Diabetes and Mindset

Diabetes is tough! Especially right now while I am on the road spreading the word about how Yoga is a lifesaver when it comes to the day to day management of diabetes. I’m using test strips like there’s no tomorrow while navigating unexpected lows, raging highs and doing my best to stick to daily routines amidst early morning flights and media calls.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the opportunities but like anyone, there are good days and not so good days.

In the end, it comes down to mindset. How I respond to my life with diabetes is more important than the number on my meter, the daily grind of counting carbs or the overall physical drain from a week of higher levels or too many lows.

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What gives me the mental strength to weather the storm? YOGA

More specifically the art of meditation.

I started meditating when I was 23. It wasn’t something I had heard about or even planned to do. It was my best friend and my first yoga teacher who convinced me to try it. She suggested we head to a three-day meditation intensive with a former Buddhist monk. When I asked her what we would actually be doing she just smiled.

After sitting and watching my breath for three days straight and walking in slow meditative circles I soon discovered that meditation isn’t something that can be described. It’s intangible like space. Have you ever tried to describe space? Words like open, vast, infinite can’t really explain a feeling which has no words.

The feeling of meditating is very different to the act of practicing meditation which in yoga is called “concentration” or dharana. Dharana is described in the Miriam-Webster dictionary as “fixed attention; especiallya state of mental concentration on an object without wavering”

So what does that actually mean? Think about what it feels like when you do anything you love; it could be a physical activity like running, reading a book, performing a creative task like painting or writing, you couldn’t do that activity if it didn’t have your full attention. That’s exactly what’s happening when you practice dharana (concentration). You place your full attention on the breath, or an image or even a posture and immediately there is an opportunity for your mind to be in “the zone.”

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Ok…so when you are in the middle of a low is it appropriate to try and practice dharana? Let’s get real. It’s friggin impossible. Your brain is starving for glucose and you want to consume everything in sight.

Once you’ve treated the low you can make a start.  The more we teach the mind to focus in on one point the quicker the nervous system comes back into balance. Like training a dog, positive reinforcement and reminders enable the nervous system to find its feet faster and faster after a stressful event.

We are designed to be relaxed 80% of the time and to be ready to run from a tiger 20% of the time. In this day and age, we live the other way around. Put diabetes in the mix and it amps up the volume. Having simple tools to destress are super important.

But first, we have to want to relax. We need to know what relaxation feels like and understand how beneficial it is. Not only does it support the nervous system. We sleep, digest and feel better emotionally and mentally. Less stress means less cortisol circulating through the system and overall better blood glucose management.

I know for myself after years and years of being uptight, overly sensitive and riddled with anxiety, yoga was the only thing that gave me some respite. It’s taken years of mind over just about everything to get on top of myself. I’m convinced that if I hadn’t learned to meditate at a young age I’d be a basket case.

Knowing that meditation/concentration happens naturally helps to put the mind at ease. Anyone can meditate because anyone can relax. It’s about understanding what meditation is and what it is not.

Meditation is not a state or something that only happens when you are calm or peaceful. It is not a moment, place or goal to be attained.

The word meditation is interchangeable with the word peace, contentment, bliss, wholeness.

You being whole and complete…are the meditation itself.

You might not get what I’m saying right now but rest assured…nothing beats the feeling you get from taking time to slow down and be still.  Learning to concentrate is just the beginning.

For this week’s blog, I’ve included an excerpt from the chapter on contemplation from my new book Yoga for Diabetes, How to Manage your Health with Yoga and Ayurveda

151210_DAV6241The Soham meditation for pitta

As a fiery type, the act of trying to concentrate can often incite frustration. To balance that Pitta, we need to counteract that fire. And what counteracts fire? Water.

The sound of the ocean is like the sound of the breath when you cover your ears and listen carefully. To balance Pitta, you’ll be using sound (mantra) to focus your mind. One of the most profound mantras is the natural sound the breath makes as we breathe in and out. This is happening automatically 24,600 or so times a day. If you place your hands over your ears and breathe in, you’ll hear the sound So. Keeping your hands over your ears when you breathe out, you’ll hear the sound Ham.

The Soham Meditation is an ancient technique that works effectively to calm and cool the nervous system and mind.

Set an intention for your practice. It could be anything, something simple like “I want to feel relaxed at the end of the practice” or more personal like “I dedicate this practice to accepting things as they are”.

Technique

Engage ujjayi breath. Long slow inhalation, long slow exhalation.

Feel the breath become even. Even count for inhalation, even count for exhalation. Continue counting the breath.

Move the awareness to the pelvic floor, sensing the space between the pubic bone and the tailbone.

On your next inhalation, for an even count, visualise the breath flowing up the centre of the spine to the middle of the brain.

On the next exhalation, for an even count, visualise the breath flowing down the centre of the spine. Continue like this for as long as is comfortable.

Add the sound (mantra) So on the inhalation and Ham on the exhalation.

Chant the mantra internally to yourself.

Keep breathing in the sound So and breathing out the sound Ham for about 3 to 5 minutes or as comfortable.

Want to know more about how yoga can help you manage your life with diabetes? Order your very own copy of my book here and if you love it I would be so grateful for a review 🙂

With great respect…

rachel

 

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Notes from my morning meditation practice

Every morning I diligently roll out my mat and do a simple breathing and meditation practice. And each morning I hope for the best; moments of calm amidst the storm of thoughts. What I’ve learned through years of consistent practice is that the mind is not supposed to be still. In fact its job is to remind us that we’re awake. Thoughts are like photographs, they remind us of situations, events and ideas. I’m fascinated by how a thought can blossom into an idea, which becomes a rambling vine of flowers tumbling from mind onto paper.

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This morning I was thinking about how mindfulness techniques are designed to cultivate awareness. But what does it mean to cultivate awareness? Is awareness a garden that needs planting? Awareness isn’t something that grows. Have you ever tried to compare awareness to anything? Awareness is like…

Awareness just is.  When I say I am cultivating awareness I’m making awareness personal. But how can I personalise consciousness? It’s like trying to own the sky. Perhaps what I really mean is that I am observing a mechanism, which thinks, defines and categorises thoughts.

Catching that I’m thinking is the beginning, knowing the thinker is the final resolution. Cultivating awareness is often associated with mindfulness. And meditation is seen as the tool. But immersed in the act of meditation one must assume the role of meditator. Losing oneself in the role “ trying to meditate” one can never realise oneself as the meditation itself.

Awareness, meditation, yoga are all words for the same thing. That objectless, nameless presence in which the world of objects including the objects of our thoughts play out.

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One cannot do awareness one can only be awareness, that which is already existing. One can’t make awareness one’s own and there’s no need to. It is that in which everything is owned. All thoughts, even the thought of being awareness resolves in awareness…

So what’s more important growing awareness or knowing who is aware?

Acceptance

A Guest Blog from Therapist, Yogi and Type 1 Diabetic, Michelle Sorensen

I recently attended a conference on mindfulness meditation and how to incorporate it into cognitive behavioural therapy. The room was full of mental health professionals like myself, looking to integrate these skills into their practice. Many openly spoke of their desire to learn the skills for personal use as well. One health psychologist sitting next to me commented, “Mindfulness is really about preparing for dying. We are all going to need these skills.”  I am currently watching my father decline with advanced Parkinson’s disease, and watching my mother struggle to accept the changes, and I completely understood what she meant. My father is so accepting of what he cannot control, and so he did very well for a long time with his disease by focusing his efforts on what he was able to control. And simply accepting the rest.

Fighting a battle against illness makes sense in terms of aiming to extend life, maintain quality of life and nurture our spiritual development. However, there is also strength in accepting that death is inevitable for all of us, as is suffering and disappointment throughout life.  Acceptance can help us to develop resilience and flexibility. To develop resiliency we need to be able to better separate out what we cannot control from what we can control. There are problems in life with diabetes that we cannot always eliminate…. but we can develop better resiliency in facing those problems.

Accepting your diabetes

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a few short weeks before turning 25.  There had been a lot of stress in my life in the years leading up to the diagnosis, as well as lot as of happy moments and exciting developments.  My stressors were the usual stressors for that time of life.  For example, I had to complete a thesis study for my psychology undergraduate program.  The statistics and defence took me out of my comfort zone.  However, the intensity of my stress was higher than it needed to be.  That part was self-imposed and rooted in my need to perform well and please others. I think being more mindful about locus of control would have made me more resilient and less stressed.

Then I took a year to work, save money and apply to graduate schools.  I had many friendships I tended to.  Phone calls always had to be returned, plans always had to be kept, requests always had to be responded to.  Disappointing someone was never an option for me.  I was not self-aware, no one had ever taught me that people pleasing was a problem.  That was my most problematic disease.

When I was diagnosed with diabetes, it was a tipping point. I began to recognize how exhausting my social commitments were, how stressed I felt by the idea of letting someone down.  It took me much longer to realize that I had some very dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs. If someone doesn’t like you, that means you are unlikeable.  If someone is disappointed in you, that means you are not worthy. 

In grieving my diabetes and the ensuing changes in my life, I had to go through some very painful emotions. I experienced denial, believing I would discover I did not have diabetes after all. I experienced the fear of an uncertain future and was terrified by the description of horrible complications stemming from diabetes. This led to a period of depression. I felt angry towards those around me at times, who did not know how to support me.  I bargained with the diabetes gods, striving for perfect control and hoping in turn I would avoid long term complications. Instead I was left shaken by terrible lows as I overcorrected my highs. 

But as I grieved and moved towards acceptance of my diagnosis, I had to accept other things. I had to accept I could not please everyone, and that did not mean I was not good enough. I had to accept that life was not perfect, and that’s okay…. it never was before diabetes either. I had to accept myself and who I am, with all my imperfections.

Today I still have moments I feel frustrated or fearful about my diabetes. However, I try to be mindful and focus on the present moment. After all, that is all any of us have for sure: right here, right now.

Accepting your diabetes

Michelle counsels people with diabetes, combining her knowledge of cognitive behavioural therapy with the experience that comes from living with Type 1 diabetes for 16 years. She is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario in Canada. She also enjoys speaking to health care professionals about how to incorporate more counselling into their interactions with patients.  Michelle sees psychological support as often being “the missing piece in diabetes care”.

When it all comes crashing down

I’m having one of those days again. I’m sure you can relate. My brilliant blood sugar management strategy has tanked with a million reasons why. Could be the almonds I ate a few days ago and sneaked in again today. Could be my period, that stubborn kidney stone that’s stuck and won’t come out. Could be the early mornings, the long walk I went on last week.

Wait! Let me get my pen and write a list.

It’s exhausting! And from what I’ve heard from fellow diabetics, I could be scratching my head forever trying to work out WHY everything went for a loop. Especially since I just got back the results from my A1c and they were positively glowing.

So is it really back to square one? Never!

Rachel Zinman Yoga for Diabetes

Something that I’ve learned from my Yoga practice is that mastery is not about getting to the end point of a posture. My body, the foods I’ve eaten, the type of stress I’ve been under, all affect my flexibility and strength. One day, I can jump freely into handstand and balance effortlessly, the next I’m tripping and falling all over the place. Frustration and a sense of failure only compound the problem.

So how do I achieve mastery? What’s the secret?

Simply put. I stop trying to get to an endpoint. Endpoints don’t actually exist.

Think about it. When you arrive there and then it becomes here and now. Plus, thinking my sense of achievement, health and wellbeing exist at that perceived endpoint and attributing my happiness to that can only land me in quicksand. Since when did any posture shout at you and say,“ Hey master me! I’ll bring you happiness!” You’re the one choosing to do the posture and choosing to attribute your happiness to the completion of that posture. Without you would it matter if the posture was there or not?

Taking that same principle and applying it to our health is a big ask. Our personalisation and identification with the body is completely instinctual. Especially when it comes to pain.

The first time I had to come to terms with pain was while I was in labour. I kept thinking, “ this is ridiculous, how do women survive this, and geez! men have no idea.” To my surprise, what supported me most was having a focal point. My doula asked me to gaze into her eyes and breathe through every contraction. She wouldn’t let me look away. The pain disappeared into the background and my steady breaths enabled me to bring my boy into the world. I felt like I’d climbed mount Olympus and my relationship to pain was never the same.

Every pain after that whether physical or emotional was met with focus and determination. I still shy away from it and get frustrated, but I know its not me, it’s the body sending a signal to pay attention, refocus and stop trying so hard.

Breathing through the practice is one of the ways I let go of the endpoint. Getting lost in the breath, time disappears. Counting the breaths gives my mind something to do. Breathing deeply and fully not only incites inner mastery, it’s energising, grounding, healing and brings vitality to all the organs and releases stress.

Ok so it’s obvious, I am a BIG FAN of breathing!

Join me for this weeks practice especially if its been a busy, overwhelming week. The practice is designed to be calming as well as focussing and to bring a sense of lightness to the heart. It includes a focusing meditation which works with breath, visualisation and sound … with great respect Rachel

The Healing Power of Sound

Concentration. It’s necessary for just about everything. Think about how it is when you are engaged in doing something you love. All your attention and all your energy is there. Concentration is one of the first things we work with when we start a Yoga practice. Because we are putting our bodies into challenging positions and asked to breathe deeply we have to bring all our awareness to that one point. And what happens? Eventually the mind relaxes and we feel calm, light and relaxed.

What we learn in Yoga is that deep focus leads to deep relaxation. So what about when we are stressed? That requires concentration as well. We have to identify with the stress to perpetuate it. The classic example in Yoga is the story of the Rope and the Snake. You’re walking along the road, it’s dark, you see something that looks like a Snake, you panic get out your flashlight and shine a light on the supposed Snake, which turns out to be Rope. Your panic turns to relief. For as long as you thought the Rope was a Snake, the stress perpetuated itself.

Concentration is the first and most important step to meditation. Students often share that they can’t meditate. You might even be thinking that right now. So I’ll let you in on a secret; in Yoga when we’re practicing meditation it’s actually concentration.

The word for concentration in sanskrit is Dharana. Any technique you learn in a Yoga class is a Dharana technique. It might be watching your breath or counting your breaths. Breathing while you are in a pose. visualising a light in between your eyebrows, chanting the sound Om. All these different practices are there to teach your mind to concentrate. Why? Because when the mind is occupied it lets go of its preoccupation with thoughts. In other words it stops concentrating on all the myriad stresses, worries, expectations and beliefs. It’s the same when you’re focussed on doing something you love. It’s relaxing and freeing. You feel completely open, happy and time disappears.

My favourite way to concentrate is to work with repetition of sound, In Yoga it’s called Mantra. I have always loved to sing, was an avid member of the choir and played the lead in several high school musicals. I began writing songs in my early twenties when I married a singer songwriter. While in a Yoga class with my teacher in New York City I discovered devotional chanting. Often at the end of a class our teacher would chant a series of Sanskrit words to a traditional tune. The sounds were soothing and uplifting and inspired me so much that I made it my mission to learn the meaning of the words and to add them to my own classes. I found that making up my own tunes to the Mantras was a great way for me to remember them and improved my concentration.

Sacred Chanting for healing

One of the first things I did after my diagnosis was  to work with Mantra. It didn’t matter what the Mantra was, it was the repetitive nature and my intention to let go of my need to identify with every worrisome thought, that brought me back to a calm frame of mind. The science behind it comes from a study done by Herbert Benson, who coined a phrase called the Relaxation Response. his studies demonstrated that when patients suffering from a variety of ailments were given sounds or phrases to repeat, from any religion or tradition, their nervous systems switched from the flight or flight response to the relaxation response, which in turn promoted pain relief, stress relief and immune system recovery.

I have always had a devotional nature so incorporating devotional singing and repeating mantras is food for my soul and something I do every day in my morning practice.  Not everyone feels comfortable repeating sounds in an unfamiliar language. So below is a simple mantra practice which you can adapt and adjust to your liking and belief system. The main component is the repetition of a word or phrase with the intention to let go of the preoccupation with the thoughts.

You may find yourself thinking during the practice, it’s not about stopping the thoughts. No matter what thoughts come, go back to the word or phrase you have chosen. Working with the practice for 40 days is enough to establish the habit of concentration so if you can set time aside every day, even 5 minutes you will notice a profound difference.  With great respect…Rachel

And…here’s one of the Chants I recorded with my band the Subway Bhaktis if you’d like some inspiration

Mantra practice

Sit quietly observing your breath for a few moments

Bring your awareness to the centre of your chest

Think of a word or phrase that is meaningful to you it could be Love, Peace, Joy, It could be a prayer in your faith. Choose something you would feel comfortable repeating. It does not have to be a positive affirmation. The purpose of the practice is to bring the mind to a one pointed focus and draw it out of its preoccupation with thought. 

Once you have chosen the word or phrase repeat it initially for 2 minutes, then increase to 3 minutes and work you way up to 5 minutes over 40 days. You can use a timer on your phone with an alarm or if you have a Mala or Rosary you can count the repetitions. 27 repetitions takes about 2 minutes, 54 about 10 minutes and 108 takes 20 minutes

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The Slowness of Things.

Just outside our front porch is a rose bush with one resplendent rose. Over the last week it’s slowly opened, blossomed and dropped its petals. The slow unfolding of the rose, its delicacy and fragrance reminds me to take things slowly. I’d like to rush the process of healing but I have only been taking insulin for the last 5 months and my BG levels are only adjusting now. Starting Insulin was a big decision for me, not just because it meant going with allopathic medicine, but in taking it I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t cure myself or my condition. For years I told myself it was a parasite, an allergy or some such thing. It never occurred to me that I actually might have a genetic incurable disease and that no amount of herbs, homeopathics or Yoga exercises could fix me. I was so busy rushing to find a cure that I didn’t bother to actually find out what was going on.

Just a few days after starting Insulin I had lunch with a friend who is an Ayurvedic practitioner, Naturopath and Nurse , “ I’m glad you started Insulin, it’s going to be a whole new start for you. It will slow you down quite a bit, but you need that.” She couldn’t have been more right. Now that my energy has returned I have no desire to run around solving the worlds problems, it feels quite natural to take my time with things, to relish in a daily practice, to plan and prepare nourishing low carb meals and to think about what’s next without having to constantly consider my stress levels. It’s taken 6 years to admit I have a disease, I am not the disease.

Yoga for Diabetes

Just today my partner shared with me a beautiful thought, “The whole creation, including thoughts, emotions, ideas, beliefs, worries, joys all rise and fall in the presence of never-ending, eternal stillness. The stillness, peace, consciousness is unaffected by the thoughts, beliefs and comings and goings of creation. Just as the ocean is unaffected by the wave. Only we human beings with the ability to identify and name our experiences, take on the experiences, beliefs, thoughts  etc, thinking we must resolve a situation to come to peace. The question to ask is; does peace need a resolution to exist?

Sitting quietly, watching the breath, practicing slow mindfulness we experience ourselves as the peace itself. We think it’s the practice thats enabling the peace, but in reality we are never not peace. The body is peace, the thoughts are peace and all of nature, all that has come before and all that will ever be is peace.

Even a body riddled with illness is peace. When I was younger I wondered how people could overcome physical pain, trauma or extreme suffering. I always thought that either trying to ignore the pain or distracting myself would be the best strategy. It wasn’t until I gave birth that I experienced something different. In giving birth I couldn’t deny that the body had its own intelligence, the contractions were happening, the baby was coming and there was nothing I could do to rush the process. No matter where I put my mind the pain and the intensity kept increasing.  It was in between contractions that I experienced powerful moments of stillness and peace. Eventually the feeling of peace predominated over the pain, its ever present nature became the focus and then before I knew it the baby was there, in my arms.

In any moment whether peaceful or not peace is there. The question to ask yourself is what is preventing me from recognising this? Slowing down and taking time to “smell the roses” is the perfect way to stop and reflect.

Here’s a simple visualisation you can take into your daily asana practice or when ever you feel the need to slow down. 

If you’d like an audio version of the meditation here it is  

Come into pose of the child, if it’s uncomfortable separate your knees a little and let your torso rest between your thighs on the floor, you may want to rest your belly on a bolster

Become aware of your breath, feel the breath filling the belly, ribs and upper chest, now become aware of your heartbeat

Visualise a rose in your right hand, twirl the stem of the rose between your forefinger and thumb

As you twirl the rose imagine you are close enough to see the coloured petals of the rose laced in delicate dew drops, and imagine its fragrance rich and sweet

Become so focussed on the rose that you almost feel yourself becoming the rose

Once again become aware of your heart beat, come back to your breath, feeling it filling your belly, ribs and upper chest

Slowly come up, feel your body adjust and move into your day

The Truth about Fear

Fear! We all have it and we all loathe it. Especially with a disease like Diabetes. We can’t just be casual about things, especially illness, as our whole life depends on staying as healthy as possible. I have always been pretty driven by fear. Even before I knew I was Diabetic. Being a more sensitive type my nervous system literally hops into overdrive whenever I perceive a threat, whether mental or emotional. I had hoped that my yoga practice would stave off fear but to be honest although it does keep me calm, I have spent a great deal of my life habitually reacting to thoughts. That’s why I love Gyan Yoga, the Yoga of the mind, as it explains in simple terms what fear is and how to work with it.

Many people feel that fear is False Evidence Appearing Real, or that fear is the opposite of love, but in reality fear is an emotion which begins as a thought. A thought about something that threatens our stability or happiness. It’s amazing how fear magnifies when we keep replaying a particular thought. I.e What if I get worse? What if my blood sugar doesn’t come down? What if this… what if that… Once we start bugging that thought it builds in momentum and turns into a forest fire. So what’s the antidote?

The first step is to catch yourself reacting to the thought and to ask yourself why am I reacting? Why do I feel threatened in this situation? Rather then trying all the new age tactics of replacing a fear thought with a love thought or speaking some affirmation try and hold onto the thought  and if it tries to get away bring it back. Notice that no matter how hard you try to hang on it doesn’t stay. Thoughts are elusive, they have no existence of their own. Without you being present does a thought have any meaning? And how many thoughts have come and gone in your life? Did a thought ever kill you?

Logically working through fear and reasoning with yourself is a practical and supportive way to see things as they are.  A thought can never bug you. You BUG the thought.

Sitting quietly for a few moments is a great way to experience yourself as the one having the thoughts. What follows is a simple mindfulness exercise.

Rachel Zinman Yoga

Sit comfortably with a long spine.

Bring your awareness to your breath and simply observe the breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils, softly letting go of all thoughts.

Notice the coolness of the breath on your nostrils as you inhale, and the warmth of the breath on your nostrils as you exhale.

You can also place your finger on the spot right above the centreline of your top lip and tap it a few times to bring more awareness to the area where the breath leaves and enters the nose.

Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, simply bring your focus back to the breath and feel the sensation of the breath on the nostrils; bring your focus back to the breath without judgement.

As many times as your thoughts may wander, use the action of breath awareness to refocus your mind gently away from your thoughts.  It does not matter how many times the mind wanders, this is simply a practice to quiet the mind to develop a deeper mind/body connection.