling of calm, yoga can lower the release of cortisol, a stress hor­mone that causes your body to release more glucose. Less unnecessary cortisol means fewer unnecessary elevations in blood sugar.

How much physical activity do you need to help manage your blood sugar? Aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity (2 1/2 hours) each week. If you have not been physically active in a while and that much movement feels daunting start slow (5 or 10 minutes at a time). Over time, work your way up. You may be surprised at the positive spiral of moving more and feeling better, which could allow you to move even more.

Find out about upcoming programs with Annie B. Kay and Lisa B. Nelson at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Yoga and Diabetes: Your Guide to Safe and Effective Practice, © 2015, by Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, RYT, and Lisa B. Nelson, MD.