It kind of bugs me when people refer to yoga as exercise. It’s so much more than that. In fact asana, the actual postures people refer to as “exercise”, is only one of the 8 limbs of yoga. That means there are 7 other ways to practice yoga. If you study the root of the word yoga, it means to yoke or to unite. In the Bhagavad Gita, a classic, historical text of yoga, (I also referenced this text in the Wellness Wednesday on Morning Meditation, you can listen in here.) yoga is defined as equanimity, or samatva, an abstract concept in Hinduism that encompasses equanimity, equality, and uniformity.
Equanimity can be further defined as a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by the experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other circumstances that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. To break that down further, equanimity allows you to be unaffected by the chaos going on around you. I talk about this concept a lot when I’m coaching, I refer to it as internally vs. external focused.
But back to yoga…
So yoga is not exercise, but more of an opportunity to unite and harmonize the body with the mind. When yoga originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, it was designed to be a means toward balancing the body, mind, and emotions. Because yoga is a lifestyle, it is useful in managing chronic diseases that are impacted by lifestyle, such as type 2 diabetes.
Most of the time people assume when I teach the benefits of yoga in women at risk for type 2 diabetes that I am referring to the impact yoga has on stress and the fact that yoga is concerned a form of exercise. While both those things are true, that is only scratching the surface…
The science of yoga as health management encompasses the following: dietary considerations based on the science of Ayurveda, meditation and pranayama or yogic breathing, and asana or the physical postures of yoga. This is important because diabetes risk management extends beyond dietary intake and physical activity. Diabetes prevention is also influenced by the daily stressors women experience both in their work and personal lives, as well as the environmental stressors women have no control over. I talk a lot about this in my Wellness Wednesdays. You can catch up on what you missed here.
Let’s talk about stress here though and how it relates to diabetes.
I’m going to get a little technical here, but I think it’s important for you to see how deep the science is linking stress to chronic disease. Promise not to get stuck on the technical too long…
Stress specifically increases the risk and severity of type 2 diabetes by stimulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) and sympathetic axes and facilitating parasympathetic withdrawal, which increases cortisol, catecholamines, growth hormone, glucagon, prolactin, leptin, and neuropeptide Y. Chronic activation of the HPA axis is associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, poor diabetes control, and increased complications. I know all those hormones I just listed are a mouthful, but I’ve got just a little more to tell you about how yoga influences your hormones and diabetes.
The practice of yoga is believed to result in the regeneration of pancreatic cells. Pancreatic beta cells are the cells that produce the hormone insulin. Insulin is responsible for lowering your blood sugar after a meal by allowing your muscles to use the food as energy. Whatever insulin doesn’t need, it then stores that excess energy as fat. So then the various physical postures in yoga emphasize abdominal stretching and help to improve the sensitivity of pancreatic beta cells to glucose, thereby lowering blood sugar. The result is improved insulin secretion, improved glucose uptake, increased blood supply to your muscles promoting muscle relaxation, and the resulting improvement in hormonal homeostasis (natural, preferred, well-balanced state).
And ultimately, all of the above reduce inflammation to support diabetes prevention, diabetes control, and a reduction in diabetes complications.
So you see my friend, yoga is way more than “exercise”. It is a tool that can literally change your health at a cellular level. While I think it’s important to keep things simple, I also think we have to become savvier about where we get our information and recognize that our health is a complex process so it shouldn’t be left to Dr. Google. You need to align yourself with an integrative health care provider that recognizes the impact your lifestyle is having on both your physical and mental health. It’s more than knowing what to eat or what medication to take.
That means you have to stop looking for the next quick fix and start looking at your lifestyle. I want you to look at the lifestyle you are creating, not just at the dress you are trying to fit into by Saturday. It’s time to start thinking about diabetes differently.