Yoga & Health / Yoga Injuries

Yoga and (Pre)Diabetes: Update

A few months ago, I posted about my ongoing struggles with prediabetes. Over the course of several years, I had been getting poor A1C readings, with the test results gradually ticking up each time. My A1C test results eventually got as high as 6.0, which is solidly in the prediabetic range. (A reading of 6.5 is usually considered the point at which you officially have diabetes.) All of this has been particularly alarming for me since type-2 diabetes runs in my family, and Asian Americans in general are at a higher risk of developing this disease. In an effort to do something about my rising blood glucose levels, I implemented two significant lifestyle changes: (1) I adopted a low-fat vegan diet (as recommended by Dr. Neil Barnard), and (2) I returned to a regular vinyasa flow practice.

Today, I am happy to report the results of my most recent A1C test. The number came in at 5.4, the lowest reading in years, and the first time since 2010 that I’ve had a reading in the normal range. This comes as a huge relief, and I suspect that the steady improvement in my A1C tests is the result of both my dietary changes as well as my return to a more physically demanding and regular yoga practice.

I realize that it’s very difficult to establish causation on the basis of correlation. Also, I am not a medical professional, so I do not feel qualified to make claims about what will or will not improve someone else’s health, especially when it comes to something as serious as diabetes. However, I suspect that my own experiences with prediabetes may be of some interest to others who are also struggling with this condition.

So here’s what I can report, with a good degree of certainty, about what has happened to me. I injured my shoulder in 2010. As a result of this injury, I basically stopped doing vinyasa flow yoga for almost two years. For about six months, I couldn’t even lift my arm, so there was no way I was going to be able to do poses like Down Dog or Chaturanga. And for almost two years, I struggled to do basic things with my shoulder and arm without excruciating pain. Then, sometime last summer, my shoulder began to heal almost miraculously. (Actually, I think the combination of time, physical therapy, and acupuncture did the trick.) I started doing vinyasa flow yoga again, and now, about eight months later, I’m jumping up into handstands again like I never missed a beat.

What’s so remarkable about all this, in terms of my prediabetes, is that there seems to be a strong, inverse relationship between the amount of yoga I do and my A1C readings. My blood glucose levels starting rising at almost exactly the same time that I hurt my shoulder and stopped doing vinyasa flow yoga. And they kept rising during the time that my shoulder injury kept me sidelined. Then things began to turn around at almost exactly the same time that I started doing physically demanding yoga again. Coincidence? I can’t say for sure, and it’s quite possible that other forms of exercise may have had the same effect. It’s also possible that yoga had nothing to do with my improved A1C readings, and that it’s a result of my dietary changes. Whatever the case may be, though, something I’m doing seems to be working, and I’ll stick with it as long as it keeps my blood sugar under control.

A final point I’d like to make is that the type of yoga I do seems to make a huge difference. Even when I was injured, I managed to do some restorative yoga, Hatha, Yin Yoga, and other forms of gentler yoga. These styles of yoga are wonderful, but they do not challenge the body aerobically or anaerobically in the way that a hard Ashtanga or vinyasa flow class can. If yoga can help people struggling with blood glucose problems, I suspect that it will be these more physically challenging forms of yoga that will provide the most benefit. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being wrung-out after a kick-ass flow class. It’s a combination of sheer exhaustion and pure bliss. Sometimes, your entire body buzzes as you lie there in Savasana, and you can almost feel the individual cells in your body throbbing with renewed life. Maybe this is a sign that the body is becoming healthier and functioning more efficiently. Whatever it is, the more I “buzz” in my yoga practice, the lower my A1C numbers seem to go.

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5 thoughts on “Yoga and (Pre)Diabetes: Update

  1. Great post! I wish more people are so eager to keep their blood sugar levels within healthy ranges. At the moment, I’m doing health checks and it is shocking how high blood sugars can rise and how people are not really motivated to do anything about it. Keep on doing the good work!

  2. Pingback: Yoga and (Pre)Diabetes: Update | Jacinta-Yoga

  3. You probably would not like to hear MY update. I have to do dedicated cardio. It can and has to be low impact, given my knee inflammation and orthopedic problems. The irony is that another practice – also from India – the Masala Bhangra Workout (which is actually cardio dance) delivers 11 points lower on my glucometer near-fasting-post-exercise reading than a Level II vinyasa yoga class that was solidly based on what I’d learned at the studio (most of inversions removed: I really have full-blown diabetes and I’M not playing games!)

    Of course, when I’d been diagnosed, I’d come in with an A1C of 8.7 … I have no idea what it is now, but my morning reading had been below 100 mg/dL.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Amphibi1yogini. What you say brings up a very important point, which is that yoga — even the most challenging vinyasa class — really doesn’t cut it at the end of the day in terms of cardio. I can’t recall where I read this, but a few years ago I read an article profiling several different celebrity yoga teachers, and their “dirty little secret” was that they each had to do some other form of exercise beyond yoga in order to maintain optimal health. For most, this meant doing something that got their heart rate higher, and for longer periods of continuous time, than yoga.

      The only exception to this, in my experience, is a yoga class that includes a lot of arm balances, handstands, and other “advanced” inversions. This takes your heart rate up like crazy. I’ve never measured my pulse during one of these types of classes, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t compare to, say, running at a moderate pace. Of course, not everyone can do this type of practice, nor should they, so something that’s lower impact and more accessible, like running, might be a necessity if you need to add some cardio challenge to your exercise regimen.

      • You have to know that Masala Bhangra is a workout that doesn’t even make me sweat very much (another low impact kind of dance exercise actually does–more in keeping with the NASM bell-curve in intensity; and results are marginally even better than Masala Bhangra in my glucometer reading). What many yoga-only or yoga-mostly students don’t realize that aerobic breathing is both deep and rapid at the same time–the one place where the rhythms of your breathing don’t count. Your ability to talk/carry on a conversation during the peak of such aerobic exercise has to be next-to-impossible, labored, and nearly through bated-breath. There is actually a scale for measuring such breathing quality (perceived exertion scale). [Here, I assume that one’s ability to breathe is rather salutary – no COPD or asthma…] Now, hot yoga can raise your heart rate, make you sweat and burn calories, too–but the proof is in your oxygen uptake.

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