When we are stressed, we carry it in our body as well as our minds. We might experience a familiar tension in our shoulders, or nausea, or a knotting feeling in our stomachs. We may be carrying stress and not even be aware of it.
Doing a regular body scan has many benefits, but allowing us to identify where we are carrying stress and how we are feeling it may be the most critically important. It can also teach us how to release that stress from our bodies and minds, helping us relieve pain, anxiety, and insomnia. In a body scan, we travel through areas of the body that we might not often be aware of, to others that may cause us problems or give us pain, spending no more or less time with each, simply opening ourselves to whatever comes up. A body scan can be done any time of the day or night. A quick one on the subway, 5 minutes while sitting in the office or a more full scale sequence while lying down.
We can spend vast amounts of time disconnected from our bodies, pushing ourselves, forcing ourselves, just expecting our bodies to keep up and keep going. We also spend a lot of time in our “thinking mind,” disconnected from our sensory experience.
With a body scan we are not trying to change anything, or fix anything, we are simply noticing and moving on. It allows us to connect with a more sensory state, bringing mind and body together to focus on what is going on with your body at any given time.
Using mindfulness to bring our focus into the moment-by-moment tactile experiences, we are able to establish how stress and anxiety are manifesting in our bodies.
A body scan brings awareness to each part of the body sequentially, to notice the physical sensations. This is very distinct from thinking analytically in that you are not having a dialogue with yourself, or judging, or manipulating your body in any way. Simply acknowledge whatever is present.
Here’s how to undertake the full-scale body scan experience:
1. Set the scene – either lie on a mat on the floor or on your bed. You may well go to sleep and you may find that this sleep is more restful having done or started the Body Scan Meditation.
2. Begin by sinking into your body. Feel the weight of your body being supported by the bed. Be aware of your breath as it flows in and out of the body. Notice the sensations that it brings.
3. Bring your attention to the soles of the feet. Notice any sensation there. Move on to the ankles, the calf muscles – feel the texture of the sheet on the calves.
Notice any releasing in the knees. Be aware of the backs of the legs sinking into the support of the bed. Feel the weight of the pelvis.
4. Feel the drop of the arms and their weight on the bed, notice any space in the elbows. Bring your awareness to the palms and the space you find there. Feel the light curl of your fingers.
5. Feel any opening in the heart area and savor the rise and fall of the belly. Watch the breath go in and out: two-three-four. In and out, two-three-four. Feel the out-breath helping you to release.
6. Be aware of the back of the neck and the spine traveling the length of your body, feel the tail bone dropping. Notice again the support of the bed.
7. Notice the cheekbones and where the jaw meets right at the ear. Notice your teeth and your tongue resting on the bottom of your mouth and the tip of the tongue sitting behind the two front teeth. Feel any softness in your lips.
8. Bring your awareness to your nose, feel the in-breath, slightly cooler on the nostrils, and the out-breath slightly warmer. Let the breath come to you gently. And savor and enjoy the release of the exhale. Feel your belly dropping as you release the breath.
9. Now shift your awareness to the crown of your head. Feel the weight of the back skull resting on the pillow. Feel the brain, the left side and the right side dropping down. Notice any spreading and wideness on the forehead between the eyebrows. Notice the soft part of the skull at the temples. Be aware of your eyes dropping, not holding your focus on anything. Feel the inner and outer corners of the eyes.
10. Follow the breath in the body, the belly rising and falling. Be aware of the entire body being supported by the bed.
When you have finished, rest with awareness of your whole body. You may move your feet, your hands, roll your head gently from side to side before opening your eyes, stretching and getting up. You might like to reflect on what thoughts, feelings, and sensations have come up.
When we listen to our bodies, we may begin to notice connections between physical sensations and emotions. We often hold emotions as tensions in our bodies long after the experience has passed.
We may notice feelings of discomfort and irritation, which usually we would avoid, distract ourselves, or start worrying. Using a body scan, we have the opportunity to bring our awareness to the discomfort without being attached or stressed about it. This, in itself, can relieve tension and the weight that often layers on top of the discomfort. The body scan helps activate our para-sympathetic nervous system, so we can relax and replenish.
I hope you enjoy this introduction to the body scan!
Brogan Ganley specializes in Meditation and Mindfulness for managing stress and anxiety. She works with both children and adults in schools, hospitals and private practice.