Why you need to give your brain a break

Walking Meditation with my Yin Yoga & Mindfulness Teacher Training in London one year ago.

January 2021…… nearly 1 year into covid-19

This time a year ago I sat in a hall with over 70 students who were attending my 2020 Yin Yoga & Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training. On the morning we began I asked my 5 assistants to please not hug me and I spoke to the room and asked if anyone wasn’t well could they stay to the corner or back of the room and would they please not hug anyone and would everyone please cough in to their elbows if they were feeling sick. This wasn’t typical yogic like behaviour and I know my assistants said nothing to give away their reaction and I felt bad about having to say this but I was closely watching the events unfold in China and I had already lived through SARS and the swine flu epidemic whilst living in Asia and I knew how fast viruses can spread. That aside, I knew I also had to stay healthy for the next week in order to teach this training and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I have always been a little (or alot ) like this when it came to doing everything to avoid coughs, colds or anything else just prior to a training. I need every ounce of energy to get through a week of training.

A few months into the year, I was being forced to cancel trainings and workshops like everyone around the world. I thought about the practice of yin yoga and imagined how this would be if I were to simply to show up for the same timing and be online instead. In March, I offered this up to the April trainees, and some brave ones opted in whilst others wanted refunds. Everyone was scared of what was happening. Everyone went into conservation mode.  I decided to offer other smaller workshops to support the students that I knew who wanted contact, just as I did after suddenly being starved of friends, family, people and connectivity. On March 22, upon a strong impulse, I decided to persuade my son to empty his digs at Uni and come home. The same day we were driving home with a car load leaving a note for the landlord since everyone’s offices all seemed to be uncontactable all of a sudden. On March 23, we went into national lockdown.

What can I say? From there on in, my trainings and workshops did fill online with students now filtering in from all over the world. I had no idea how small the online world had become. By July I had run 4 largish workshops and was teaching weekly classes for triyoga, some of my own and a new meditation one for the NHS. I was undoubtedly so fortunate that my work could continue and I was extremely grateful for the ability and privilege of being able to continue to teach. Sometime over these early months however, my head started to react with strange headaches and my right eye started to twitch uncontrollably. Even though I was walking, sleeping and eating healthily as I could, my brain clearly did not like this change and the new demand of being fixed to a machine for hours on end, talking, focusing and not moving.

I asked a senior manager at a studio if any other teachers were suffering from headaches? No, not to their knowledge was the reply. I was aghast. How could it be only me? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t cope with all my survival strategies and my long term practices under my belt?  This couldn’t be happening.  If I couldn’t think clearly, how could I teach effectively? How was I to keep up with my commitments?

I made the decision there and then that drastic measures were needed.  I gave up teaching weekly classes online and in person too for the ongoing future not knowing when we might be called back to being in studio again. This meant giving up a much beloved long term post for good.  The relief however felt immense and I knew this was the right decision. Even though we were in lockdown it meant I could now, for the very first time, start to form a completely new schedule of my own for the first time in a long long time.  I’m talking 35 years of work, motherhood and daily commitments, 50 if you include my school years!

I decided to follow my own coaching advice. Find a NEW practice. A BRAND NEW practice that I had never done before. BEGINNER’S MIND is age old Zen advice but in today’s terms, it equates to finding a way to start something new which you are NOT GOOD at. One in which you can begin to retrain your mind/brain to learn from the beginning, accept there are baby steps to learning, learn patience again and also learn to smile at your ineptitude or infant ways at doing something.  It also gives us an opportunity to see how we can evolve, grow and achieve something and that it really is NEVER TOO LATE.  My practice was Zumba dance and fitness.  Each weekday a new style with the same teacher. My young Columbian teacher was like gold dust, every day turning up live for us even through his country’s own lockdown.  I met young people from all over the world, every day we chatted and were rather silly. In that group, I wasn’t a yoga teacher or a mother or anything other than someone who found it hard to co-ordinate even simple dance movements and felt like the 8 year old again being teased by her siblings.

It’s taken almost 7 months for the cluster headaches to dissipate and slowly and surely they did, with daily monitoring, with some hospital injections, with some medication and now without needing anything much other than remembering a smile is key, moving is key, breaks and rest is key. So if it’s not working, SWITCH IT UP, pick up the phone, be the first to drop a present off, be the first to think what it must be like to be the other person, ADAPT, be forgiving to yourself and above all, believe that it’s really never too late to start something afresh.  I just became a certified Zumba instructor and though I doubt I will ever feel brave enough to teach it, I have promised my dance group a yoga class 😝🥰.

Here’s a recent article I found in neuroscience news which I really enjoyed too.

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Stress is the new norm.

With the growth of the infinite internet, 500 channel 24-hour television, and mobile phones that are really little computers, you are now bombarded with five times as much information every day as a person received in 1986. According to Welcome to the information age:

Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.

That’s a lot of info buzzing around you.

No wonder anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, and depression rates increase by a whopping 20 percent every year. No wonder the CDC declared insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.

Your Brain Wasn’t Made For A Marathon

The human brain wasn’t designed to pay attention and be alert for hours at a time. Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day. That left a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest.

Now, most Americans sprint through life, working 10 hours a day, doing the same thing all day long. Then, they come home and spend hours on the computer doing more work, playing on their phone, watching TV, or engaging in some other mind stimulating activity. After getting too little sleep, they jump out of bed only to do it over again.

This modern lifestyle produces chronic stress which shows up as all kinds of mental and physical health problems.

The brain is much more active – and more likely to tire – than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of, not counter to, working, can make a person more productive, creative, and innovative.

Some work cultures are adopting this flow. In 5 Ways to Give Your Brain a Break Right Now, Jeff Stibel writes:

Hip Silicon Valley tech companies started the growing trend of offering their employees unique perks that seem to encourage stepping away from the desk. Google’s free massages, Twitter’s rock climbing wall, and Dropbox’s gaming tournaments come to mind. Some may dismiss these initiatives as ploys for PR or to impress new recruits, but there is solid evidence that fun creativity breaks actually improve employee productivity.

One of the best ways to recharge is to engage in something different. If you’ve been reviewing a document for 90 minutes, don’t take a break by reading news articles. Get up and do something completely different. The brain is an efficient task-switcher; it has no problem going from java programming to power yoga to basket weaving. And doing so may make you a better java programmer, since you’ve allowed your brain’s java programming circuit to rest. If you are a slave to work, then switch tasks productively, from programming to checking email to thinking about a new problem.

Building Brain Breaks Into Your Life

Your brain not only needs frequent breaks during the day, but it also needs time away from work, school, and the stress of your life periodically to revitalize and renew. By depriving your brain of such downtime, you diminish your ability to think creatively and strategically handle complex problems. Our brain thinks more clearly when we step out of the hectic routines of our lives, stop rushing from one obligation to the next, and make time to switch gears and relax.

Research shows that the frontal lobe brain networks, responsible for reasoning, planning, decision-making, and judgment, work in creative ways when your brain is quiet, not while actively thinking or problem-solving. A-ha moments happen when your brain is offline because that’s when it connects various random ideas and makes associations with prior knowledge to form new thoughts, ideas, direction, and insight.

Giving your brain a vacation is important because it potentially allows you to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have determined that high levels of cortisol damage the brain’s hippocampus, the learning and memory center.

Reducing stress is essential to maximizing your brain’s performance. While it’s best to build stress-reducing activities into your life regularly, such as exercising, getting more sleep, and spending time with others, a vacation can include more of all those as well as novel experiences – which are great for your brain.

Simple Ways To Take Brain Breaks

Here are some ways to give your brain a little time off.

Go outside

Research shows that different brain regions are activated when you’re outside. Getting out in the sunshine also increases your production of Vitamin D and serotonin – plus it just feels good. If you can’t go outside, look out a window.

Get physical

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. If you can’t get in a full workout, go for a walk, take the stairs, park farther away from your destination. If you’re at work, take five minutes and stretch, do some yoga postures, jumping jacks or push-ups.

Take a nap

According to neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay in “The neurobiology of the afternoon nap,” a brief nap not only reduces sleepiness, but it also improves cognitive function and enhances short-term memory and mood.

Meditate

Meditation increases activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, the rational brain, and reduces activity in the amygdala, the fear center. Science has determined that meditation stimulates activity in regions of the left prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with positive emotions while decreasing activity in parts of the brain related to negative emotions. I have a daily practice, and it feels an “Aaah” that recharges my brain.



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