Yoga is an ancient practice that’s become very popular in the West in recent years, and its supporters say that it has endless health benefits from reducing stress to improving muscle strength and flexibility.
But did you know that yoga may be able to help people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well? Research has found that yoga-based interventions may be able to reduce ADHD symptoms, even for children.
In this article, I’ll explain what yoga is and how it can help you if you live with ADHD. I’ll also take you through a few basic yoga poses you can use to get started.
Benefits of Yoga
Historians say that yoga has been practiced since the dawn of human civilization in some form or another. We usually think of yoga as a series of physical poses to improve strength, balance, and flexibility. But yoga also includes deep mental focus as well as breathing practices. It’s currently the most widely used complementary health practice in the United States.
Yoga was originally practiced in Asia as part of Hindu spirituality and was intended as a practice to gain self-realization and enlightenment. In the modern West, it’s usually practiced secularly with no connection to its spiritual origins. People of all religions and spiritual backgrounds practice yoga today.
But even without a religious component, proponents of yoga say that this practice comes with many benefits. For example, the American Osteopathic Association states that yoga has the following benefits:
- Increased muscle strength and flexibility
- More energy
- A balanced metabolism
- Improved respiration
- Good balance
- Cardiovascular health
- Protection from physical injury
Can Yoga Help with ADHD Symptoms?
One benefit of yoga that we’ve started to explore is its ability to decrease ADHD symptoms. Although we need more research to be able to say for sure, the studies that have been conducted on this topic show promising results.
One small Indian study found that yoga significantly improved symptoms for children with ADHD who were in a psychiatric inpatient unit.
In another study, boys with ADHD were assigned to either a 20-week yoga intervention group or a control group (who participated in cooperative games). The boys in the yoga program improved in several areas including hyperactivity, impulsivity, restlessness, oppositionality, and emotional lability. However, the control group improved in other areas (where the yoga group did not), like social problems.
Younger children can also benefit. One study found that a 6-week yoga intervention was beneficial for a group of preschool-aged kids diagnosed with ADHD.
Studies on yoga for adults with ADHD have had more mixed results. One study measuring the effect of a twice-a-week yoga class for young women with ADHD found that, although yoga didn’t have any adverse effects, it didn’t have any significant benefits for cognition or mood, either.
In short, the research studies that have been conducted on the benefits of yoga for ADHD have not been high-quality enough to definitively determine that yoga can decrease ADHD symptoms. For example, most of them have lacked adequate control groups.
However, there are some promising findings. And since yoga has so many other proven health benefits, it may be worthwhile to enroll your child (or yourself) in a yoga class — as long as it’s not taking the place of prescribed ADHD treatment.
Why Does Yoga Work?
Skeptics may wonder how a yoga intervention could possibly be beneficial for a neurodevelopmental condition like ADHD. Scientific studies have found, however, that yoga (and associated breathing practices) can have a direct effect on brain health.
Some of the avenues in which yoga could affect ADHD symptoms include:
Yoga invites you to pay close, mindful attention to each breath and pose. Since people with ADHD experience difficulty in sustained attention, doing yoga could help them train this “muscle” and practice this skill.
Practicing yoga can also improve self-awareness, especially body awareness. By holding their body in certain poses, people with ADHD can learn to slow down and pay attention to the signals that their body is giving them.
Because of the self-awareness that yoga promotes, it can also help kids with being aware of and regulating their own emotions. Yoga practitioners learn how to use breathing techniques to hold difficult poses. Ideally, they will be able to use the same skills to cope with difficult and painful emotions.
Effects on the brain
Research has shown that yoga may actually directly affect how the brain works. One review summarized that yoga has a positive effect on several areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. This may strengthen the executive functioning skills of people with ADHD.
Beginner Yoga Poses
The best way to practice yoga is with a trained and certified yoga instructor. There are many free and low-cost options for yoga classes both online and in local communities. A yoga instructor can make sure you learn the foundations of the practice and move in a safe way to prevent injury.
However, there are some basic yoga poses for beginners that you (or your child) can use to get a taste of yoga. Remember that none of these poses should be painful or uncomfortable. If you feel pain, stop them right away and talk to your healthcare provider.
Forward fold, or uttasana, can be a great yoga pose for adults to start with. It is very simple, and it probably feels at least somewhat familiar to you even if you’ve never practiced yoga before.
To practice forward fold, stand with your feet slightly apart and parallel, pushing into all four corners of both feet. Stand up straight and release your shoulder blades down your back. Elongate your neck. Take a few breaths in and a few breaths out, slowly.
Then, slowly raise your arms above your head as you inhale. As you exhale, release your arms over your head as you bend at your waist and fold your torso over your legs. Keep your knees slightly bent. It doesn’t matter if you can’t reach the floor. Simply let your torso hang over your legs as you slowly straighten your legs. Your hands can rest on your thighs or shins.
Another good pose for adults is child’s pose, or balasana. You can come into this pose to rest or restore your energy.
Get on all fours, with your knees as wide as your hips and your arms as wide as your shoulders. The tops of your feet should lie flat on the floor. Take a deep breath in. As you exhale, bring your hips and buttocks down towards your feet. Either leave your arms stretching straight in front of you (above your head with your hands palms-down on the floor) or bring them around to rest your hands near your feet.
Breathe in and out as many times as you need. This is meant to be a restful, restorative pose. It should feel relaxing.
It can be difficult to engage kids in yoga at first, but there are many online resources that can help make yoga interesting and fun for your child.
One great pose that can be easy for kids to start with is mountain pose, or tadasana. This can promote relaxation and increase focus for your child with ADHD. Explain to your child that they are going to become a mountain. Just like a mountain, winds and storms of difficult emotions can’t budge them. They are rooted and steady.
To get into tadasana, have your child stand with their two feet slightly apart. They should stand tall and proud, with their shoulder blades down their back and their neck long like a swan’s. Their arms should be down at their sides with their palms facing forward.
As your child relaxes into this pose, ask them to pay attention to how their body feels. Guide them to practice breathing in and out — they are a mighty mountain, and no storm can tear them down.
Another yoga pose that children enjoy is cat-cow pose. This is a sequence of calming and easy poses that provide stress relief and eases tension in the back and neck.
Use the analogy of a cat and a cow to guide your child through these poses.
Help them get onto all fours on the ground, with their back lying flat. First, they will stretch like a cat. Tell your child to round their back up towards the ceiling and look down to elongate their neck as they look underneath towards their belly. They can make a meowing or purring sound as they do this.
Next, your child can move into cow pose. They can return to a tabletop position (back flat) from the cat stretch. Then, as they exhale, they will stretch their belly towards the floor as they look up. They can moo and pretend to be a cow as they hold this pose.
Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that is now used as a complementary health intervention for a variety of different conditions. It has many benefits, and research suggests that it could help with ADHD symptoms as well (although we need more research to know for sure). To get started, look up a yoga class online or in your community.