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Yoga and Diabetes

Denyse LeFever  | Published on 2/14/2019

By Denise LeFever

It was made very clear that Type II Diabetes is a Life Style disease, which I translated as the result of my decades of long work hours, global travel and a daily habit of restaurant meals.  


My diabetes education was full of dire predictions of what my future would look like if I didn’t begin to make life style changes.  It was overwhelming and depressing.  I wasn’t prepared to make the drastic lifestyle changes necessary.  So, I took baby steps.  I attempted to adopt my nutritionist’s eating recommendations.  I had difficulty trying to live my “normal” life as I made “diabetic” life style adjustments.  


To ease my mounting angst around self-management, I returned to a weekly yoga class, something that had calmed me decades before. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that my Self-Study about how life style choices impacted my condition became deeply connected to positive habits I was learning through my deeper exploration of yoga.


Yoga is the connection of mind, body, and spirit.  To understand this connection more deeply you may need to experiment with various aspects of yoga beyond the postural movement that is often associated with a typical yoga class at your local gym.  A practice that includes centering, breathing, movement and meditation may require more time than a yoga “exercise” class but could help you cope better with your condition.


Self-management of diabetes becomes easier when mind, body and spirit are in balance. One of the pioneers of research into life style medicine, Dean Ornish outlines his pillars of prevention or reversal of life style related disease like Type II Diabetes in his recent book UnDo It!   His 4 Pillars  (which can also be found on his website at are:


Eat Well

Move More

Stress Less

Love More


My traditional diabetes education was heavily focused on the first two pillars of Ornish’s recommendation.   A daily yoga practice embraces all four of these pillars.  Mindful practices such as yoga and meditation can make us more aware of our body which changes our focus on the food that we put into it.  This focus helps us to Eat Well.    We  Move More through yoga postures which helps us to rejuvenate the  joints, muscles and organs in our body.  Incorporating a brisk walking practice with a yoga movement practice can provide further benefits.  Breath work, meditation and mindful movement all contribute to the Stress Less Pillar.  Yoga Philosophy  and the connection with a yoga community embraces the Love More pillar.  As we begin to appreciate and develop more loving connections in our own life, we begin to extend good will  toward  not only ourselves but all sentient beings.


Through adopting all aspects of Yoga,  I have found that I have better results when I test my blood sugar.  When I only eat well but don’t move and continue to remain stressed, my sugar level may remain too high.  It was through Self and Yoga Therapy studies that I learned my stress response could have a bigger impact than diet alone in my diabetes self care.  I later learned that stress can trigger cortisol which dumps glucose into the blood for a fight or flight response.   If our stress response is to move or to fully relax then the blood sugar levels and insulin can be stabilized.  If we live in this stressed state and take no action, then blood sugar levels rise.  A few years ago, research ( done by several universities in California concluded that restorative yoga may have a positive result on fasting blood glucose levels in pre-diabetic individuals.    Over the past decade there have been about a dozen studies that have found that both gentle and restorative yoga can help people prevent or self-manage Type II diabetes.  These studies back up what Ornish originally found in his early work with heart disease.   While we must follow our own wisdom in our health journey,  finding research that backed up, my own experience was reassuring.


Try this short relaxing breath and restorative practice for  a few weeks.    Check your sugar levels.  See if your symptoms are eased.



Extending your exhale

Sit comfortably on a chair with your feet flat on the floor.  Check your posture make sure that your spine, hip, head are comfortably aligned. Close your eyes, relax and focus on any sensations you may be feeling.  Just notice them. Begin to inhale through the nose to the count of 3 or 4 whichever seems easiest.  Then gently open the mouth and exhale to the count of 5 or 6.  I like to count using  om 1, om 2, om 3 as my count to keep the count even.  Do this for about 10 rounds or set your electronic timer to 1 – 2 minutes.  Open your eyes and notice how you feel.


Legs on a Chair  –  For this practice you will need an armless folding chair,  preferably with an open space at the back of the chair works best and several blankets.   Try different chairs to find what works best for your body.


Cautions: Be sure the chair has four stable legs (not on wheels) and doesn’t move on the floor if a small force is applied.  


Find a place where you can lie comfortably on the floor (you may want to add a blanket underneath your torso for comfort or support). With the seat of the chair facing you, bring your bottom close to the chair legs.  Extend your legs toward the ceiling and rest the calves on the chair seat.    (If the seat is not padded you may place a folded blanket on the chair seat) Make sure knees are supported and in line with the hips.  You may need to gently pull the chair closer to you or move your torso closer to the chair to get the most comfortable support for your legs.  If your legs are long, the feet may extend through the opening in the chair back.  If your neck needs support fold a towel or light blanket to support the neck and head.  Take time to settle into the pose so that you feel comfortable and will be able to relax here for awhile.  You may want to cover yourself so your body remains at a comfortable temperature.   Close your eyes and relax for 5 – 20 minutes.  The longer you are able to remain in the pose comfortably the deeper your relaxation response will be.


If you want more of a challenge, you can try:


Legs Up the Wall -  Find a place near a clear wall.  (For comfort, you may want take a folded  blanket and extended it perpendicular to the edge of the wall so that you can lie comfortably back on the blanket).  Sit on the floor next to the wall with your left hip against the wall.  Slowly and carefully, gently turn your body to the left and bring your legs up against the wall.  Mindfully, lower you back to the floor so that hips, torso, shoulders and head are supported by the floor.  Shift your weight from side to side and bring buttocks close to the wall.  Allow the arms to relax by your side with the palms facing up.  Close you eyes and relax into the pose for up to 15 minutes.  To come back down, slowly push yourself away from the wall and allow your legs to slide down the wall.  Rest for a few moments on your side before using your hands to press you back into a seated position.


Please note these inverted poses are not recommended if you have unmedicated high blood pressure,  a history of stroke or heart failure and for glaucoma or detached retina.


Remember, it’s your journey, continue to observe and experiment to find what works best for you!