Passion: Teaching the benefits of yoga for managing ADHD symptoms


Emily Mariola and her family have many passionate pursuits, which include: owning small businesses and restaurants, modifying and maintaining cars and trucks, playing sports and musical instruments, and several other niches. It is easy to see that pursuing passions runs in the Moorefield-Mariola genes. Two of Emily’s passions are owning her own pottery business and yoga studios. 

Within this conversation, Emily tells us her story of discovering her love for yoga, and eventually, her deeper purpose for teaching others the practices of yoga. From the outside, it would be easy to think that Emily has always just had this deep and thoughtful understanding of yoga and the benefits that it provides. On the contrary, Emily tells us about her progression from seeing yoga as simply a physical exercise, to investing herself into learning more and more about, “why yoga works.” Much of this is a direct result of seeing a close family member struggling to deal with the symptoms of ADHD, and her own diagnoses of ADHD and ODD. With this pain of experiencing and witnessing people suffer with the symptoms of these disorders, Emily has been driven to learn the deeper connections between yoga and the human mind.

As I talked with Emily, I could sense her energy and commitment to opening the eyes of those who are prone to write off bad behaviors as simply poor decision-making. Emily knows the pain that people and families can feel when they perceive ADHD to be permanently limiting and hopeless. She believes that lives could be changed for the better if consistent negative behavior was addressed as a call for help, instead of a demand for condemnation. By addressing these red flags, people could be freed from a life of pain and social misunderstanding. 

In this conversation, you will hear from a strong, compassionate, influential, motivated, and successful business owner who won’t stop at merely enjoying the fruits of her labor. Emily wants her businesses to not just be successful for her own good, but to also add value to her students’ lives and help them to be healthier, happier, and more engaged in their own lives and relationships.  

“When I started practicing yoga as a student, about 12 or 13 years ago, I did it mostly because it felt good... Especially as a longtime athlete throughout high school and college, and beyond. After I got married and had kids, I was doing some distance running to maintain a sense of stability emotionally and physically. It was a pattern that I had known would work. I didn’t know why, but it just worked for me. However, my body didn’t feel the same after having kids, and I didn’t understand what was going on. I started to go to yoga, bringing some pretty serious back pain with me. I didn’t really have an intellectual approach to yoga, I just kept going because it made me feel better. That was just how I had always thought about physical exercise… I knew it worked, even though I didn’t really know how or why it worked.”

“Then, when I started to do Yoga teacher training and even leading those trainings, I began to really dig into why these things work. Meditation, pranayama, breathwork, patterns of movement, etc. I started to discover why some things (like hot power yoga) are effective for some and not for others. 

When you start learning from a physiological perspective or a neurological perspective, all of a sudden, you start to understand yourself a little bit better. 

I really began to think about yoga differently. Not only how it affected my own life, but also how it affected my students. I could see that certain practices didn’t fit some students very well, or that mornings didn’t fit this person well, so maybe we should try evenings. Sometimes, we are all in a relaxation pose, and I can see people who just cannot be still. They physically cannot be still. I look at them and realize that they don’t even notice that they can’t be still. That’s when you start to understand that the practice itself has all of these tools built into it to help you slow down, focus, and work on your thought processes. The student may or may not understand how all of those things work, but as a yoga teacher, I felt the responsibility to figure some of that stuff out. So I could help my students in a different way.”

“Personally, I have had experiences in my family with depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and just people who were acting desperate. In one particular case of someone acting out in an extremely negative manner, it turned out that there was a diagnosis of a pretty severe case of ADHD, which was the driver of all of that behavior. In this person, there was a cycle of making mistakes, getting into worse situations, and then making more mistakes. It was just a terrible spiral. This diagnosis was specifically related to high-risk, high-impulse behavior. They were just responding the way their brain was built to respond to stress and stimulus. 

It’s not an excuse, it’s not a, ‘You need to let me behave this way because I have ADHD.’ But, if there is a stimulus and the response is not appropriate, or a mistake gets repeated over and over again… then maybe we can look at that and say, ‘Why is this happening? What is it that cannot be managed to change this behavior?’”

As we learned what types of strategies are taught to those with ADHD diagnoses, I discovered that a lot of the same tools exist within the yoga practice itself. There’s actually a professor at Harvard, his name is Dr. John Ratey, and he’s doing a lot of work on the relationship between exercise and ADHD. There are neurological patterns in the brain, and there are chemicals released when you exercise and when you sleep. All of these things start to interact with each other when you line them up.”

“When you talk about attention in ADHD.. it’s not an inability to focus. It’s an inability to direct your focus. It’s really hard for some people to manage their focus. One of the things that happens is you have these constant starts and stops with your brain. New information arrives, and you must choose to either absorb and consider it, or you can choose to just let it go on by. Some people are better at eliminating all of the extraneous distractions than other people. There’s an emotional component and an intellectual component to each of these distractions.

A lot of times with people who have ADHD, they process two seconds of this and then two seconds of that. They never really gain any ground in one particular path.”

“Imagine your brain is a train and you are going down the tracks. The external stimulus is, ‘What if I did X?’ comes into your mind. Someone without ADHD can immediately get back on track, because they’ll say, ‘No, that won’t work because of...’ Then, they go two miles further and they get another, ‘What if I…” and they counter with, ‘Nope, that doesn’t work because I already know...’ 

Most people with ADHD tend to get a unique or creative thought and just say, ‘I’ll do it.’ Then, another thought comes along, and they say, ‘I’ll do that too!” And on and on and on it goes. So there’s just no brakes on the train. It can be really hard to be around those people, because they don’t prevent themselves from going down any sidetracks, but they also don’t always have a strategy, reason, or purpose for doing those things. 

My brain-type struggles to think about consequences. Some people look at me and think, ‘You are so unafraid, you started that business, you bought that building, etc.’ But when I look at it now, I realized that I wanted to start a yoga studio, while I had four kids at home, and one of them was 6 months old. It wasn’t necessarily bravery… it was more of a, ‘Let’s just try it out!’ There wasn’t a healthy doubt or process of reasoning with it. 

And now that I know this, it is so helpful, because I do need to consider what could actually happen. I have other people in my life that count on me to make good decisions. My husband struggled to understand me with these huge decisions when we started pursuing these things. Now, it is so helpful because Mike can advise me in ways that complement my strengths and weaknesses.”

“Built within the yoga practice are things like concentration and fixing your gaze. If you can do this, it eliminates the fluctuations in your brain. It begins to ignore more of the extraneous information. It’s not super simple, because some people with ADHD have a brain that sees a lack of input and it begins to then create its own distractions.

But, the next step is to close your eyes, and then you stop the visual input.

If you can slow down your breathing, then you are isolating the emotional input. 

These are all things that I was already doing, and they were working, but I previously didn’t understand the ‘Why.’”

“I’m not a therapist, I’m not a counselor, I’m nothing more than a yoga teacher, but I have now learned that when I have a student on a mat who can’t close their eyes or sit still, or maybe they can’t get moving, I can say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try…’

I now know why the practice works, so I can offer more to my students. 

For years, I was just saying ‘Yoga works. I don’t know why, but it just works. You should come.’ With my own ADHD diagnosis, it is helpful because I know what ADHD does to my brain, so I know which tools work for me to help manage those symptoms.”

“It is really unhelpful when ADHD is treated as a character flaw or a moral flaw, especially in children. Adding a layer of guilt onto a kid who doesn’t currently have the brain development to manage it will cause them to just fall apart. If people were to coach kids through strategies, medication, counseling, etc, then we could actually help them.”

“If you are a parent and you have a kid who is unhappy, misbehaving, depressed, then take them to the pediatrician immediately. Bad behavior is not just a bad kid, it’s probably a response to frustration. Have them talk, see how they feel. Then, that professional can say what solutions are worth trying. There’s a thousand ways to manage behavior, but if you don’t know the root cause, then you just keep punishing the actions. 

Whatever works, let's do that. If essential oils and Adderall work, then do that. If you can use an anxiety medication to get you through a really difficult time and then continue on with therapy and yoga, or long distance running, then do that. Whatever works. Can we keep reconsidering where each of us are and keep adjusting the things we do, so that we can stay on top of it?

“We all benefit if you can assume that bad behavior isn’t ‘Bad Kid’... if you can assume that the behavior you’re seeing is a result of something authentically hurting in that person’s body, mind, soul… they are sad, mad, depressed, etc. There’s a reason for all behavior. When we see something that is unsettling or unhelpful, we should be looking into the questions that we can ask to get to the source of it. I know I’m not specifically trained in that process, but I do know that when I see some behaviors, I have some tools to manage those behaviors, and then that person should also go talk to their therapist, doctor, or parent to address it.”

“I really do believe that within the practice of yoga are tools for managing the most common behavior issues we see in kids today. Some symptoms can subside if we can do a physical practice, manage our breathing, manage fluctuations in our minds, and learn to concentrate. If you are always looking six inches in front of your face at your cell phone, you cannot see the wider picture.”

“You have to be in this yoga room with yourself. And for a lot of people, that’s really hard. You can’t have coffee, you can’t have alcohol, you don’t have your friends, you don’t have your phone.”

“What brings me back every day? It’s what the absence of yoga looks like in me. 

I need my kids to see what it takes for me to keep a healthy mind. And that does mean that I get up, I leave the house, and I do this thing, I teach it. Yeah, it’s inconvenient for them when I’m not there, but it’s also what it takes for me to be the person they need me to be.”

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