Most people know me as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. What they do not realize that my real full-time job is managing the symptoms and side effects of type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed at 11, my story is not unique to that of many type 1 diabetics. I was diagnosed, skinny and sickly, put on insulin, regained strength and stamina, and continued life as a pre-teen. I was taught to count carbohydrates, inject shot, test my blood sugar and mitigate highs and lows. All of these tools were important and necessary for my survival but a main tool was missing. I was not prepared to reconcile the constant struggle of opposites: body and mind. Up into that point, I had no conception of my body or what it felt like to not feel well. I was an emotional rollercoaster of self-loathing, judgment, fears and teenage awkwardness. It was not until several years later, at my own accord, I showed up at a yoga asana class. Gawky and uncoordinated I stumbled through a challenging practice landing in a gratifyingly sweaty pool of my own effort. I was ready to quit every few minutes; but I stayed. Somewhere in Savasana (final rest) I unraveled, my mind quieted, the war of opposites had a ceasefire. I was at peace for the first time.
Nearly twenty years later yoga has become the main tool that I use to manage the symptoms and side effects of living with type 1 diabetes. The mind for all people is a challenge to tame, but for the type 1 diabetic, the mind is in constant survival mode: “Did I take enough insulin to cover this meal? What is my blood sugar at? If I am going to workout how many carbs to I have to eat so I don’t crash low and feel like I am going to die? Can I afford my supplies? How will I survive without a job that offers health insurance?” These are all thoughts related to the biological imperative of survival. What does it feel like when you are in constant survival mode? Just close your eyes and imagine the feeling. That is 24/7 for a type 1 diabetic.
When working therapeutically with type 1 diabetes it is important to remember that there is no specific pose that will “cure” diabetes or improve blood sugars. What the practice of yoga does, is it helps you refine your tools of perception, calm the nervous system and increase vitality. When we are stressed out, we release more hormones especially cortisol. Simply put, they more frazzled you are, the harder to control your blood sugars. You feel depleted, you don’t exercise, and you eat poorly. Yoga helps you to see how you are involved in a negative cycle. It gives you the tools to slowly see how you are contributing to the problem.
Start small: Make realistic goals for yourself. Find a comfortable and accessible studio where you can attend class at least 2x a week. A physical practice will help create a good foundation for the deeper work of stillness and meditation.
Yoga breaks: When you notice yourself spinning from the highs and lows, take five minutes to sit and to watch your breath. As you watch the sensation of breath in and out, refine any pauses, coarseness or strain in your breathing. Try making your exhale twice as long as your inhale.
Meditate daily: 5 minutes a day can easily build up to 20 minutes a day. Replace old patterns with new healthier patterns. Over time you will forget about the old ones.
Be patient: This is not a one and done situation. Yoga is intended to be practiced for a lifetime. Trust in the process. The longer you practice and the more consistent you are the more effective the results.
Non-attachment: One of the core principles of yoga is vairagya or non-attachment. Be unattached to the fruits of your efforts. The more you stay true to your daily sadhana (practice) 5 minutes or two hours, you will receive a benefit. Want to learn more about Yoga and Diabetes? Sign up for my newsletter and learn how you can improve your health and wellbeing with any chronic condition.
Try these simple steps and watch as your mind pacifies and your stress response improves.