Body scan meditations have become one of the most popular meditation exercises. In this article, I’d like to talk with you about why these simple exercises are often recommended for anxiety, relaxation and insomnia, among other benefits.
The basic practice is simple to describe. You close your eyes and direct your attention to your body, moving from your head to your toes (or reverse), feeling as many sensations as closely as you can. Some people find it easiest to picture parts of their body, like what their hand looks like, for example. The most powerful benefits happen when you feel or sense that part of your body from the inside. You do your best to feel sensations in your body, like warmth, tingling or pressure.
There are two main benefits when you use a body scan meditation script. First, this kind of sustained attention to your body has a profoundly relaxing effect on your nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and rejuvenation, is activated by this practice. All kinds of relaxing, healing chemicals and processes are set in motion. It’s like an internal spa day!
The second benefit is that paying precise attention to your body sensations starts to bring your mind and body into sync. It’s a unifying, grounding experience that you can feel for yourself in the practice I’ll describe below. So, let’s look in a bit more detail at the benefits of following a body scan meditation script.
Doctor and psychologist Rick Hanson has written several fascinating and accessible books about how our body and brains have evolved.
For example, he describes life when we were a young species on the planet. Being alert to physical dangers like a tiger in the grass was a crucial survival skill. So, our brains became oriented toward potential external threats. Without an actual threat, however, this brain mechanism can become a recipe for the anxiety or stress so many of us experience today. We can become overly vigilant and never actually relax.
Body scans are incredibly relaxing shutterstock/wavebreakmedia
A body scan practice, Hanson says, is powerful because it reverses this mechanism. Paying attention to what’s happening internally, rather than externally, is a signal to our ancient nervous system that says, “Well, if I’m paying attention inside, I guess there’s no tiger out there!” Then your brain starts to do all kinds of wonderful things to relax and heal from the wear and tear of being vigilant at other times.
I know, I already mentioned this in the last bullet. But, it's worth repeating because anxiety, stress and their common companion depression, are at epidemic proportions in our world. You don’t have to have high levels of anxiety or depression to feel less joyful, less connected or less capable. Even low levels can affect you in all these ways.
When you use a body scan meditation script, especially if you do it regularly, you’ll start to disrupt the cycle of unease: stressful thoughts causing tension in your body, causing more anxiety, causing poor sleep, causing depression, and on and on.
As you are probably aware, your mind needs something to do! A good body scan meditation script will help you with that because it’s restful for your mind. It doesn’t have to work hard at thinking and analyzing. A body scan practice shifts your mind into a relaxing state of simply noticing sensations, taking you away from any negative thinking you may have. It also strengthens your ability to focus.
Our bodies carry a lot of stress and physical tension that we're often not even aware of. All the little daily stresses, as well as any older psychological wounds, leave a residue in your body. This residue holds crucial information about your well-being and healing.
Becoming aware of it can be challenging, but a body scan practice strengthens your ability to be with whatever you experience kindly. And, you begin to recognize the intelligence in the body. Did you know there are brain neurons that extend throughout your body? Your body has a lot to tell you.
Self-care is another benefit of listening to a body scan meditation script. Slowing down enough to inhabit your body and your emotions is an act of self-care. It’s one concrete way you can practice caring about your own experience, listening to your own wisdom, and treating yourself with curiosity and respect.
Firstly, be precise. As you’re listening to a body scan meditation script, do your best to really feel each area before moving on to the next. Even pause the recording if you need to. If you rush the practice, your body will know you’re not really paying attention!
For example, it might take you ten minutes or even more to really connect with your shoulder. And that’s OK. This can happen no matter how much experience you have! On the other hand, if you start to feel stuck, move on to the next area and come back to it later on in the practice. You can also make any difficult areas an area of specific focus for the next time you follow the body scan meditation script.
“Self-care is another benefit of listening to a body scan meditation script. Slowing down enough to inhabit your body and your emotions is an act of self-care.”
Secondly, don’t judge.
I’m going to give you different instructions and suggestions in the body scan meditation script below. But don’t judge your own experience by any guidance I give you, for example, naming a sensation like tightness or cold. It’s important that you name and connect with your experience whatever it is. That’s the purpose of this exercise.
You should set aside at least ten minutes to do this practice. You can do it either lying down or sitting up.
Take a few full breaths to help your body and mind begin to relax. Feel the sensations where your body connects with the floor or surface under you. Feel your body getting heavy.
Starting by sensing your head. Sense your forehead and the area around your eyes. This is an area lots of us hold tension. There’s no right or wrong thing to feel. Just notice and gently name any sensations silently like warmth, tingling or pressure.
Let your attention move to the top of your head, to your scalp, and down the sides and back of your head. And feel your neck, the muscles along the back and sides, and even sense inside your neck and throat.
Now sense your shoulders, the large heavy muscles of your shoulders and shoulder blades. If you notice any tension or discomfort here, it’s not anything you need to change, just be aware of it. If you like, you can breathe into any area that feels some discomfort. This just means that you imagine your breath is moving in and out of the area, instead of your nose.
Let your attention move slowly down your arms, sensing your upper arms, elbows and lower arms. Sense the muscles and bones here. Feel the bones of your wrist and the softness of your palms. Our hands are a centre of so much activity and expression. Feel all the sensations in your palms, fingers and fingertips.
Now shift your attention to your chest around your heart and solar plexus. What do you notice there? Breathe and feel it. It may be different in the next moment. You’re just tuning in right now to your body to these precise physical sensations. And remember: be patient. Your body moves at a slower pace than your mind.
Body scan meditation helps you get in touch with your body
Now allow your attention to move into your stomach and hips. Let your attention rest here for a few breaths. Continue down your upper legs, knees and lower legs, taking as much time as you need to feel the sensations and awareness there. Remember that there’s no right or wrong experience, only to be as present and caring as you can.
Then move down into your feet, ankles, the soles of your feet and all ten toes. Your feet work so hard all day long: really feel all the muscles and tendons and tissues there.
Now, take a big breath and see if you can feel your whole body all at once sitting or lying here, breathing. From the tips of your toes, up through your legs, your torso, your arms, into your head and face. Feel your body as one, whole field of sensation and energy. Keep breathing and finish the practice. And when you’re ready, slowly open your eyes.
How did it go? When you’ve finished the body scan meditation script, take a moment to notice any sense of freshness, relaxation or groundedness. Take a moment to observe and feel your body and mind, before you return to your day.
Once you have used this body scan meditation script a few times, try doing the practice in your own way. Move your attention through your body at your own pace, in any way you like, following the tips in this article and, most important, being curious and kind. You may find that going solo allows you to be even more attentive to what is going on for you, and to connect more deeply with your inner world. •
Main image: shutterstock/Mark Nazh
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Ann Vrlak is Founder of OneSelf Meditation and a meditation practitioner for over 25 years. She’s a Certified Meditation Teacher for adults and for children (the best job ever!). She loves to share how the perspective and practice of meditation can support people with their everyday stresses and on their journey of self-discovery.
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