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Yoga Therapy

4 Practices to Calm Your Busy Brain

Adult ADHD symptoms look different from those of wiggly kids. Yoga and mindfulness practices may help improve executive functioning and emotional balance.

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“It’s like a tightness in my chest,” I told my therapist, again and again. “Like anxiety, but for no reason.”

I struggle to relax. I often feel antsy and irritable. I don’t fidget, but I daydream. When I should be completing a task I find boring, I write poems instead. Frustratingly, I rarely finish those either.

My brain is constantly exploring five different paths at once—and it prioritizes each path as important. When shopping for clothes, I consider cut, fabric, comfortability, timeline to landfill, longevity of style, color, ethics of production, personal mood, potential outfits, and on and on until eventually, I exhaust myself to paralysis.

I was 27 years old when a psychiatrist first diagnosed me with adult ADHD. I was surprised. ADHD symptoms in adults look different from those of the stereotypical kid who can’t sit still in her seat.

Around that same time that I was diagnosed—by coincidence or fate—I bought a membership to a yoga studio. And yoga forged new neural pathways in my brain.

Your brain on yoga

Research shows that mindfulness practices have long-term benefits on ADHD brains. Mindfulness can improve executive functioning (the cognitive skills that help us set goals, plan, and get things done), emotional regulation, and working memory. In other words, it can give us more control over our attention and our emotions.

If you have an attention-evasive brain like mine, there are some practices that you might find beneficial for managing symptoms of ADHD.

  • If you’re feeling hyperactive, try meditating after a workout instead of before.  That may make it easier to find stillness when it’s time to shift your mind to sitting.
  • Incorporate meditation into activities like yoga or walking.
  • Observe moments of distraction without judgment or punishment. Everyone gets distracted when meditating. Just turn your attention back to your breath or the object of your meditation.
  • Medication may help. Mindfulness practices became more accessible to me when I found the right anxiety medication. That being said, everyone’s body and mind is different. Do what’s right for you.

Practices for adult ADHD:

1. Reframe sankalpas (convictions)

In yoga, there is a practice called sankalpa. Some teachers might refer to sankalpas as intentions, but I have learned that it is more like convictions.

We state convictions daily, though we’re not always aware. We repeat phrases to ourselves, becoming what we tell ourselves we are. Unfortunately, our convictions aren’t always positive. For those with ADHD, negative convictions could sound like: I’m always distracted. I’m unreliable. I’m an emotional rollercoaster. I can’t get anything done. I’m overwhelmed by the most basic tasks. I’m bored. How is everyone else so much more capable than me?

Note your convictions, then reframe them:  I can do difficult things. I am creative. I make accommodations to better live with ease. I can do everything, just not all at once. I work hard. I turn boring tasks into interesting tasks. I am strong. I am worthy of rest. My best is enough. My emotions will pass.

2. Practice aparigraha (non-attachment) to ideas

My brain concocts an overabundance of ideas each  day. When I attach myself to every idea, I end up overwhelmed and anxious. I cannot realistically carry out every idea or live out every daydream. When I try, I end up with a stack of unfinished projects. This translates to feelings of shame and guilt. Sound familiar?

I developed an exercise to help manage the constant stream of ideas crowding my brain. I imagine every idea as a wild horse. Instead of dropping what I’m doing and climbing onto the horse’s back, I try to observe it from a distance. Note it. Then leave it alone; let it run past. As it disappears, feelings may emerge. I note them. Maybe anxiety bubbles in the chest, fear of losing something great. Maybe despair settles in as I return to the less exciting task at hand. Sometimes I feel freer; a burden lifted. I try to observe whatever emotions arrive and greet them with acceptance. And I know that the best ideas always come back.

Alternatively, keep a notebook beside you when working. Jot down any ideas that you’d like to pursue later. This can help you return to the task at hand without anxiety.

3. Slow the breath to slow the mind

Research shows that specific practices of pranayama, or breathwork, can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This gets us out of flight or fight mode and into rest and digest mode. In rest and digest, we experience less anxiety, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Here are two breathing techniques I love:

  • Make your exhale longer than your inhale. You can try practicing this with ascending breath. Inhale for a count of one, exhale for two, inhale for three, and so on. This is a nice exercise to try when you are winding down for bed or while resting in Savasana.
  • Pause at the top of each inhale and the bottom of each exhale. Your pause can be two seconds or ten, whatever works for you. Try practicing this breath during the work day, even if only for a few minutes. As one of my yoga teachers says, “The space between breaths is the space between thoughts.”

4. Acknowledge your unique gifts

One of the incredible positive traits of people with ADHD is their vast creativity. Honor it and use it. Remember that you and your brain are co-creators of your lived experience.  Your unique brain can be a gift if you accept it with compassion.