In Chinese medicine, I’m metal. Cold. Flat. Hard. Smooth. Things can bounce right off of me. I don’t absorb them.
According to Ayurvedic standards, I’m kapha and vata. Earth and Water. Air and ether.
At first glance, it sounds good. But, there’s something lacking — fire, which is pitta. Not surprising, as I’ve always been the one to sit next to the stove, on top of a radiator, or as far as possible from the A/C ducts.
Among the diseases that these imbalances can contribute to is diabetes. Bingo. That’s my biggest health concern.
These are a few of my favorite things to look at when I create a yoga therapy protocol for my clients. I pull from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, and a few Western MDs or registered dietitians that understand addressing the root of the cause rather than scrip shooting.
I lacked fire most my life. Growing up in a diabetic household, I tried to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As a kid, I didn’t eat my Halloween candy. As an adolescent, I vetoed all animal fats and added sugars. As a young adult, I backed off animal-related products and simple carbs — making the exception for a Chicago style spinach pizza on visits to the Windy City.
Despite my good intentions, my insides were always wreaking havoc. I didn’t understand the root of my problems. I ended up in the ER in Mexico City, with no solutions except for reliance on chamomile tea and my deep breathing exercises. That turned me to getting serious about yoga, meditation and breath work. My GI problems were fairly settled. I even lost my extra weight. Then the bomb dropped. I had high blood sugar.
When I finally made the connection between fire and blood sugar, that was like a fire within my brain, wanting to know more and more. Now, my specialty area within Yoga Therapy is blood sugar management and intestinal well being.
The Ayurvedic fire is about so much more than heating up the body. In Ayurveda, agni is the fire in your belly. Agni makes your engine run. Traditionally, agni is considered the force for proper digestion, but agni contributes to much more than processing of food.
“If agni is low, toxic substances called ama are produced,” explains Judith Morrison in “The Book of Ayurveda.” “Disturbances of agni and the production of ama are internal causes of disease.”
Both Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors frequently examine the tongue to look for signs of ama.
Chase Bossart is co director of Yoga as Therapy North America. At the most recent International Association of Yoga Therapists conference that I attended, he said type 2 diabetics need to work on their digestive fire. The seat of agni is the belly, but special attention needs to be paid to the liver, too.
Bossart talks about yoga therapy as “a wide range of disciplines to help the body and mind get in sync and therefore enjoy optimal mental and physical well being.” He explains that yoga therapy can train people to alter their lifestyles to help them with specific issues, and at the same time, help them to have a healthier mind/body/soul for the longer term.
That pretty much sums up my approach to yoga therapy, in particular for balancing agni. A high proportion of diabetics are kapha (earth and water), prone to sluggishness and putting on extra weight, both of which only exacerbate diabetes.
Dr. David Frawley, author of several yoga therapy books, says that the kapha increases in the stomach, primarily due to low pancreas function. Both long term and juvenile onset diabetes involve thirst and wasting away of tissues, however, which are then classified as a vata disease. “In diabetes mellitus, the vata accumulates in the large intestine and travels to the pancreas, deranging the pancreas function.”
The principles of Ayurveda are about balancing your natural constitution, and the doshas are always shifting, from morning to afternoon, from childhood to adulthood, from spring to summer.
Dr. Frawley has a number of herbs he recommends to balance the blood sugar, depending on one’s dosha (vata/pitta/kapha). For kapha types, or especially in the winter, for example, I recommend black pepper, ginger, curry, cayenne, and other spices that are classified as pungent. For breakfasts on a cool morning, I make myself “golden milk,” by heating up coconut milk with turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.
Adding spices to food is very simple to do. But, other lifestyle changes may be more challenging.
Bossart says, “You are a passenger in your body. You have to make changes to your habits which is a new link to influence your system in a different way. Experience is the currency of yoga. A lot of us aren’t aware of what we are doing.” He explains that habits tend to be unconscious. We may have “go-tos for stress relief, like a box of cookies or bag of popcorn.” While at first it may be difficult, the more you resist and switch to a different “go-to” such as walking the dogs or weeding or breathing exercises habits can be changed the same way the are formed. With practice.
When I was a student, I felt that I needed to munch while I was studying. Today, I often feel the same way when I’m writing or reading. To change that habit, I now try to do a lot of my reading or writing at the library or other places where I won’t have access to unlimited food. Reading a book on the beach — or even your backyard, or working on your laptop in the park, are examples of how you can turn around the habit into something even more rewarding. See it as a perk, rather than a punishment.
Dr. Frawley also links the emotional with the physical and points out how diabetics need to find contentment in their lives. Bossart agrees that diabetics need to change negative thinking to positive. “Experience is the currency of yoga.”
Find the fun in exploring new foods, spices and activities to keep you healthy. Find new habits to keep your fire burning.
For private or group yoga therapy workshops to manage or reduce blood sugar, digestive issues or regulating agni, call 210-381-1846.