How to Breathe With Diabetes



I’ll never forget the moment I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. My breath caught in my chest, and I felt like I was drowning. Angry and confused, I was sure I’d done something wrong. I felt the way I had when my mother died when I was only 11 years old.

Now eight years after my diagnosis, I view Type 1 diabetes not as a punishment for wrongdoing, but as an opportunity. As a yoga teacher and long time yoga practitioner I’ve always been able to find the gifts within the challenges. I like to pride myself on my ability to adapt. And I was sure I could use what I knew about yoga to help me deal with diabetes. Because we had caught the diabetes early, I was still in the honeymoon period. Surely there were things I could do to make it last.

From that day on yoga became my refuge, and I felt lucky to have a coping tool. The beauty of yoga is that it’s much more than a physical practice. It’s an ancient system that looks at life from a holistic perspective. It’s not just about perfecting the body, it’s about managing the energy system that is the body.

In yoga, breath is life, and my first step after my diagnosis was to reconnect with my breath. A teacher of mine once shared that if you take a block of wood and hack at it with an axe you’ll get rid of the big chunks, but to create a work of art you’ll need to use fine chisels. The same goes for yoga practice. You can sweat it out in a yoga pose, but the deeper benefits come when you focus your mind on your breath while you’re in the pose. Being able to focus your mind can be a game changer when it comes to dealing with the stress associated with diabetes. Rather than getting overly preoccupied with your thoughts about your condition you can diligently train the mind to let go, one breath at a time.

That was exactly how I approached my practice. Accessing the breath and learning to breathe fully and deeply became my priority. When the numbers went up I took a breath. When the numbers were low I took a breath. When I felt overwhelmed I took a breath. When I wanted to cry and scream and disappear I took a breath.

What I discovered was that when it comes to breath in yoga, it’s not one size fits all. Each one of us is unique and it’s important to find a breathing practice that feels comfortable. Some benefit from full breaths that engage the diaphragm. Others thrive by concentrating the breath in the chest, and some can focus more easily when alternating the flow through the nostrils. Each type of breath works in a different way

Breathing fully and deeply into the belly is relaxing and soothing. It slows down respiration and rejuvenates the kidneys and adrenals. If you are someone who has insomnia or experiences hypervigilance, taking deep belly breaths during a crisis can make all the difference.

Narrowing the passage of air in the throat and making a sound like the ocean directs the breath into the chest area. This breath is focusing and cooling. Perfect for dealing with frustration. Cooling down and dispersing the energy can really change your frame of mind.

Alternating the flow of air through each nostril is designed to balance the nervous system. This is a brilliant way to stay alert and relaxed while gaining a positive frame of mind.

If you’re not into yoga but still want to reap the benefits of breathing, here’s something I do every day that helps me face the many challenges of living with diabetes. Simply raise your arms on inhalation and lower your arms on exhalation, making sure the breath and the movement finish at the same time. Work with your own breath capacity. Make sure if feels easy. Don’t force or strain.

When I was first diagnosed my breath helped me to grieve and soften. It paved the way for me to accept my diagnosis. No matter what your story is, or how you feel about your condition, yoga and the breath can help. I encourage you to take this moment right now and stop, drop and breathe.

Rachel Zinman is a senior yoga teacher and teacher trainer with over 30 years experience teaching nationally and internationally. She is currently completing a book on yoga for diabetes. Click to preorder the book. You can also find out more about Yoga for Diabetes on Rachel’s blog. 

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