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Yoga for (Almost) Anyone

Diabetes should not hold you back from trying this popular exercise

According to Yoga Journal more than 15 million Americans practice yoga, a series of standing and seated poses that incorporate stretches, twists, and balances. What’s all the buzz about? A typical 90-minute class challenges the body – yoga postures are designed to increase strength and flexibility – and also has a calming effect on the mind. Some classes incorporate meditation, but even those that don’t often require enough concentration that everyday stresses recede into the background of your mind. These mind-body benefits may make it a winning workout for nearly anyone, including those living with diabetes, says Ann Bartlett, owner of The Body in Balance Center, in Alexandria, VA. Bartlett, who has type 1 diabetes, says yoga helped her transform her body, reduces her stress and anxiety, and helps regulate her blood sugar.

Jacqueline Shahar, MEd, manager of the exercise physiology department at Joslin Diabetes Center, says “these types of results are typical for people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.” Yoga is a key component of Joslin’s weight loss program, but it’s important for routine diabetes maintenance too. “Whenever muscles contract, they require glucose as energy,” explains Shahar. “Yoga uses lots of muscle, so in addition to increasing your strength, doing yoga should lead to greater glucose control during class and for several hours after.”

Additionally, yoga’s focus on meditation and breathing can help students learn to regulate the so-called “fight or flight” response that stress can trigger. “Stress management is key for people with diabetes,” says Shahar. For example, if you get aggravated when your glucose numbers are high you’ll most likely release stress hormones, which can raise your glucose levels even more, explains Shahar. In yoga class, students are often instructed to take slow inhales and exhales to calm the body and mind during challenging poses. Yoga students can learn to use those same deep breaths during tricky situations outside of class, helping them stay calm and manage their blood sugars even when they aren’t in the yoga studio.

There are more than a dozen styles of yoga, ranging from slow, soothing classes to fast-paced, vigorous practices. In addition, most studios offer classes for all levels, from beginner through advanced, so don’t be shy! Consider calling a local studio to discuss which class and level might be best for you. Then, be sure to discuss your exercise plan, and the specific style of yoga you are interested in pursuing, with your doctor before taking a class. Be honest about your experience, level of fitness, and concerns, says Bartlett – there’s a type of yoga for everyone.

At the slow-moving end of the spectrum is Iyengar yoga, a style known for its exacting alignment and for holding poses for several minutes at a time. Hatha is another great choice for beginners, as it focuses on slow and gentle movements. Restorative yoga focuses on relaxation and easy stretching and can be a great way to get started. For a more aerobic workout, try a Vinyasa class, in which students move quickly through yoga sequences, which are often set to music. For those looking for a big challenge, Bikram yoga poses are practiced in extreme 105-degree heat.

Yoga studios often provide the largest variety of class styles and the most scheduling options, but there are a number ways that can make the practice – which typically costs $10-$20 per class – more affordable. For example, some yoga studios host weekly “community” classes, offering instruction for free or at a reduced rate. “Yoga classes are also included in many gym and YMCA memberships,” says Bartlett, “so if you already belong to a center inquire about yoga offerings.” A number of unexpected venues, such as athletic apparel stores, have also begun offering yoga classes, particularly on weekend and after-hours. For example, most Lululemon Athletica stores offer free yoga classes each week and many Prana stores offer no-cost classes every single day. Many social deal and discount sites, such as Groupon and Living Social offer yoga classes at a discount as well. Finally, a really low-cost way to try out yoga is by doing it at home with a DVD, or even by trying a YouTube video featuring an experienced teacher.

For class you’ll want to wear comfortable, easy-to-move-in clothing. Yoga is practiced barefoot on a rubber mat – if you don’t already own one most studios and gyms rent, lend, and sell mats. Bartlett suggests creating a diabetes “kit” for class. Her advice: set glucose tabs and juice next to your mat; keep your pump going and monitors in sight. “Don’t be alarmed if your glucose levels start to rise. Yoga will sometimes elevate blood sugar temporarily, but once it lowers it will flat-line for a while,” says Bartlett. And if the first style or teacher you try isn’t the right fit, try another style, class, or teacher. “People who practice yoga regularly tend to feel better,” says Shahar, which is a good incentive to stick with it.

Jessica Cassity is a health reporter for SELF, Fitness, and Shape magazines and the author of Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You. She is a Portland-based pilates and yoga teacher and blogs at thehappyandhealthyblog.com. Cassity is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates. 

Ann Bartlett is a paid patient consultant for Sanofi US.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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