It's always great to hear about cool new diabetes programs across the globe, and since September is National Yoga Month (seriously, it is!), we thought
it was a perfect time to tell you all about a new yoga diabetes
retreat overseas -- especially since we hear yoga definitely does help PWDs (just ask Joslin Diabetes Center).
Some background: we shared the story of fellow type 1 Deb Snow in February 2014, about how she'd started a "film academy" of sorts for teens with diabetes. Deb marked her 20-year anniversary with diabetes earlier this year, and just a couple months after that she formed a diabetes yoga retreat for teens. Now, she's just launched a haven for yoga for PWDs (people with diabetes) in Bulgaria, believe it or not!
One of Deb's relatives by marriage, Anastasia (Nastia) Maciver, traveled there to take part in the weeklong inaugural retreat at this new center in July. Although Nastia does not have diabetes herself, she's had a firsthand glimpse of type 1 for most of her life as a "Type Awesome" of Deb -- she is a half sister of one of Deb's daughters, and she says this yoga center offers a one-of-a-kind experience about how yoga benefits people with diabetes.
A Guest Post by Nastia Maciver
In the heart of rural Bulgaria, in the sleepy town of Gorna Lipnitsa, lies a yoga retreat full of support and healing. Lovingly named The Yoga Barn, this small yet picturesque former smallholding (small farm) aims to extend the hand of peer support to people with diabetes, whilst also providing refreshing yoga sessions for the well-being of the body and the mind.
The inspirational founder of this retreat is Deb Snow, a mum of four from Maidenhead, UK, who has had type 1 diabetes since May 1995. Deb happens to have a vacation house in Bulgaria and loves the country, thus she decided to launch this self-funded yoga center there, which opened with an inaugural weeklong program from July 17 to 24.
Watch this video to get a sense of what The Yoga Barn offers to those willing and able to travel to Bulgaria for a transformative experience. The retreat includes yoga twice a day, sharing healthy foods in a communal atmosphere, tours of the nearby countryside, and overall, a peaceful getaway from the hectic pace of most of our current lives. Beginners to some advanced yogis are welcome.
Deb has been extensively active campaigning for awareness and support of people with diabetes over the years, having developed the charity Action Media, the motto of which is 'using the media for social change.' True to their motto, through the charity a Big Lottery-funded filmmaking project was made into reality.
Deb first discovered the ancient practice of yoga while looking for a regular exercise regime. She found that it was the perfect form of exercise through which she could strengthen her body, keep a peaceful mental state, and have the freedom to pause and check her blood sugar.
Therefore it is no surprise that she's decided to take the wheel and offer yoga to others as an inventive and alternative way of gaining support in managing the condition. Having drawn attention to the lack of understanding and support for diabetes in daily life through her filmmaking project, in which teens spoke of teachers confiscating their glucose meters in the belief that they were mobile phones, and the tough stigma attached to injecting in public places such as schools, it is clear that peer support for not only diabetes but also other afflictions is needed but lacking.
At The Yoga Barn, peer support is of vital importance. Individuals with not only diabetes, but also any other conditions and in requirement of support are always welcome. It is a place in which everyone can discuss their conditions in non-clinical environments and share experiences. In terms of diabetes, for example, the people attending were reminded by each other to check their sugars and look after themselves. In addition, it became easier to analyze the effects of certain foods and exercise on their sugar levels, making them more manageable. This care from others towards them reminded them of the importance of proper self-monitoring through keeping their mind well to look after their body. Inarguably, mental wellness is crucial in cultivating a love for oneself and providing motivation for an individual to take care of themselves.
What Yoga Can Do for You
Yoga has been proven to have real benefits for the mind. A study into the cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga found it reduces cortisol levels to bring about relief in depression. The focus on controlled breathing and silent, relaxed and reflective meditation means that one can learn to calm themselves and think rationally, assessing their worries one by one and 'meditating on them'; while meditating and acknowledging a problem or a worry, the mind goes through many possible solutions and eventually an effective solution or conclusion is found.
Those who attended the inaugural retreat at The Yoga Barn found that they experienced these positive changes and aspire to continue with yoga, providing them with a long term way of expelling stress and keeping their mind well and wanting to take care of their bodies.
Yoga can help immensely by teaching to control mental stress, which is particularly beneficial to those with diabetes, as blood sugar levels can rise as a result of stress. The focus on controlled breathing and the stillness of meditation in addition to the muscle-stretching postures elicit a relaxation response in the body. This helps regulate cortisol and stress hormones, increasing blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
As well as the immense mental benefits of yoga, there is also a plethora of physical benefits. In particular for diabetes, yoga poses that stretch the pancreas can stimulate the production of insulin-producing beta cells in the body. Moreover, the stretching and strengthening of muscles increases glucose uptake by muscular cells and helps lower blood sugar levels. And it's not just for diabetes: a study found that a group of individuals with asthma practicing yoga had improved proportions of hemoglobin and lower total leukocyte counts than the control group not practicing yoga.
One individual who stayed at The Yoga Barn arrived with stiff and painful hips, knees, back and shoulders as a result of hyper-mobility. She found that doing yoga regularly meant that she was consistent in stretching and opening all parts of her body, leaving her with next to no stiffness in her joints and also no pain, as the positions of yoga never force one to overstretch past their limits.
Pleasant Staff and Schedule
A word must be said for our yoga teacher Claire, who brought the energy and fun needed to bring a group of people not used to the early starts and doing exercise. She is sensitive and understanding of the health of those who attend the retreat and patiently tailors her sessions so that anyone that needs to can pause and check their sugars, or just take a needed break. She consistently asks how everyone is feeling that day, and whether there are any particular areas of the body in pain or in need of attention. Being vegan, she keeps us topped up on new, interesting snacks and recipes. Not only does she offer Thai massage, she also runs optional circuit training classes and optional classes in learning Thai massage.
At The Yoga Barn, the days are structured so that guests can receive as much time and aid to cultivate their mental and physical wellbeing as possible, with the utmost sensitivity to conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Our day began at 7 am, as bleary-eyed yogis roll out of bed to the sound of our enthusiastic yoga teacher ringing an authentic cow bell in lieu of a morning alarm. The yoga sessions are held in a beautiful rustic barn, spacious enough for everyone who joins in, and they run for an hour until 8 am. Then a half-hour meditation session ends at 8.30 am.
Breakfast is cooked by Evgenya, a neighbor who provides traditional Bulgarian home-cooked breakfasts and dinners. Three volunteers from our group would traverse a beautiful field to pick up the food from Evgenya's house whilst taking in the lush green hillsides overlooking the village.
During the day, everyone is free to make full use of the area and facilities available, including the booking of massages administered by Claire and the optional 1pm circuit training classes she runs. Guests can choose to relax and tan in the fields or in the pool, read in plentiful brightly coloured hammocks, or take walks into the quiet but charming town.
A second yoga class commences at 6 pm, running for an hour until 7 pm. However, sometimes this class can be swapped for a candlelit yoga class at 9.30 pm, in which the yoga mats are arranged in a circle and as well as the usual hour of yoga in a serene, almost magical atmosphere, the group may choose to practice different yoga chants for some time. Alternately, laughter yoga can be practiced; this is immense fun and extremely good for releasing any pent up frustration, simply laughing together for extended periods of time.
At 7 pm, dinner is picked up from Evgenya and everyone sits down to some traditional Bulgarian cuisine, after which everyone socializes and usually has a drink. One of the more authentic delicacies of the Bulgarian culture is Rakia, a type of Bulgarian home-brewed moonshine; this is popular with the guests particularly in toasts and sometimes even to mix with tea.
Come See Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a fascinating place to visit, and the perfect setting to practice yoga. The simple and the natural are prevalent in the town of Gorna Lipnitsa, in which one can meet the generous and friendly locals and neighbors. From the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria also comes with a vibrant history waiting to be explored. Trips can be arranged to towns such as Veliko Tarnovo, in which the infusion of old culture and new shops can be seen, and one can admire the beautiful architecture of the buildings.
Not only is a trip to Bulgaria a brilliant cultural experience, but to stay at the yoga retreat would be to simultaneously improve the inner and outer health of the body through a relatively simple and enjoyable practice. Deb Snow's aim in creating The Yoga Barn is to provide peer support to guests with diabetes and other conditions, to encourage them to develop tools to maintain health and happiness in their lives, while also remaining restful and relaxed in a beautiful and simple environment where none of the stressors of daily life can interfere.
Next year's Yoga Barn retreat is scheduled for July 23-29, 2016, and the cost is 350 pounds ($534), not including travel.
Thanks for giving us an inside look at the yoga retreat, Nastia! Great stuff happening over there and we hope to see that expand to the States someday.