Maximum fullness: The yoga of diabetes management

I came to Asheville to kayak the region’s amazing rivers. I came so I could see the mountains from the UNCA library’s steps and look forward to being on them every weekend. I came because, when I found yoga in high school, I realized there were other people as weird as me — and that maybe I wasn't so weird … I was just in the wrong place.

Arriving in Asheville, I’d begun falling in love with contra dancing at Warren Wilson, hiking at Black Balsam, singing at Jubilee and relishing all the art and creativity that make this town, when suddenly I was sick — diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, hospitalized with a blood sugar close to 800 (it's supposed to be around 80), and sent home to Atlanta for Christmas break. (At least I got to skip finals.)

Needless to say, these experiences shook my foundation. And while I still feel loyalty to those old loves, the task of weaving together these different parts of myself comes up repeatedly as I continue my journey from rejection to resentment to acceptance to embracing diabetes in my life. Lately, it’s yoga that’s been occupying my body, brain and soul. Whether I'm practicing at the Asheville Yoga Center, at Asheville Community Yoga or at home, yoga asks me over and over to identify and honor my seedling self, to nurture it as it continually grows and dies and re-seeds. It’s a thread that’s so flexible (pun intended) it harmonizes these voices of my soul into a chorus that sounds better than I (a joyful yet inept singer) ever imagined I could.

More and more, I’m seeing the field of diabetes self-management as a clear calling — I mean, how many signs does a person need? I’m working in the YWCA’s Diabetes Wellness and Prevention program, and my blog is called “Adventurous Living with Diabetes in Mind,”; it’s also guiding my work as a yoga teacher. Suddenly, however, I start wondering how to embrace this cause without letting it consume who I am apart from diabetes. If a cure came tomorrow, how would I recover?

Yoga is teaching me that I choose the kindling in my life for a reason. The stuff that feeds my fire is already integrated: It just takes some patience to recognize those connections. Living with diabetes is itself a form of yoga: not bhakti, based in chanting, nor kundalini, beckoning the energy “serpent” to uncoil (or not in my case anyway), but still an intimate mind/body connection.

In yoga, we talk about letting the heart lead, or putting your mind in your belly and moving from that intuition. In diabetes management, we empathize deeply with the pancreas and liver. We come to know our stress responses, our illnesses and their effects on our body's functioning and vigor. This body wisdom isn’t buried deep within us but is buzzing and accessible as we take over for our organs and glands, executing functions other people don’t have to think about. Translating between intuition and intellect isn’t easy, but using careful calculations and constant practice, we greet and manipulate this energy every day.

My studies toward becoming a certified yoga instructor are already enriching the classes I teach at the YW. But I’ve learned just as much about navigating the territory of my life with greater ease and power. And what more is power good for than getting the maximum fullness we can from this life experience?

I was speaking with a diabetes educator the other day, and she asked if I'd met my diagnosis with resistance and anger. Thinking back over the past seven years, I had to answer yes. I’d been so angry at how diabetes had changed my plans, often struggling with the emotion that cries, “This isn't fair!”

Now I realize that it's OK. Diabetes has brought me to the present moment, connecting me with countless amazing people and experiences along the way. At this point, I could never untangle the positive and negative ramifications in my life. Sometimes I even catch myself being slightly grateful to this calling that had to take hold of my body before I acknowledged it. So I replied, “But it's why I'm here talking to you, and I'm excited about what I’m doing.”

That's not to say that living with Type 1 diabetes isn't harder than I ever imagined, and in ways I would never have guessed. People ask, “Does that hurt?” when they see me take a shot, but when you do it four to seven times a day you accept the pinch.

What hurts more is confronting your own vulnerability and the way the condition requires you to adapt and plan for everything you do, from a single bite of food to a walk with friends to a weekend trip. Diabetes is an undercurrent beneath it all, and the ripple effect means you can’t forget it for even a single moment.

For all the challenges it brings, diabetes leads me toward inspiring individuals who make my life bright. Today I spoke with a yogi who strives for a healthy lifestyle while being a mother, a community volunteer and an unyielding positive force. Like all of us, she deals with challenges in her health, her family, her work; particularly trying is her volunteer work as a companion to aging individuals who are often sick and otherwise alone.

As they struggle with ailments and bodies they may have come to resent, my friend's mantra is, “I am well.” She says it to herself dozens of times a day. And she is well: She embodies well. Her “well” doesn’t look like the woman doing king pigeon on the cover of a yoga magazine, but her face radiates the kind of well that’s contagious — and that is something worth spreading.

Asheville resident Katie Souris is a care counselor in the YWCA’s Diabetes Wellness and Prevention program.

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About Katie Souris
artist, writer, and lover of all things out of doors. Enjoys dancing indoors or out.

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