Diabetes Forecast

Gentle Yoga for Blood Glucose Control

Feel better and lower stress with these 8 simple moves

By Lisa Nelson, MD, and Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, RYT , ,


For thousands of years, people have seen yoga as a union of body, mind, and spirit. It’s only within the past few decades that science has discovered the physiological basis for how the specific postures, breathing techniques, and mindful awareness exercises can positively impact health. Because of yoga’s proven effectiveness in stress management and easing lifestyle change, there has been a surge in the number of people, including those with diabetes, trying yoga for the first time. As it turns out, the benefits of yoga make it an excellent practice for people with all types of diabetes.

Not convinced? Boost your yoga IQ by busting these three common myths:

Myth: Only people who can touch their toes or bend into a pretzel shape can do yoga.

Fact: Yoga is a collection of postures and breathing exercises that can easily be modified to fit the needs of every person, regardless of shape, size, or flexibility. If you have physical limitations, though, best check with your doctor before jumping in.

Myth: Yoga is too gentle to help manage blood glucose.

Fact: Let’s get one thing straight: Yoga is exercise. Scientific studies have shown that yoga, like other forms of cardiovascular exercise, can increase insulin sensitivity, improve glucose metabolism, and gently lower blood glucose.

Myth: Yoga is just another exercise fad.

Fact: Yoga has staying power because it melds exercise with stress reduction and improved emotional resiliency. Think of yoga as exercising with a focus on breathing. The relaxing effects of yoga are especially helpful for people with diabetes. Stress can make it difficult to take care of yourself. It’s hard to make healthy choices when you’re rushing around and feeling tense or unhappy. By lowering stress and promoting relaxation, yoga can help create the space you need to maintain healthy habits.

Get Your Om On

Before you begin, be smart about safety. Follow the same safe-exercise guidelines for checking blood glucose with yoga as you would with any form of exercise. Start with a slow practice (look for classes, videos, and books on “gentle yoga”), and avoid straining or over-stretching. Increase the speed or vigor of your practice slowly, paying attention to how you feel afterward: Are you fatigued or energized? If you feel pain, excess fatigue, or strain, slow down.

Below is a practice that can increase your energy by promoting relaxation.

Safety Note

Talk to your doctor before making any big changes to your exercise plan.

Lisa Nelson, MD, is a practicing family physician and the director of medical education for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She’s also medical director of the nonprofit Nutrition Center. Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, RYT, is a licensed integrative dietitian, master yoga teacher, and lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Want more yoga for diabetes?

Check out Yoga & Diabetes: Your Guide to Safe and Effective Practice.

 Download a printable guide featuring the following exercises.

Thought to calm and balance the nervous system
A Sit in a comfortable position. Notice the rhythm of your natural breath. Bend the index and middle finger of your right hand toward your palm. Keep your thumb and other fingers straight. Press your right thumb against your right nostril, blocking it off. Inhale thorough your left nostril. B Pause, then remove your thumb from your nostril. Place your right ring finger over your left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Pause, then repeat the process, alternating nostrils.
REPETITIONS: Begin with three cycles of this breath. Increase to 1–2 minutes of breathing, working your way up to 10 minutes.

Illustration by David Preiss

Creates a wave of gentle movement in the torso
A Begin in a table position with your hands in line with your shoulders and knees in line with your hips. B On an inhale, let your chest widen and draw forward as your belly drops and your tailbone rolls up toward the sky into dog position. C On an exhale, press your belly up toward the sky, letting your head drop down toward the floor and your tailbone roll under until your posture resembles a Halloween cat.

Illustration by David Preiss

Makes you more aware of your body’s natural alignment
A Stand with feet directly under your hips, toes facing forward and in line with your knees and hips. B Simultaneously root down and lift your muscles through the legs: Lift your arches as your feet press down and lift your kneecaps as best you can. Engage the muscles of your legs, stretching upward evenly from the front, back, and each side of your leg. Lengthen your spine.
REPETITIONS: Begin by holding the pose for 10–12 breaths. Work your way up to staying in the pose for 1–2 minutes.

Illustration by David Preiss

Strengthens the legs and core and creates space in the upper body
A Stand in Mountain posture at the front of your mat. Step back with your left foot. Keep toes pointed forward. Press down through the feet to feel stable. B Inhale. On the exhale, bend into your right knee until it’s directly over the arch of your right foot. Keep your legs strong. C Exhale. On the inhale, lift and expand your chest as you reach your arms upward. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. Keep your lower body grounded and strong as you create space in your spine, shoulder joints, and attitude with your breathing. Smile. Return to Mountain pose and repeat with the other leg.
REPETITIONS: Begin by holding the pose for 5–10 breaths with each leg, working your way up to 1–2 minutes per leg.

Illustration by David Preiss

Develops strength in the arms and legs and improves balance and alignment
A Stand in the center of your yoga mat, facing sideways (toward the long side of your mat) with feet about one leg length apart. Keep your heels about an inch farther apart from one another than your toes are from each other. For a gentler posture, narrow your stance. Press through the feet as you imagine drawing the muscles of the legs upward and inward toward the bone. Rotate your right foot 90 degrees to the right. Spread your toes. Bend your right knee until your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Your hips should face the long side of your mat; if you have trouble keeping your right knee directly over your right foot, you can turn your hips slightly to your right. B Lift your arms in opposite directions, reaching forward with the right and backward with the left. Keep your shoulders down. Inhale, and on the exhale turn your head to look over your right hand. Return to standing, then repeat with the left leg.
REPETITIONS: Begin by holding the pose for 5–10 breaths with each leg, working your way up to 1-2 minutes per leg.

Illustration by David Preiss

Lengthens the front of the body and strengthens the back
A Lie on a yoga mat, knees bent and in line with your feet. Keep your arms, palms to floor, parallel with your torso. Roll your shoulders back and press them into the floor so that your chest is wide and open. Press into your elbows and your feet. Exhale. B Inhale so that your chest expands, letting the movement lift your spine off the floor. Walk your elbows toward one another, behind your back, to continue opening the chest. If it’s comfortable, clasp your hands behind your back, keeping your elbows pressed into the floor. Inhale. On the exhale, roll down, vertebra by vertebra, to the floor, moving your arms out of the way as you go.
REPETITIONS: Breathe in this posture for 10 breaths, keeping your back relaxed. Work your way up to 1-2 minutes.

Illustration by David Preiss

Thought to support the cleansing aspects of the body
A Sit on the floor with one hip against a wall. Inhale and engage your belly muscles. B On the exhale, swing your legs up the wall as you lower your torso to the floor. Get comfortable, shimmying your hips and buttocks closer to the wall. With each exhale, imagine tension flowing out of your body. To release, bend your knees and roll to the side.
REPETITIONS: Begin by holding the pose for 5–10 breaths, working your way up to 10 minutes.

* Do not do this posture if you have diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, high blood pressure, or have had back surgery recently. If you are pregnant, do inversions only under the guidance of a skilled teacher.

Illustration by David Preiss

Aids with deep relaxation
A Gather the props that will help you fully relax: a rolled blanket for under your knees or lower back, a yoga mat for the floor (though you can do this in bed, too), or a small pillow for under your head or neck. Soft music may be helpful. B Align your body for relaxation. Lie down with hands and arms resting on the floor, palms toward the ceiling. Allow your legs to relax. Let your body become soft, releasing as if you’re sinking into the floor. Beginning at your head, slowly relax your entire body—neck, chest, arms, belly, legs, feet, ankles, and toes.
REPETITIONS: Begin by doing Corpse Pose for a few minutes, perhaps to quiet or relaxing music, working your way up to 10–20 minutes per day.

Illustration by David Preiss



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