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Yoga and Breathwork May Improve Focus in Kids With ADHD

Young children practice breathwork in yoga class.

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Key Takeaways

  • Positive impacts on executive abilities were reported both immediately and at 6 months after 16 children with ADHD engaged in body-oriented therapy at the age of 6–7.
  • Yoga and breathing activities were found to be more effective than conventional motor exercises at improving executive functioning from a young age for children with ADHD.

Many can relate to the struggle of maintaining focus, but ADHD can make that particularly challenging. A recently published pilot study in Biological Psychiatry has demonstrated that body-oriented therapy has benefits for executive functioning in children aged 6–7 years old with ADHD even 6 months after the intervention of yoga and breathing practices.

Given the many positive impacts of engaging in yoga and breathwork, this research bodes well for embracing the practice given how a more clear and focused mind may serve you well under any circumstances.

In addition to stress management, yoga has also been helpful to address such mental health concerns as depression and eating disorders, so it is no wonder that this study highlights its benefits for ADHD in children.

Breaking Down this Pilot Study

In Russia, through the course of a randomized controlled pilot study, 16 children with ADHD, aged 6–7, were assigned to two treatment groups, i.e. body-oriented therapy and conventional motor exercises.

In addition to the short-term benefits of yoga and breathing techniques for these children with ADHD, they also demonstrated long-term positive impacts when assessed 6 months following the body-oriented therapy.

While these findings may be promising, this was only a pilot study with a very small sample size, so more research is recommended to assess the long-term benefits of yoga and breathing techniques on improving executive abilities among children with ADHD.

Gendered Assumptions Have Diagnostic Consequences

New York-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, says, "When someone with ADHD is stressed, their symptoms can be exaggerated, leading to harmful consequences such as fatigue and hypertension. The takeaway from this study is that coherent breathing, or breathing exercises, has been proven to help individuals become less stressed, more relaxed, and attentive."

Hafeez adds that focusing on breathing "allows people with ADHD to slow their minds and improve concentration."

In terms of research, Hafeez highlights that most ADHD studies have been conducted on men due to the false belief that ADHD mostly affects them, which has resulted in the underdiagnosis of ADHD in marginalized genders.

Hafeez explains, "ADHD also presents differently in women and men in a multitude of ways. Women usually internalize symptoms and are more prone to low self-esteem, trouble focusing, verbal aggression, forgetfulness, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, and stress, among other symptoms. Males, however, usually exhibit externalized symptoms, including impulsivity, physical aggression, trouble multitasking, issues with focusing on a task, and poor planning, to name a few."

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Women usually internalize symptoms and are more prone to low self-esteem, trouble focusing, verbal aggression, forgetfulness, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, and stress, among other symptoms.

— Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Family Support Can Be Instrumental

Johns Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director of Community Psychiatry, Leela R. Magavi, MD, says, "Many of the children I evaluate in clinic enjoy partaking in meditation with their parents. Regardless of whether the technique is correct, this time spent with family is invaluable and helps children release stress and anger related to the uncertainty of this year."

Magavi stresses the importance of family support. "Some children may fare better with body-oriented techniques based on familial and peer support," she says. "If family members and friends tease children or portray that they do not believe in the power of yoga or breathwork, children may be less likely to believe in the method and partake in it. Some of the children I evaluate reflexively start meditating every time they feel angry, sad, or nervous because this is what we practice in session."

With executive functioning challenges that come with ADHD, Magavi highlights how children are often unable to follow step-by-step directions, properly engage in dialogue, or complete pivotal tasks. Magavi cautions that this could lead to depressive and anxiety symptoms as well as low self-esteem over time, which is why more research like this study is needed.

Magavi adds that meditation can decrease familial stress and improve relationships. She advises parents to meditate with their children every day. For younger kids such as toddlers and preschool-age kids, she recommends having them envision a big balloon that they hope to create.

"I ask them to breathe in slowly and deeply to ensure the balloon will be big, and then breathe out very slowly, so the balloon does not pop. When they are upset, I ask them to make a balloon," Magavi says. "At home, their parents do the same thing, and consequently, meditation becomes their fun and familiar coping skill. Elementary, middle, and high school children can learn various forms of diaphragmatic and alternative breathing, and I teach them disparate breathing exercises during sessions."

What This Means For You

As demonstrated by this research, yoga and breathing exercises can have a long-term positive impact on executive abilities for children. These techniques can also be beneficial for a range of other challenges. More research that include marginalized genders and assess for the efficacy of holistic treatments for ADHD in young children are needed.

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  1. Kiselev S. Long-term effect of body-oriented therapy on executive abilities in children with ADHDBiol Psychiatry. 2020;87(9):S303. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2020.02.780