Yoga + Diabetes: There’s a Yoga for Every Body


This interview was published August 25, 2021.

Diabetes isn’t just about checking blood sugar and counting carbohydrates; it’s a complex health equation that requires multiple practices to make sure you stay not only physically healthy, but mentally and spiritually healthy too. Over the course of our spirituality and wellness interview series, we’re speaking with just a few members of our diabetes community to learn what they do to stay well.

Besides being involved with yoga since age 17, Rachel Zinman is professionally known as a writer, dancer and singer. Her passions are wide, and after her diagnosis, Zinman knew that yoga would be the best way to manage her diabetes. In every facet, she includes yoga in her daily life and helps others find their type of yoga, no matter what it looks like (check out this piece from Rachel on rising above diabetes with yoga).

Beyond Type 1: I read you’ve been practicing yoga since 1983, teaching since 1992 and teaching teachers since 2000. Can you talk about that journey and what led you to yoga?

Rachel Zinman: For 35 years, I had a professional career as a dancer and I discovered yoga around the same time. At 17, I was brought to my first yoga class. It supported me through my dance career by keeping me strong and flexible, as well as having peace of mind. Sometimes, with different companies, I’d be the go-to yoga teacher. Then, somewhere in there, I had a child and got involved with music. I started singing devotional, or yoga, music which [helped me manage my] blood sugar. So, music became stronger during that period and from there, media skills began coming to me. I’m not really a filmmaker but I can record things, edit them and help others learn about yoga.

We find our place and we can see that everything is working together. I’m able to use my writing to support my yoga practice now through Instagram. I think everyone honestly has at least 10 things that they’re good at. I was brought up in a way where my family encouraged me to try everything, so that’s something that I’m extremely grateful for.

Can you talk about your personal journey of yoga and mental health?

Yoga [can be] fantastic for mental health. Regulating the breath, focusing the mind and increasing circulation throughout the body helps regulate the nervous system and your mood. It’s all about guiding the person to go to their edge and everyone’s edge is different.

For me, I started to slowly accept my diabetes and see yoga for what it was, which was a fantastic accompaniment for management with my diabetes. I was able to increase my insulin sensitivity, deal with the stress factors, enable a stable weight and mood.

But the main thing is how sensitive the body is to yoga. If you’re constantly engaging your muscles, you’re just able to be more balanced overall. It was a big shift. I was initially trying to use yoga to “cure” myself, but then I realized it was helpful with diabetes management and that there is a “right” yoga for your type of diabetes.

What are some myths or misconceptions that many people with diabetes have about yoga and how do you combat them?

I remember when I first joined the diabetes online community and lots of people said they couldn’t do yoga because it’s too ‘zen’ or they feel they’re not fit or flexible enough. But there’s yoga for all types of bodies. If you’re just sitting and breathing in a chair, that’s yoga. The word actually means oneness and wholeness, so it’s actually the nature of every human being; we’re all living, breathing yoga. Any action or movement we take in a yoga practice is actually bringing us back to remember the essence of that peace, stillness, beauty and perfection. All those myths are just obstacles we put in our way.

I relate to that and I do the same thing when people suggest what I should do for my own diabetes management. But without trying it, I won’t know. If you try and learn, that’s what it’s all about. Adapt, adjust and keep going because the benefits outweigh the risks.

If you could talk to yourself at 17, right before your diagnosis, what would you say?

I’d say that you have no idea how amazing your life is going to be. Right after my diagnosis, I’d tell myself to find my tribe. I did it all alone for seven years and had every range of difficult emotions. I was ashamed, frightened, angry and I know that if I had reached out and found people like me, I wouldn’t have gone through so much trouble.

WRITTEN BY Tierra Harris, POSTED 08/25/21, UPDATED 12/06/22

Tierra is a senior Journalism major and Creative Writing minor at Ball State University. Although she doesn’t personally have diabetes, she is adamant about learning as much as possible to help her family and friends live healthier lives. With interests in mental health, spirituality and food, she aspires to tell stories that connect people all over the world. She is also passionate about fashion, R&B candles and home decor. You can follow Tierra on Instagram @arizona__t.