Yoga for Diabetes: How It Reduces Stress and Improves Blood Sugar Control

A yoga teacher, diagnosed at age 42 with type 1 diabetes, shares the mental health and blood sugar benefits of the ancient practice in this excerpt from "Yoga for Diabetes: How to Manage Your Health with Yoga and Ayurveda" (Monkfish, 2017).

Yoga for Stress ReliefRachel Zinman was reluctant to accept her diabetes diagnosis. How could such a devoted yoga teacher and health-conscious person possibly have diabetes?

I’d always been obsessive about my body and always made time for physical activity—first dance, then yoga which I took up in my 20s—as if it offered some sort of protection from whatever disease I had long been afraid of getting. Most likely this is because my mother died when I was 11. She had a stroke first and then passed away during an operation to remove a brain tumor. Coincidentally her mother also had a brain tumor, but survived and lived well into her 80s. Sadly, my mom died just one month after her 40th birthday.

For some reason, I never really focused on the fact that diabetes ran in my family—my grandmother great-grandfather and a great uncle, too. I convinced myself that my symptoms—fatigue, insomnia, frequent urination and eventually the undeniable tingling sensation that ran up and down my body--were connected to some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I developed in the aftermath of living in NYC on 9/11.

The Day the Planes Destroyed the Towers

In 2001, I found myself living with my young son, stepson, and husband in Brooklyn, New York. Yoga wasn't the fitness craze it is today. When I discovered it in my 20s, it was esoteric and spiritual for me. I gravitated toward Ashtanga yoga, which is a more athletic style. 

Without intending to, I met my teacher Alan Finger, a lovely Buddha-like man who’d been doing yoga since he was 15 and teaching for most of his life. He seemed to know me better than I knew myself and taught techniques I’d never seen or heard of before. In his presence, my restless mind went still. I was lucky enough to be hired to teach for him at his school and help train other teachers.

I thrived on the busyness of my life as the mom of two sons and worked from dawn till late at night, forgetting to eat or rest. I absolutely loved teaching and practicing and learning as much as I could about yoga. It was a lifeline, a way to tranquilize the insecurities and fears from my younger years. Even though I could feel the stress building from my relentless schedule, I somehow didn’t care.

On September 11th, I was in Manhattan waiting for Alan to teach his yoga class when the planes hit the trade towers. As soon as I realized what had happened, I felt like I’d been shot in the chest, my legs buckling underneath me. My son and stepson were at school a few blocks away from the yoga studio and I wanted to be with them. Dazed and feeling sick to my stomach, I walked out onto the street. It was quiet; ghost-like. People with ashen faces walked beside me. The sky was a crisp blue and I wondered how everyone could keep on going.

By the time I arrived at the school, I was feeling faint but I pulled myself together for the boys holding their hands as we walked home to Brooklyn across the 59th Street Bridge. I could feel fear stuck in my throat, dry and hard and gripped their hands tightly. Our whole world had turned upside down.

Emotionally and physically, I never recovered from that day. And although I can’t specifically pinpoint my diabetes onset, I started experiencing a lot of strange physical symptoms about a year later. Tingling up and down my body, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, a feeling of being overly expanded, frequent urination, hives and skin rashes, racing heartbeat, difficulty with my digestion and many more symptoms that turned my life into a living hell.

Going Home Again

Eventually, we left America and moved back to our home in Byron Bay, Australia. Once there, I started treatments with an acupuncturist who kept pointing out that my symptoms were remarkably similar to those of someone who has diabetes.

I kept getting my fasting levels checked, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary so I still didn’t pick up that there was a problem until…the day my husband interrupted my morning yoga practice to inform me that the doctor had discovered ‘something bad’ in my blood work.

A little while later the doctor told that my A1c was slightly elevated and that I had diabetes. He shoved a few pamphlets in my direction and hustled me out of the room with advice to Google ‘diabetes’ and buy a glucometer so I could test my blood glucose levels. 

Angry and confused, I was sure I’d done something wrong. It reminded me of how I felt when my mother died. I wanted to run away but there was nowhere to hide. The feeling of terror and hopelessness was palpable. I kept playing his words over and over in my head, asking myself, where did I go wrong? Surely this was all a big mistake.

A few days later my endocrinologist painted a more palatable picture of the slow onset of my disease and outlined the likely steps I might need to take as the disease progressed. His reassured me but I was still in shock. How could a yoga teacher and health-conscious person like me get diabetes? It would take me years to stop blaming myself.

Shock, Disbelief and International Healers

At first, I told myself that I didn’t actually have diabetes and that somehow both doctors had made a mistake. I decided to take matters into my own hands and saw an Ayurvedic doctor in India. After reading my pulse, she told me that the type of diabetes I had was very hard to cure but not impossible and gave me a long list of foods and herbs with the advice to eat eight small meals a day. I followed her advice religiously for two years until eventually, not seeing much improvement, I tried Japanese acupuncture.

The acupuncturist agreed with me that I couldn’t have diabetes. Instead, my symptoms were indicative that my spleen wasn’t functioning well.  He assured me that with weekly sessions and herbal formulas my blood sugar levels which were still slightly elevated would return to normal. Although my levels stabilized they did not improve enough for me to feel that it was working.

My next step was to visit a nutritionist and naturopath who specialized in healing gut disorders. She was also adamant that I didn’t have diabetes. She surmised that my high blood sugar was caused by a parasitic infection that I’d picked up on my travels to East Asia. I was so relieved after seeing her that I phoned my parents to tell them the good news. A few weeks later, while visiting them, I overheard them telling friends, “it’s not diabetes anymore, Rachel just has a parasite.”

Besides enrolling my parents in my ongoing ideas about what I did or didn’t have, I took pills, swallowed concoctions, tried to heal my microbiome and prayed! Three months later my blood sugar levels were higher than ever.

As a last resort, I was able to score an appointment with a famous Ayurvedic doctor who told me that what I really was suffering from was EMF (Electro Magnetic Frequency) poisoning and that his super special licorice cream and homeopathic drops would do the trick. After lathering myself in creams for 6 months and spending thousands of dollars for his magic potions I was no better.

By now, nearly six years on from my diagnosis, I was miserable, frustrated and at my wit's end. At this point, my doctor recommended insulin to get my levels under control but I was terrified that I would react to the insulin in some way and get even sicker. I kept telling myself, tomorrow things will get better and the nightmare would end.

But it didn't.

Finally, Acceptance

The constant tingling in my hands and feet was impossible to ignore and brought me to the doctor who insisted I see a neurologist. I was so adept at making excuses that I told him not to worry and that it was probably a B12 deficiency.  But the neurologist confirmed otherwise. I had the beginning of neuropathy and I definitely had diabetes. He gave me a stern warning to get my levels down or face permanent nerve damage.

How could I have let things get so out of control? As a yoga teacher I was supposed to lead by example and here I was, in the pit of denial, dealing with blood sugar levels that were so high I should have been in a hospital. 

I finally admitted to myself that my body wasn’t able to produce enough insulin anymore and that no matter what I thought, or what kind of healer I thought could cure me it was time for me to listen to my doctor, to start taking insulin and to accept my diagnosis.

Starting anything new and changing habits isn’t easy. All my habits with food, exercise, and sleep were let go with reluctance. Every time I tried to break a pattern, I had to stop and ask myself, “What’s more important? Eating what I want, when I want, or living a full, energetic and productive life?”

Family and friends often comment on how disciplined I am and how they could never do it. In the early days when I started managing my disease through diet and exercise, I never told them how hard it was to sit and watch everybody eat pizza and chocolate mousse, while I ate a spinach omelet with no dessert.

Now I tell it like it is. This disease sucks! And if it weren’t for my daily yoga and meditation practice, I don’t think I’d cope. I’ve experienced depression, lethargy, hopelessness, fear, and anger. But in spite of those very real emotions, I do accept what’s happened to me.

Just shortly after diagnosis, the type 1 son of a friend patiently showed me how to use my newly-acquired glucometer.  LIke a pro, he casually pulled up his shirt and inserted a needle into his belly. He seemed so nonchalant when he spoke about the disease, sharing that it was a 24/7 affair, no days off. Sad but true. The disease seemed almost external to him. Like a visitor, he had to entertain.

It reminded me of how I feel when I practice yoga. When I’m on the mat, breathing or sitting quietly, there’s no me, mine or I. I am not the disease; I have a disease.

Separating who we are from what we have is one of the first steps in depersonalizing ourselves from our illness. It’s also a meaningful aspect of yoga. In traditional teachings, yoga is seen as a separation from all the beliefs we have about ourselves. And there’s no bigger belief than we are our bodies. It’s simple logic. If the body doesn’t feel good, we don’t feel good.

What does yoga offer us?

A simple break from the intensity of all that the body throws at us.

The good feelings that come after a yoga class not only arise from the act of stretching and massaging all the muscles and organs but a brief respite from our need to buy into all those beliefs about our bodies. I like to think of it as being on holiday; you’re sitting on a beach somewhere admiring the view, feeling happy and at peace, and at that moment you’re not thinking about your disease. You’re content. Where did all the worries go? Nowhere. You just stopped identifying with them.

In a nutshell, that’s what happens during a yoga practice. And the more we can get a break from our identification with the thoughts about our disease, the more the nervous system relaxes and the more easily we can manage our health.

In all I've read about autoimmune conditions, there is a consensus that heredity and environmental causes are just two-thirds of the total picture. Stress and our inability to handle it is the third component. If we can reduce our stress, the immune system catches a break and we can slow the progression of our condition, force it into remission or at the very least manage it with fewer complications.

I wish I could say I have high hopes for a cure for type 1 diabetes. But to be honest, I don’t. I’m not fatalistic about it either though. It’s just that after working like a dog for years to cure myself with everything including Ayurveda, acupuncture, herbs, diet and homeopathic medicine, all I managed to do was slow its progression. I still have had to go on insulin and deal with nerve damage as well as thyroid and pituitary issues.

It hasn’t been easy facing my situation when I’d spent most of my life thinking yoga was a cure-all. It’s been a rude awakening having to completely reevaluate the role that yoga plays, not only in my life but in the life of anyone with an incurable disease. In reality, what does yoga do? What is its purpose? And how can it be used to manage disease?

The Purpose of Yoga

Helping you to understand the role of yoga in managing the disease is the purpose of my book. In it, I present the practices, lifestyle changes and systems of thought that enable me to face this condition each and every day with a positive outlook, and that I hope will be life-changing for you too.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been diagnosed at a time where insulin therapy is relatively painless and conveniently administered. The technologies around glucose control, the latest research on diet and all the other factors that contribute to saving lives each and every day are mind-blowing. Coming out of denial and discovering a whole community online where people are sharing not only their struggles but their triumphs is uplifting; I no longer feel like I’m doing this on my own.

Throughout my life, I have always wanted to help others but simultaneously found it difficult to take responsibility for helping myself. Taking up a yoga practice, eating wholesome foods, living life with devotion and reverence are just some of the ways I consciously give back to myself on a day-to-day basis.

My life as a yogi is not a fad. And having a disease like diabetes, I can’t afford to be part of a trend anyway. That’s why I feel strongly that the simplicity and discipline of yoga— plus the lifestyle guidelines from Ayurveda—are the perfect starting point no matter what type of diabetes you have.

The postural sequences, breathing and meditation techniques, thoughts on yoga and its deeper meaning, and the Ayurvedic lifestyle suggestions are there to support you in facing some of the challenges that come with the disease. And top of that list, of course, are stress and burnout.

I am confident that like me you will discover that yoga is a life-changing and life-enhancing system. And a great friend and companion that will hold your hand through all the ups and downs you are bound to experience.

Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Diabetes: How to Manage your Health with Yoga and Ayurveda by Rachel Zinman, Monkfish Book Publishing Company, Rhinebeck, NY USA. Click here for more information or to purchase the book.


Updated on: April 12, 2019
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