Stretching it out with Diabetes - Adding yoga and breathing practices to your daily diabetes management plan

I’m a yogi. I’m also a person who lives with Type 1 Diabetes. I started my journey with yoga when I was 17. My journey with diabetes started almost 25 years later when I was 42. Having practiced Yoga for nearly half my life and absolutely believing it was a cure all, I couldn’t have ever imagined that I would get a disease like diabetes. I’ve come to realize that no matter what we do to stay healthy, nothing can prepare you for the unexpected. 

For me it was being in NYC during 9/11. The shock and terror of that day triggered a cascade of health issues that eventually led to my diagnosis. I was able to heal from the emotional shock but the physical ramifications have remained. Throughout, my personal yoga practice has been a life saver. When I step on the mat I give up my idea of perfection and let the breath and body take the lead. There is nothing more precious then taking time out for yourself. Especially when you live with a chronic health condition.

A lot of people often share that they’ve heard that yoga is good for managing the stress associated with diabetes. As a seasoned yoga teacher here’s what I’ve come to understand. 

Yoga has been proven to:

•    Reduce stress
•    Increase flexibility
•    Increase muscle strength and tone
•    Improve respiration, energy and vitality
•    Maintain a balanced metabolism
•    Reduce weight
•    Regulate cardio and circulatory health
•    Improve athletic performance
•    Protect from injury

But what about what it can do for you if you live with diabetes?

In my experience the physical postures stabilize blood glucose levels, increase your insulin sensitivity, balance your mind, increase your breath capacity and enhance your mood.
Plus, it actively stretches the fascia, the fine sheath around the muscle fibers, which also connect to your nervous system. When the nervous system is toned the whole mind/body mechanism works like a finely tuned Ferrari.

I’m often asked; but what if I can’t touch my toes? 

No problem! No matter what your age, size or level of fitness there is a yoga practice that fits like a glove. You just have to shop around, find a teacher with experience and a style of yoga that suits your pace and level. 

When I first meet with a student I evaluate their flexibility, strength and attitude. You might not be strong or flexible but if you are open to giving it your best your halfway there. 

To build strength and flexibility in yoga you could explore styles like vinyasa flow or power yoga. But to really build a foundation you’ll want an alignment based yoga class. It’s detailed structure and emphasis on the slow progression through postures will help you stay injury free.  

In a yoga workout you use your own body for resistance.  As you strengthen one muscle the opposite muscle releases. The whole body is toned and the organs receive an internal massage, not only because you press and squeeze against them but because the practice requires a complete focus on the breath. Either bringing the breath into the chest or breathing all the way down to the belly. The coordination of breath and movement is what makes the practice work. It’s also the key in reducing stress. When your completely focused on the execution of a posture, the mind is happily occupied.  Who has time to get caught up in thoughts when you’re trying to balance on one leg.

Some of the basic poses in a public class do require some flexibility. And some classes can be too strenuous and drop your blood glucose levels. It’s good to have some basics under your belt or to book a few private sessions before you jump into a group class. But if you can’t afford a personal session keep in mind that a yoga class at your local studio will be more personally tailored then the free class at the gym. And teachers are always willing to answer questions before or after class.

Rather than being purely about the physical, yoga’s focus on stress management through the expansion of breath, called pranayama, can also help you to gain perspective on your relationship with diabetes. learning to deepen and lengthen the breath through a technique called ocean breathing is especially supportive when you’re stressing about unstable blood glucose levels or feeling frustrated with your diabetes management.

Ocean breathing is something I practice every day and it’s the first thing I share with my students in a class. Why not give it a try right now?

Find a quiet place and a comfortable seated position to start. It won’t take more than 5 minutes to learn and do.

Hold your hand in front of your mouth, breathing out onto your palm with your mouth open as if you were fogging up a pair of glasses

Notice the sound of the breath. It should be audible and breathy like a whisper. Also feel how the throat closes slightly.

Take your hand down, close your mouth and breath out through your nose making the same whispery sound. The length of your exhalation should increase.

Inhale through your mouth, making the same whispery sound. The breath should feel cool and hit the back of your throat. Think of a minty fresh feeling!

Repeat the same inhalation through the nose with the mouth closed. Try and hear the sound roaring in your ears. Again, the inhalation should take longer than when you were breathing through your mouth.

When you feel confident, inhale and exhale with your mouth closed maintaining the ocean breath for a few moments.

Rachel Zinman was diagnosed with LADA Type 1diabetes in 2008.  She’s been practicing yoga for over thirty years and has been teaching in Australia and Internationally since 1992. She is also a yoga teacher trainer, mother, musician, writer and amateur film maker. Her articles on Yoga and Diabetes have been featured in A Sweet LifeMind Body Green and DoYouYoga  and writes her own blog, Yoga For Diabetes. She is currently completing a book on Yoga for Diabetes  To find out more about Rachel visit