By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts
While there are many specific meditation techniques that can be used to help us find stability of mind and cultivate mindfulness over time, one of the most accessible practices is a body scan meditation, during which you bring attention to your body, noticing different sensations, as you mentally scan down, from head to toe. Here’s everything you need to know about body scan meditation — including how to do it.
For many of us, stress not only has mental and emotional symptoms, it has physical symptoms too: headaches, back pain, and heartburn are just a few of the stress-related ailments we may experience. In fact, sometimes we are so caught up in our stress, we don’t even realize our physical discomfort is connected to our emotional state. That’s when a body scan meditation can be particularly useful and effective, allowing us to check in with our bodies.
By mentally scanning yourself from head to toe — many people imagine a laser copier scanning the length of their body — you are bringing awareness to every single part of your body, noticing any aches, pains, tension, or general discomfort. Staying present with and breathing into these sensations can help bring relief to our minds and bodies by evolving our relationship to pain, aches, and discomfort.
Sitting comfortably, take a deep breath in through the nose, and out through the mouth. As you breathe out, close the eyes. Notice how the body feels right now. Starting at the top of the head, gently scan down through the body, noticing what feels comfortable and what feels uncomfortable. Remember, you’re not trying to change anything, just noticing how the body feels as you scan down evenly and notice each and every part of the body, all the way down to the toes.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation — and body scan meditation in particular — has many mental and physical benefits including reducing stress, increasing focus, and improving sleep. According to research that did not involve Headspace, practicing body scan meditation was associated with greater levels of mindfulness (for example, observing thoughts and feelings while not reacting to stress) and increased psychological well-being.
1. Reducing stress
As mentioned above, reducing stress and tension is one of the primary benefits of body scan meditation, which in turn can have many positive physical benefits including reduced inflammation, anxiety, and insomnia. What’s more, through regular mindfulness body scan meditation, you can train your mind to respond more effectively to stress. Instead of ruminating on or battling with stressful thoughts and feelings, we learn to gently lean into them, essentially diminishing their power over us.
Often, our body is doing one thing while our mind is elsewhere. A body scan meditation can help to sync our mind and body, pulling us away from the noise in our mind and into the present. Plus, regularly checking in with our body can help us identify aches and pains early on, before they become too serious.
3. Increasing self-compassion
Often during body scan meditation, we may notice something that feels bad in our body, or we may become frustrated when we notice our mind wandering. Regular practice can help us approach these situations with gentleness and acceptance; eventually we learn how to approach situations in our everyday life with the same compassion.
With your eyes closed, start at the top of your head and mentally “scan” down your body. Bring your awareness to your head and neck, and notice if you feel any feelings, sensations, or discomfort. Does that area feel relaxed or tense? Comfortable or uncomfortable? Energetic or tired? Repeat this practice for your shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, hips, legs, feet, and so on — taking about 20-30 seconds to focus on each body part.
When you encounter areas of tension during the scan, don’t struggle. Instead, focus your attention on them and breathe. Try to visualize the tension leaving your body. Take note of your observations and when thoughts or feelings arise, return to the area of the body where you last left off. Don’t try to change anything — you are simply building a picture of how the body feels right now, in the moment.
If you got a lot out of this body scan meditation and are looking for other ways to manage stress through meditation, the Headspace app can be particularly useful. There’s a 10-day beginner’s course on the essentials of meditation and mindfulness — available with your membership or free trial. There’s also a 30-day course dedicated to managing stress that comes with exercises designed to address all manner of stressors, as well as a whole library of content, covering everything from sleep and compassion to anger and focus.
READ NEXT: Breathing exercises to reduce stress