Hatha Yoga: Helping to Treat Diabetes?

Those who live with diabetes are quite familiar with the rigors of treatment for their disease – daily finger sticks to check blood sugar, careful monitoring of food intake and, in some cases, insulin pills or injections.

However, there is a growing number of the diabetic population that is finding the benefits of alternative medicine to be an accepted, if not preferred, way to help deal with the disease. From acupuncture to massage therapy, diabetics are finding the more ways they can find to relax and de-stress, the better they will be able to manage their disease and their overall health.

Hatha yoga is one such form of exercise and relaxation that has gained popularity among diabetics in recent years. There are various forms of yoga, including: Raja Yoga (focus on meditation), Bhakti Yoga (focus on devotion), Karma Yoga (focus on selflessness) and Hatha yoga (focus on physical and breathing exercises). Hatha yoga is what most people refer to simply as “yoga.”

A growing portion of the diabetic population is finding that the benefits of hatha yoga are worth pursuing.
“Yoga is not directly going to change blood sugars, but stress is a know driver of blood sugar and will push it up,” said Phil Pettijohn, director of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s Diabetes Center in Tallahassee, FL. “The more fit you are, the better opportunity you have to live a long life with diabetes.”

Diabetes is a disease that corrupts the body’s ability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone that makes it possible for blood glucose, or blood sugar, to enter the cells of the body and be used for energy. Type-1 diabetes usually occurs during childhood, and those with type 1 rely on injections or infusions of insulin to treat the disease. Type-2 diabetes, however, is the more common form of the disease. Type s diabetes can develop from poor eating habits, obesity, lack of exercise and family history. This form of diabetes can often be treated with diet and exercise, although some type 2 diabetics also rely on pills or insulin injections to control their disease.

Staying in shape is an important aspect of battling the complications that plague diabetics: Those with the disease are more than twice as likely to suffer from heart disease or stroke; diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in people from 20-74 and of end-stage renal disease. More than 60 percent of non-traumatic lower-limb amputations are caused by the disease, which accelerates atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.That is where hatha yoga comes in as a preventative measure.

“The two things people associate with yoga are stress management and flexibility,” said Leslie Hanks, director of Yoga Unlimited in Tallahassee. “The flexibility people associate with yoga is especially important for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, which can cause reduced circulation. Yoga is most beneficial for reduced circulation.”

The American Yoga Association agrees; in an article on its Web site, it details some of the benefits of yoga for diabetics:
“Most yoga exercises help keep the blood vessels elastic, and yoga exercise combined with relaxation training has even been shown to reduce high blood pressure in some cases,” the site says. “…Yoga relaxation training helps reduce the harmful effects of physical and mental stress.”

Hanks, who has been director of Yoga Unlimited for 14 years, said it is not unusual for diabetics and others with chronic illnesses to seek yoga as an additional therapy to traditional treatments.
“Yoga is having a renaissance,” she said. “Yoga is benign, non-drug therapy.”

According to Hanks, hatha yoga helps diabetics because of its focus on movement.
“There is a yoga of devotion, a yoga of knowledge and a yoga of exercise and lifestyle. Hatha is the yoga of exercise and lifestyle,” she said. “It’s excellent or ideal for beginners, and never strained.”

With that in mind, three years ago Hanks started a cooking class with an emphasis on good nutrition for diabetics. “It’s lots of fun,” Hanks said. “We learn about the renowned Oriental vegetable bitter melon, which is said to be used ‘when the blood is too sweet.'”

Patients with diabetes should see a doctor regularly, and should consult a physician before trying a new exercise program or a food with the potential to cause hypoglycemia or other medical effects.

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