Written by Allegra Johnson, Secondary Education Coordinator + CYT 200 + 95 CYT
“Brain breaks are for the present and they are for our current ease and bliss.” ~ Allegra Johnson
Work Hard. Play Hard.
For a long time, this saying embodied and encompassed the way I lived my life. I believed that we must work hard in order to earn the permission to play hard. I was taught that if we weren’t living this way, our life was flat, dull, or not living up to its potential.
Perhaps the saying has never touched you or crossed your mind, but its essence, I believe, has influenced all of us in one way or another. What “work hard, play hard” assumes is that our brains and our will can always push harder, farther. We can work more and enjoy things better. But is that really true?
There is an importance in acknowledging the influence our own experiences have on our beliefs with work and play. Sayings, conversations, values, and other’s beliefs all have the ability to make one’s worth feel tied to production; I think we pass this idea on to our brains as well.
We feel different, exhausted, depleted, and ‘less than’ when our brain fogs after lunch, our focus fleets, or our productivity is deflated. I am not saying we should not work hard or that we should avoid hard or uncomfortable things.
Instead, I have found caution in the language about breaks I use. There’s an unspoken weight for the need to be doing something. Perhaps it is the need for something to be accomplished, completed, created, consumed, enjoyed, photographed, relaxed…well, you get my meaning.
We even turn our self-care into a to-do list or act of production. Is it really any wonder our brains feel scattered, our lives overwhelmed, our relationships hectic, and our cups half full?
How Brain Breaks Impact the Mind and Body
I recognize this habitual need to produce in myself. It affects the way I prioritize and plan my days. I have found this language slips into the way I compliment friends or family and praise students. This only serves to continues the perpetual narrative to do, do, do.
One practice I have found that helps me stop this train of thought is taking a “Brain Break.” A “Brain Break” is an intentional short activity designed to create space for our brain to pause with the goal of helping it to function better and retain new information more easily. They can include doing something mindfully or simple movement.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer and advocate for the practice of mindfulness in modern world and the creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness has a powerful way of calming and grounding us in this present moment. Doing so can communicate through our bodily senses to our brain that we are safe- even through feelings of stress, anxiety, discouragement, and disconnection, or any overwhelming emotion.
This mindful presence act can be as simple as the following. Take a moment to notice how it feels to read the following, repeating what is necessary to repeat.
First, recognize at this moment, I am here. I am here.
My brain, my mind, my consciousness is where my feet are. This moment is safe, it has all I need. It has an abundance of what I need because I am here.
Did you notice a change as you read those words, perhaps multiple times?
On a scientific level, our amygdala, the emotional center of our brain, is where new information must be processed before going to the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala was calmed through the short mindful practice, and then told the other parts of the brain the information, calming them as well. If our amygdala is in a stressed state, you can imagine what the other parts of the brain will also feel like.
The brain stem is the section of the brain that connects to the rest of the body. This is why a “Brain Break” can have a powerful effect not only on our thoughts, but also on how our physical body can feel. Maybe you experienced that with the earlier mindfulness exercise.
Take 3 mindful breaks today!
Brain Break Ideas
Brain breaks are essential for kids to recharge, refocus, and re-energize during periods of learning or activity.
No matter how you practice, the key to any brain break or mindful practice is intentionality and grounding- not increasing your list of self-care activities or increasing recess time for students. Brain breaks are for the present and they are for our current ease and bliss.
Some ideas of mindful activities are:
Listening to a guided mindfulness recording
Taking a senses walk
Mindfully eating a snack
Taking a no-electronic break
Writing a brain dump list
Taking one mindful breath
Another brain break can be through movement. Even a short two to three minutes of movement can increase energy and blood flow while increasing oxygen to the brain positively affecting its functioning. In a 2010 CDC report looking at physical activity and academic performance, classroom physical activity was found to positively impact academic and behavioral outcomes for students. Movement brain breaks might include mindful stretching, a Sun Salutation, a yoga flow to a song, a classroom activity that includes movement (walking to a side of the room for agreement or disagreement), and any activity that will move the body in an intentional way.
Let the following quote from Kurt Vonnegut be a guide, “I am a human being, not a human doing.” If the activity you are using to reset is about doing something, try something else or even reframe your perspective. If, like me, taking a walk seems like a chore (taking being the verb, the doing), try being outside. You, your body, and your mind are on a journey outside. There is no need to do or accomplish anything.
Likewise, this is not an activity you do to make it through your week to the weekend. This is an activity that says, I am a human BEing, not a human DOing. It says, I trust this moment has everything I need, and I will not be numb to it; I accept and am grateful for the abundance of now.
I will leave you with the words I started with. When we give our all to the present moment, when we give our brain a needed break, we are able to both:
Work hard and Play hard, Joyfully.
P.S. We have a Yoga and Mindfulness Resource Center designed just for Teens! We have so many great brain break resources at your fingertips - just click and play!