Let me paint a picture for you of how I begin my day.
5 a.m.: iPhone alarm goes off next to my head, on my nightstand. I automatically grab it in my sleep; at this point in my life, it’s pure muscle memory. I would immediately snooze it if not for the alarm note I set the night before. Coffee. Shave legs. My brain recognizes that I won’t have time to snooze, but I set the phone down anyway, confused in my sleepy state.
5:05am: Three reminders beep on the phone: Coffee. Shave legs. Wear leggings today.
5:10am: Alarm clock #2 starts its wakeup routine. It’s a sunlight/birdsong clock. I slap it to snooze without thinking.
5:15am: Second set of reminders, the same three. Coffee. Shave legs. Wear leggings today. At this point, my brain has caught up to the fact that, oh yeah, I need to focus on getting up, moving around, having coffee before my workout. My workout! Right. I’m at the gym at 6am this morning. What day is it? Why am I wearing leggings? What’s going on?
5:20am: Third alarm, another on the phone, goes off. Alarm note: Get up now. Focus.
5:30am: Have had one cup of coffee by now. Brain is starting to clear a little, the pieces starting to move toward each other, but it’s still largely a jumble. I check my email, check my calendar, check my agenda for the day, check the weather. I begin the process of learning about what my day will be. I’ll have to reinforce it several more times before I can start a game plan to tackle everything, but it’s a start.
5:35am: Third set of reminders. Shave legs. Wear leggings today. Take check for Jen. At this point, I can remember why I set reminders for each of these things, but my attention is still fragmented by checking in with the internet.
5:40am: Fourth alarm. You have to move now. Put down the iPad. Oh, right. Because I won’t get to the gym on time unless I start getting dressed right now.
5:41-5:50am: Whirl around apartment, starting and stopping the process of getting dressed five times, distracted by more coffee, shaving my legs, getting that check written, and a million random thoughts:
Hi, kitties! Should I let the dogs out? Morning, goldfish! Want some food? Oh wait, no, I gotta go. Leggings, right? I wonder if those shorts would look good with this shirt? Wait, no, leggings. I say aloud, “No, you’re getting dressed now,” at least ten times to keep myself on track.
5:50am: Final cascade of reminders, this time about the contents of my gym bag. Keys, wallet, phone. Wraps, grips, shoes. Check for Jen. Water bottle. BCAAs. Are you wearing leggings? I learned a while back that each reminder has to be separate, each thought and action individual, or it won’t take.
5:51am: Out the door. On time, but cutting it close: I missed my goal of leaving two minutes early. Being constantly three to five minutes late for absolutely everything in life since forever is something I’ve been desperately working to correct this past year, as owning a small business serving clients makes it completely unacceptable.
I thank every deity out there for the invention of the smartphone—a tiny, immediately accessible, portable thing that performs the executive functions with which my brain has so much trouble. Were it not for smartphones and cloud syncing: my apartment, car, office and everything in between would be a snowstorm of post-its.
Sometimes I look back through my reminders—they are hilarious: 3pm Wednesday: You can eat now. 3:30pm Did you eat? Because I know myself well, know that the first reminder probably didn’t take, or that I got distracted by something in the middle of making food.
Other times when I get back to my apartment after several hours away, I walk around finding items seemingly out of place, and am convinced there is an intruder hiding somewhere. My slippers on my bed, the drain stopper of my sink pulled up, two half-drunk cans of sparkling water sitting next to each other on the kitchen counter.
The first couple of times this happened, I walked around with a knife, yanking back the shower curtain with a shriek, opening and closing the wardrobe doors, checking under the bed (I watch way too many crime shows). Nobody lurking, except my ADD. The items aren’t out of place. My brain just didn’t register leaving them there, because it got distracted by something in the middle of doing it, and never made a memory.
It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t just lazy or unmotivated and that there was something actually amiss in my brain.
High school, and then college, were one constant, ever-increasing struggle to simply stay on task for more than five minutes. I still did well in school, but it was like dragging myself through a molasses-filled minefield. Every assignment was completed within two minutes of the deadline—every test was crammed for the night before. I flat-out forgot about exams and assignments (the iPhone had not yet been invented; anything less automatic and immediate was ineffective) and became adept at coming up with elaborate yet believable, well-delivered lies for why I’d missed them, earning myself make-ups left and right.
My early 20s, after graduating, became a mess of unpaid bills, unmet goals, unfulfilled potential.
I knew this was no way to live, and was constantly frustrated by my inability to change. I probably tried 50 different organizational methods over the years—none of them took. None made a dent.
By the time I was 25, I could solidly describe to others what my brain felt like: a stained glass window that had been shattered, all the pieces moving outward in slow motion like the expansion of the universe. I had discovered that having music or a TV show in the background while trying to concentrate helped snap these pieces together—silence made them fly apart again.
One particular day, totally by accident, I discovered that Sudafed made the pieces not only snap together perfectly, but get brighter and more colorful, vibrating with energy, and under its influence my work output increased by an order of magnitude in both volume and quality.
Somehow, I still didn’t realize that I had ADD, or some sort of executive function disorder. Yup: the fact that ingesting what is basically baby Adderall skyrocketed my mental clarity didn’t clue me in. I just thought, Wow, I am superhuman when I take this stuff, I am the very best version of what I always hoped I could be. How funny.
Maybe you’re thinking that this is going to descend into dark, pill-popping, after-school-special territory. Nah. Pill-popping, or altered states of any kind, have never really been my bag.
Plus, it’s not like I could remember to take the Sudafed when I really needed to concentrate in the first place. I just noted that it worked to help me focus, and wrote it off as an interesting side effect.
Then, one day, I mentioned to a coworker that Sudafed had such a profound effect on my attention span and productivity. He had been diagnosed with ADHD at age 10 and had been on various medications for nearly 20 years. He gave me an odd look, like he wondered whether or not I was joking, and then said bluntly, “Yeah, that’s called having ADD.”
“No, no”, I replied. “I mean, I’m 25. They’d would have caught it by now. And besides, it’s not that it’s impossible to focus, it’s just that it’s hard to snap the pieces into place long enough.” I described my stained-glass window.
He laughed. “Yeah. That’s called having ADD.”
I talked to other people with ADD, telling them how my brain felt, asking them if that’s how their brain felt, too. The general consensus: “That is exactly what it feels like. Yes.” Other people added color, texture, detail, and variation to the stained glass window analogy with their own experiences, expanding the effect of ADD to aspects of life that I hadn’t even considered.
At first, I was relieved to realize that my problems were possibly diagnosable, possibly fixable.
This relief lasted for about a day, before it crossed my mind that the primary way it was “fixable” was a lifetime of medication. It’s a funny thing, the resistance to medication. I can’t really put my finger on why I don’t want to, it seems the obvious thing to do. There’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that medication would sort out and it would probably improve my life. And yet, whenever I think about it, something hollow and sick-feeling, panicky, forms in my gut I just can’t.
I have no judgment, I actually feel a little envy of those who do decide to medicate. It seems like an easy way out, but it’s actually the harder path, to acknowledge that you need something to fix you—that your power and determination is just not enough.
At age 25, when I stumbled upon the fact that I wasn’t just a lazy mess and probably had some form of ADD-like thing going on, was, by no coincidence, the time yoga went from a hobby to a passion and future career.
Because I decided that yoga would be my medication, that I could conquer my brain with enough asana. I realized that it made my brain feel better, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Nor did it escape my attention that, since I’d started a yoga practice in college, I had gravitated toward hot yoga as my style of choice, a hot yoga with a specific, repeated sequence. I realized that the heat and ritualistic repetition of the asana series were focusing elements. They were my background noise, my Sudafed, during the largely silent yoga practice.
No wonder I got furious when the room wasn’t hot enough—no wonder I resented the teachers if they improvised and went off-series.
In yoga teacher training, I nearly had a panic attack during our first seated meditation sessions.
The room fell into silence, everyone just breathing, emptying and focusing and all that, I was sitting there feeling my brain fly to pieces: no sounds, no music, no talking, no heat, no asana—no nothing to glue it back in place. It was like falling off the edge of the world, floating out in space. I couldn’t do it—so I worked on a spy novel in my head instead.
After two weeks of seated meditation sessions (and yes, I’m ashamed it took me that long to sack up and try), I stopped giving in to tell myself stories and making lists, I just made myself sit in panic.
Another week and I was used to the silence, the panic was still there, but dull.
In the very last days of teacher training, I achieved, for all of five seconds, actual mind-emptying, an actual meditative state. I fell out of it like having a hypnagogic jerk, gasped, and stared at myself in the mirror, eyes wide, while everyone else remained peaceful around me. I felt like I’d stood on the moon. The feeling of mental stillness was so foreign that it scared me. And yet: my brain was whole.
Everything was clear, for those few seconds.
To some extent, every asana and meditation practice since then has been in pursuit of those five seconds of clarity and stillness. Progress has been slow, but the very pursuit of it has been like building a muscle–and over time, things in my life started falling into place because I was suddenly able to get stuff done.
And then came the iPhone, and Siri, and the cloud, and the ease of simply setting reminders for absolutely everything, and my life started running like a well-oiled machine. I had discovered the recipe for mind-glue, the better alternative to Adderall: yoga and a smartphone.
It was working. I was doing it without medication after all.
But really: Was I?
I seemed to backslide a little about a year ago, so I took up a second physical practice, one that also flexes the focus and mind-emptying muscles and things started improving. This is how it is: I keep adding focusing elements, like lenses in a telescope, knowing that, at some point, I will run out of time and space in my life.
If the only way I can function is with unmissable yoga, meditation and ritualistic exercise—and the constant dinging of my phone to keep me on track—am I really overcoming anything at all? Sure, I’m surviving, but am I thriving?
Lately, I’ve been noticing that things are getting worse. Reminders will ding, and I won’t remember why I set them in the first place. I can’t parse my own language. I need double and triple reminders. I am almost unbearably inflexible to change, or disruptions in the routine. It’s like getting contact lenses, and then after a year of wear, your prescription goes way up. Your eyes, not having to flex, relax against the crutches.
What if the crutches are just making everything worse?
Yoga is not a crutch, though—yoga is a vitamin. A daily ritual that prepares my mind and body to perform to their full potential.
But what if it isn’t enough?
At what point does yoga lose its effectiveness against a brain that isn’t working correctly in the first place?
I have no conclusions. This is really more of a thought experiment, an open discussion. I still don’t think I’m at the point where any “shoulds” are clear: I should get diagnosed, I should go on medication, I should work on memory and focus outside of the convenience and automation of technology.
I don’t know if any of those things are true. I don’t know what I should do. All I know is what works, for now.
My life has taken on the resemblance of success. Yoga is a huge part of that, it’s the primary ingredient in the mind-glue that holds the pieces together. I think that’s pretty much all I can ask for, until the glue no longer sticks, then medication may become the next thing to toss into the recipe.
I hope, when the time comes, I’ll be ready to take that step.
Until then, the cues I always use when teaching yoga—find your focus, find your stillness, there is nothing but this pose, there is nothing but you on your mat in this moment—are as much for me as for my students. Because I know myself. If I don’t flex that muscle, if I don’t remind myself constantly, the focus will drift away, and I will drift away with it.
This article has been adapted from the original which can be found here.
Meghan McCracken is a yoga instructor focusing on specialized yoga training for beginners and athletes with her company Greenhouse Yoga Austin, in Austin, TX. A weightlifter and EMT, she practices and teaches with the goal of bringing openness and fluidity to musclebound physiques.
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Assistant Ed: Judith Andersson/Ed: Bryonie Wise