Adding yoga to your diabetes management plan can help keep your blood sugar levels under control, reduce stress, and more.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Judy Mouchawar, MD, MSPH
If you have type 2 diabetes, it’s likely not news that exercise should be part of your life. But that doesn’t mean you have to limit your physical activity to biking, jogging, or calisthenics. Give yoga a try, for instance. This ancient practice has been found to help lower blood pressure, improve blood glucose (sugar) levels, and more.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t use the hormone insulin properly. When insulin is not doing its job, blood sugar levels build and can cause health problems, according to the American Diabetes Association. Lifestyle changes, including regular exercise, are an important part of diabetes management.
“Yoga should be part of an exercise plan that includes aerobic exercise as well as strength training," says Lisa B. Nelson, MD, director of medical education for Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, co-author of Yoga & Diabetes: Your Guide to Safe and Effective Practice, and a family medicine doctor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “Yoga is particularly good for stress reduction. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can raise blood sugar levels.”
“I recommend yoga primarily for stress management,” agrees Janet Zappe, RN, CDE, the clinical program manager of outpatient diabetes education at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Stress elevates blood sugar, which can lead to more diabetes complications. Yoga helps us center ourselves, and centering calms us and can help keep blood sugar levels balanced.”
Yoga’s Effect on Your Mind and Body
In addition to stress reduction, experts credit yoga with increasing mindfulness, which involves staying and living in the moment. This tool is helpful in making lasting, healthful behavior changes, which is a must for managing diabetes, says Dr. Nelson.
Researchers in one study found that people who had higher scores for mindfulness were more likely to have healthy glucose levels than people who scored lower on mindfulness measures. Exactly how mindfulness may mediate blood sugar is not understood, but mindful people are less likely to be obese, according to the study, published in March 2016 in the American Journal of Health Behavior.
Other benefits of yoga for diabetes include weight loss or maintenance and reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels. People with diabetes are at increased risk for heart disease, and factors such as stress, excess weight, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol all increase this risk further, Nelson says.
In a review of 33 studies on the topic, yoga was found to improve blood sugar control, cholesterol profiles, and weight. It was also shown to lower blood pressure, enhance lung function, mood, sleep, and quality of life, the review suggests. The findings were published in December 2015 in the Journal of Diabetes Research.
“People sometimes start to feel better after a single yoga session in terms of energy, well-being, and stress, but changes in blood pressure and weight can take a while longer,” Nelson says.
Yoga Is for Everyone
Yoga incorporates deep breathing, poses, and meditation to enhance the body, mind, and spirit. There are many different forms and levels of yoga — it’s not one-size-fits-all, Nelson says. “It doesn’t have to be intensive — even restorative, gentle yoga can lower stress and blood sugar and help you lose weight,” she says. “Some of my favorite poses when people are first starting their practice are the relaxing poses.”
Zappe agrees: "I often tell people to watch videos to learn some beginning poses and get started,” she says. “You don’t have to join a class. You don’t need fancy equipment either.”
Nelson recommends starting with the following poses. If you’re new to yoga, however, she suggests you follow video instructions or take a yoga class before attempting them on your own.
- Child's pose. On all fours with your arms stretched out in front of you, sit back so your rear end is resting just above your heels.
- Vipariti Karani, or legs-up-the-wall: Sit on the floor, facing a wall. Scoot your body toward the wall, putting your feet on the wall, until your bottom rests against the base of the wall. Keep your upper body supported with your elbows. Raise and straighten your legs until the backs of your legs touch the wall. Slowly release your elbows and lower your back to the floor.
- Savasana, or corpse pose. Lie on your back, with your arms alongside your body. Turn your palms to face upward. Close your eyes, and take slow deep breaths through your nose.