It’s been claimed that yoga can alleviate or even cure all kinds of medical conditions — everything from anxiety to IBS, migraines, scoliosis, even cancer. What about diabetes?
Now I’m no medical doctor or naturopath, and I don’t want to make any general claims about whether yoga can improve blood sugar levels or reverse insulin resistance. My intention here is to report on my own struggles with prediabetes, as well as my attempts to address this problem with yoga (and diet). My personal experience is obviously anecdotal, and should not be taken as proof of anything. But I do hope that my story will encourage others with diabetes or prediabetes to be more proactive in managing their condition.
For about two years now, I’ve had poor results in a variety of blood tests related to diabetes, including tests of my fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C. I’ve also had other symptoms like muscle weakness, extreme fatigue, insatiable thirst, and occasional dizziness. When my doctor first told me that I was prediabetic, it came as a big surprise to me because I have always been very physically active and eaten a healthy, mostly vegetarian diet. And I am certainly not obese or overweight. If anything, I have always had difficulty putting and keeping weight on.
Interestingly, my prediabetes symptoms began around the same time that I injured my shoulder, which was in the spring of 2010. As a result of my injury, I became much less physically active overall, and had to dramatically alter my yoga practice and reduce both its intensity and frequency. I did not become entirely sedentary, by any means, but my genes predispose me to being diabetic and I suspect that just a moderate level of physical activity is not enough for someone like me. (Type II diabetes runs in my family, and people of Asian descent are, for some unknown reason, at a higher risk for developing this form of diabetes.)
Now that I am getting back to a regular and pretty strong yoga practice, I am curious as to what impact this will have on my blood sugar issues. So far, the signs are good. Over the past six months, my A1C tests have been gradually inching downward. (A number less than 5.6 or 5.7 is considered normal.) In fact, each test has come back lower than the previous one. My numbers are still in the prediabetic range, but if this downward trajectory continues, I should be back into the normal range by next year.
I should be clear about what kind of yoga I’ve been doing. I practice level 2 and 3 vinyasa yoga (also know sometimes as flow, vinyasa flow, power yoga, or even Ashtanga power vinyasa). These tend to be very strenuous classes and are certainly not for everyone. They usually involve both an aerobic and anaerobic component, which results in an elevated heart rate and profuse sweating. This style of yoga also involves strength building and stretching, as well as frequent inversions and some pranayama (breathing). In comparison, during the two-year period of my shoulder injury, I practiced mostly restorative and Yin Yoga, which are wonderful and relaxing, but do not increase your heart rate or challenge the body in the same way as the vinyasa style.
Despite the recent improvements in my prediabetes, I can’t say definitively that vinyasa yoga has been the cause. Diet certainly could be playing a big role, too — I went entirely vegan about eight months ago, after reading this book by Dr. Neal Barnard. I’ve also made concerted efforts to eliminate refined flours and sugar from my diet. So it’s entirely possible that my return to yoga has nothing to do with the improvement in my prediabetes. But it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that my prediabetes has coincided almost exactly with the period of time during which I was injured, and the improvement in my condition has coincided with my return to more vigorous forms of yoga.
Correlation does not establish causation, though, so it would be rash of me to start making claims about the benefits of yoga for people with diabetes or prediabetes. Diabetes is a serious global health epidemic, and I will leave it to the medical professionals to make pronouncements about the best way to deal with it. One thing I can say, though, is that exercise is pretty much universally prescribed by doctors for the management of elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance. And yoga asanas are a form of exercise. Of course, yoga is so much more than just exercise, and I suspect that if yoga does help people with diabetes and prediabetes, it the whole package of yoga that benefits them, not just the physical exercise.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing I say about my own struggles with pre-diabetes should be construed as a prescription for anyone else. This is merely a reporting of my own experience with the condition, and my own attempts to do something about it. I am not a trained medical professional, nor do I have any special expertise in diabetes or pre-diabetes. Please talk to your own doctor if you are also dealing with any of the issues I discuss in these posts.