Pilates & ADHD: Perfect Medicine for the Brain, Part One

Jay Grimes says that the most important principle of Pilates is “To Move”. I say that this is what makes Pilates the perfect movement modality for my ADHD brain.

While in College in New York City I took my first Mat Pilates class. I had been exposed to Pilates previously during Physical Therapy, but this was different. Picture this: a room full of adults, smiling, giggling, and playing! We rolled like balls, clapped like seals, dove like swans, and stretched like mermaids. It was brilliant!

Before I could blink the class was over and I wanted more. Not once did I look at the clock. I didn’t even think to assess the room for an escape strategy as I typically do in any new classroom situation.

Even more strange and magical than the class itself, is what occurred on the way home. It was dark outside by the time we got out. It was a brisk New York day, the kind where the skin on your nose and your cheeks goes numb to the point that you can’t feel your nose running.

Most walks home with my ADHD brain would go like this:

I would start walking from the New York Sports Club at 91st and 3rd to my apartment at 82nd between 2nd and 3rd. As soon as I got outside, I would see a million things at once: the homeless man on one step, two kids smoking, and two people (a couple maybe?) walking with purpose in their business attire.

My mind would stray in a million directions musing: I wonder where these people were heading? Perhaps happy hour, home, work? Were they rich? How did they know each other? Oops, I just ran into a woman walking her teacup poodle. Pay attention Daniela! Ugh, so embarrassing. “Sorry,” I yelled, trying to drown out the sounds of the city to express my remorse. I was even more embarrassed when I realized I had been following the couple two blocks north on 3rd when I needed to be going south. I will spare you the rest. I think you get the picture. Now one might think that the freezing cold alone would get my booty into gear to get home as fast as I could.

Here’s the thing about living with ADHD:

The ADHD brain connects and communicates differently than neurotypical brains. The distractions of the world and in our head are paralyzing. This prevents us from being able to think and act rationally. Of course I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. However, my ADHD brain cannot rank those desires and rational thoughts higher than all the distractions around me. Distractions and the task at hand play a never ending tug of war in my head.

But on that cool brisk day, after my first real Pilates class, something was distinctively different. I was alert and able to focus on the task at hand, getting home in a reasonable amount of time with minimal distractions. I was aware of everything and everyone around me but it was like white noise, it did not pull my focus from the task at hand. Fascinating!

How could this strange and fun new workout class have such a profound effect on my life? Well, there is a scientific explanation to account for the impact of Pilates on my ADHD brain.

We have two different networks in our brain.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) takes control of things when our brain is at rest (sleeping, daydreaming, sitting on the subway, or as a passenger in a car).

The Task Positive Network (TPN) takes over when there is a specific task at hand such as writing an email, listening to someone speak in a conversation, or learning a new skill.

The Daydream Switch is a “normal” or neurotypical brains’ ability to switch between the two networks. When the TPN is activated, the DMN knows it is time to turn off so that we are able to accomplish the task at hand. When the task is complete the TPN hands it back to the DMN so that our brain can rest and recharge. This Daydream Switch prepares us to get  ready for whatever our next task may be.

What goes wrong in the ADHD brain?

In the ADHD brain, the DMN does not close up shop when the TPN kicks in. The switch between the two does not work as it should. So, when the TPN is energized so that I can complete a specific task, such as getting home in a reasonable amount of time, my DMN is still fully active.

“This competition between DMN and TPN provides a neurological explanation for what those of us who have ADHD feel so often — a persistent, magnetic pull away from the task at hand into distraction.”

How Pilates has helped me

According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association’s recommendations, students who have trouble inhibiting the DMN benefit from:

1. Prompts and cues that consistently redirect their attention.

Which is why it’s fabulous that we do no more than 10 reps in Pilates!

2. Repeating back multi step instructions.

We repeat our teachers’ instructions back to them with our bodies through movement every session!

3. Preparing for transitions.

The classical mat and reformer is all about transition!

4. Allowing for movement.

As Jay Grimes says, the most important principle of Pilates is to…MOVE!

Daniela Caesar-Roden

About Daniela Caesar-Roden

Owner of Old School Pilates in Woodland Hills CA

Daniela Caesar-Roden is a 3rd generation Pilates teacher. She has over 12 years experience teaching movement to people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life. She was a hyperactive child with learning “disabilities”, who couldn’t sit still. Her escape became movement. Through a number of injuries and illnesses she learned that above all else, movement heals. Pilates has given Daniela a platform to share her love of movement with others day in and day out. Every day she is reminded how to move with awareness, control, and ease. She is a life-long student of the Pilates method. She received her mat certification from Equinox and Lesley Logan and then went on to complete her comprehensive certification under 2nd generation teacher, Ana Caban who studied from Romana Kryzanowska. Over the years, she has continued her studies with Pilates Elders Jay Grimes of Vintage Pilates, Lolita San Miguel, and Sonjé Mayo as well as many 2nd generation teachers including Alisa Wyatt, Zoë Hagler and Sandy Shiamoda. Daniela takes weekly lessons from 2nd generation teachers Trish Garland, and Niedra Gabriel. In addition to her Pilates training, Daniela holds a BS in Kinesiology with a focus in dance pedagogy. She is also a 500hr Certified Yoga Teacher and a Level I Reiki Practitioner. IG: @old.school.pilates