If you’ve started practicing and are curious about how yoga can support you in your diabetes care, let me assure you, you’re in the right place.
I’ve met some people with type 1 diabetes who took up yoga post-diagnosis and plenty of type 2s who practice regularly. But it’s rarer to meet a yogi who developed type 1 as an adult. That’s exactly what happened to me. It took six years for me to accept my diagnosis of type 1 diabetes and a “lifetime” to find a story I felt passionate enough to write. Despite how long I took to come to terms with diabetes, I have nothing but gratitude for what’s happened to me. I’m now excited to share all the practices that can help you enjoy the benefits yoga brings. But first, here’s my story:
I’d always been obsessive about my body. I’d long been afraid that I’d get some disease or other. Most likely this is because my mother died when I was 11. She had a stroke first and then passed away during an operation to remove a brain tumor. Coincidentally her mother, my grandmother also had a brain tumor, but she survived and lived well into her 80s. My mother died just one month after her 40th birthday.
Even though I’d convinced myself I would suffer some disease, I never really focused on the fact that diabetes ran in my family. I remember my grandmother was diagnosed with it late in life, a complication from being paralyzed on her right side which led to a sedentary lifestyle. When I was diagnosed at 42, both of my maternal aunts clamored to tell me that my great-grandfather had had diabetes as well before there was insulin, and my great-uncle had been on insulin.
My diagnosis was sudden, but I didn’t have many symptoms. It came through a random blood test. I’d been a bit fatigued, but I’d put it down to adrenal burnout. I’d been getting dizzy whenever I ate dates. In fact, I was feeling overwhelmed by sugary foods in general, but nothing I couldn’t handle, so I thought. I’d practiced yoga most of my life and had been seeing naturopaths and chiropractors since I was 19. I remember my first foray into eating ‘clean’ was with the candida diet. While everyone else was downing candy bars, I was drinking drops of tea tree oil and avoiding dairy, wheat and sugar. But like any normal 20-something, I couldn’t stay on that diet forever. Eventually my life settled into normal. I got married, had a baby, and did yoga to stay fit. I ended up teaching and that was that.
In those days, yoga wasn’t the fitness craze it is today. It was esoteric and spiritual. My body has always been sensitive and the yoga amped up that sensitivity. I was into Ashtanga yoga, which is an athletic style. Yet while it opened up my body, it also released a lot of toxins. I don’t think I was more toxic than anybody else per se, but because I’d never processed my mother’s death, there was generalized unease and uncertainty in my body, which created unconscious stress. Before I was serious about yoga, I was a promising dancer and choreographer, but I never felt quite up to par. I was constantly getting distracted by one boy or another and could never commit fully to the craft. In the end, I chose a relationship over dance. And then, when I became bored out of my mind, I dove headlong into yoga.
That’s when everything shifted. I saw yoga as the ultimate way to perfect the body–my free pass from insecurity to security. After 10 years of consistent yoga and meditation practice, I moved my family from Byron Bay, Australia to New York City. Without intending to, I met my teacher Alan Finger, a lovely Buddha-like man who’d been doing yoga since he was 15 and teaching for most of his life. He seemed to know me better than I knew myself and taught techniques I’d never seen or heard of before. In his presence, my restless mind went still. I was lucky enough to teach for him at his school and help train other teachers. And even though I had a young son, a stepson and a husband at home, I thrived on the busyness of my life. I worked from dawn till late at night, forgetting to eat or rest. I absolutely loved teaching and practicing and learning as much as I could about yoga. It was a lifeline, a way to tranquillize the insecurities and fears from my younger years. Even though I could feel the stress building from my relentless schedule, I somehow didn’t care.
Then 9/11 happened.
That day was terrible, terrible for everyone.
I was in Manhattan waiting for Alan to teach his yoga class when the planes hit the trade towers. As soon as I realized what had happened, I felt like I’d been shot in the chest, my legs buckling underneath me. After a few minutes, I had to get out of there. My son and stepson were at school a few blocks away from the yoga studio and I wanted to be with them. Dazed and feeling sick to my stomach, I walked out onto the street. It was quiet; ghost-like. People with ashen faces walked beside me. The sky was a crisp blue and I wondered how everyone could keep on going.
By the time I arrived at the school, I was feeling faint. I wanted someone to hold me and look after me, but I wasn’t the only one in shock. I had to pull myself together. It was a relief to have both boys with me. The only way home to Brooklyn was to walk across the 59th Street Bridge. I could feel fear stuck in my throat, dry and hard. Gripping my sons’ hands, we walked.
Nearly seven hours after the towers had fallen, I fell into my husband’s arms, but it was no consolation for the shock that numbed my body. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t even think because my whole world had turned upside down.
Emotionally and physically, I never recovered from that day. And although I can’t specifically pinpoint my diabetes onset, I started experiencing a lot of strange physical symptoms about a year later. Tingling up and down my body, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, a feeling of being overly expanded, frequent urination, hives and skin rashes, racing heartbeat, difficulty with my digestion and many more symptoms that turned my life into a living hell.
I spent most of my time trying to work out what wouldn’t trigger me, restricting my diet and my activities, but all the while I had to make money and keep teaching yoga.
The first clue that it might be something to do with my pancreas was on holiday in England. I went to a day clinic because I was peeing every few minutes and I thought I had the start of a UTI. The nurse asked me if I’d ever had a blood sugar test and pricked my finger. I still remember the reading on the meter: 5.5. She said it was normal and I was sent on my way with a sachet to alkalize my urine.
Eventually, I left America with my family and moved back to our home in Byron Bay, Australia. Once there, I started treatments with an acupuncturist who kept pointing out that my symptoms were remarkably similar to those of someone who has diabetes. I kept getting my fasting levels checked, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary so I still didn’t pick up that there was a problem until…the day my husband interrupted my morning yoga practice to inform me that the doctor had discovered ‘something bad’ in my blood work.
What followed was a horrendous visit to the doctor where I was told that my A1c was slightly elevated and that I had diabetes. He shoved a few pamphlets in my direction and hustled me out of the room with advice to Google ‘diabetes’ and buy a glucometer so I could test my blood glucose levels. He intimated that it would take years to cure myself. I’ll never forget that moment of diagnosis and how my breath caught in my chest. I felt like I was drowning. Angry and confused, I was sure I’d done something wrong. It reminded me of how I felt when my mother died. I wanted to run away but there was nowhere to hide. The feeling of terror and hopelessness was palpable. I kept playing his words over and over in my head, asking myself, where did I go wrong? Surely this was all a big mistake.
Thankfully, this doctor was not my endocrinologist, whom I saw a few days later. The endo painted a much more palatable picture of the slow onset of my disease and outlined the likely steps I might need to take as the disease progressed. His words definitely reassured me but I was still in shock. How could a yoga teacher and health-conscious person like me get diabetes? It would take me years to stop blaming myself.
At first I told myself that I didn’t actually have diabetes and that somehow both doctors had made a mistake. I decided to take matters into my own hands and saw an ayurvedic doctor in India. After reading my pulse, she told me that the type of diabetes I had was very hard to cure but not impossible and gave me a long list of foods and herbs with the advice to eat eight small meals a day. I followed her advice religiously for two years until eventually, not seeing much improvement, I tried Japanese acupuncture.
The acupuncturist agreed with me that I couldn’t have diabetes. Instead my symptoms were indicative that my spleen wasn’t functioning well. He assured me that with weekly sessions and herbal formulas my blood sugar levels which were still slightly elevated would return to normal. Although my levels stabilized they did not improve enough for me to feel that it was working. My next step was to visit a nutritionist and naturopath who specialized in healing gut disorders. She was also adamant that I didn’t have diabetes. She surmised that my high blood sugar was caused by a parasitic infection that I’d picked up on my travels to East Asia. I was so relieved after seeing her that I phoned my parents to tell them the good news. A few weeks later, while visiting them, I overheard them telling friends, “it’s not diabetes anymore, Rachel just has a parasite.”
Besides enrolling my parents in my ongoing ideas about what I did or didn’t have, I took pills, swallowed concoctions, tried to heal my microbiome and prayed! Three months later my blood sugar levels were higher than ever.
As a last resort I was able to score an appointment with a famous Ayurvedic doctor who told me that what I really was suffering from was EMF (Electro Magnetic Frequency) poisoning and that his super special licorice cream and homeopathic drops would do the trick. After lathering myself in creams for 6 months and spending thousands of dollars for his magic potions I was no better.
By now, nearly six years on from my diagnosis, I was miserable, frustrated and at my wits end. At this point my doctor recommended insulin to get my levels under control.
I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever take medication. I was terrified that I would react to the insulin in some way and get even sicker. I kept telling myself, tomorrow things will get better, I’ll wake up with a normal blood sugar level and this nightmare will end.
But it didn’t.
After dragging myself up and down hills and restricting my diet to almost nothing I began to notice a constant tingling in my hands and feet. The doctor insisted I see a neurologist. I was so adept at making excuses that I told him not to worry and that it was probably a B12 deficiency. But the neurologist confirmed otherwise. I had the beginning of neuropathy and I definitely had diabetes. He gave me a stern warning to get my levels down or face permanent nerve damage.
That’s when I hit rock bottom. I had no idea how I could have let things get so out of control. As a yoga teacher I was supposed to lead by example and here I was, in the pit of denial, dealing with blood sugar levels that were so high I should have been in a hospital.
I finally admitted to myself that my body wasn’t able to produce enough insulin anymore and that no matter what I thought, or what kind of healer I thought could cure me it was time for me to listen to my doctor, to start taking insulin and to accept my diagnosis.
Starting anything new and changing habits isn’t easy. All my habits with food, exercise and sleep were let go with reluctance. Every time I tried to break a pattern, I had to stop and ask myself, “What’s more important? Eating what I want, when I want, or living a full, energetic and productive life?”
Family and friends often comment on how disciplined I am and how they could never do it. In the early days when I started managing my disease through diet and exercise, I never told them how hard it was to sit and watch everybody eat pizza and chocolate mousse, while I ate a spinach omelet with no dessert.
Now I tell it like it is. This disease sucks! And if it weren’t for my daily yoga and meditation practice, I don’t think I’d cope. I’ve experienced depression, lethargy, hopelessness, fear and anger. But in spite of those very real emotions, I do accept what’s happened to me.
Just shortly after diagnosis, I visited a friend whose son had diabetes. Diagnosed at eight years old, he showed me how to use my newly acquired glucometer then casually pulled up his shirt and inserted a needle into his belly. He seemed so nonchalant when he spoke about the disease, sharing that it was a 24/7 affair, no days off. Sad but true. The disease seemed almost external to him. Like a visitor he had to entertain.
It reminded me of how I feel when I practice yoga. When I’m on the mat, breathing or sitting quietly, there’s no me, mine or I. I am not the disease; I have a disease.
Separating who we are from what we have is one of the first steps in depersonalizing ourselves from our illness. It’s also a meaningful aspect of yoga. In traditional teachings, yoga is seen as a separation from all the beliefs we have about ourselves. And there’s no bigger belief than we are our bodies. It’s simple logic. If the body doesn’t feel good, we don’t feel good.
What does yoga offer us?
A simple break from the intensity of all that the body throws at us.
The good feelings that come after a yoga class not only arise from the act of stretching and massaging all the muscles and organs, but a brief respite from our need to buy into all those beliefs about our bodies. I like to think of it as being on holiday; you’re sitting on a beach somewhere admiring the view, feeling happy and at peace, and in that moment you’re not thinking about your disease. You’re content. Where did all the worries go? Nowhere. You just stopped identifying with them.
In a nutshell, that’s what happens during a yoga practice. And the more we can get a break from our identification with the thoughts about our disease, the more the nervous system relaxes and the more easily we can manage our health.
In all the literature I have read or information I have heard about autoimmune conditions, there is a consensus that heredity and environmental causes are just two-thirds of the total picture. Stress and our inability to handle it is the third component. If we can reduce our stress, the immune system catches a break and we can slow the progression of our condition, force it into remission or at the very least manage it with fewer complications.
I wish I could say I have high hopes for a cure for type 1 diabetes. But to be honest, I don’t. I’m not fatalistic about it either though. It’s just that after working like a dog for years to cure myself with everything including Ayurveda, acupuncture, herbs, diet and homeopathic medicine, all I managed to do was slow its progression. I still have had to go on insulin and deal with nerve damage as well as thyroid and pituitary issues.
It hasn’t been easy facing my situation when I’d spent most of my life thinking yoga was a cure-all. It’s been a rude awakening having to completely reevaluate the role that yoga plays, not only in my life but in the life of anyone with an incurable disease. In reality, what does yoga do? What is its purpose? And how can it be used to manage disease?