The Body Scan Meditation is one of the fundamental techniques for cultivating mindfulness. Meaning, it lays the foundation for other mindfulness practices and develops key skills that are prerequisite to living a more mindful life. If you want to access all the wonderful mindfulness benefits you hear about, these skills are essential.
Because it involves the simple act of bringing focused attention to each of our body parts, the Body Scan can seem deceptively easy to do. However, as with any mindfulness practice, holding that focused attention can prove more challenging than it might seem. Especially since we’re also asked to accept anything and everything we notice happening in our body.
Sometimes increasing body awareness can be an unpleasant or disturbing experience. How you do the body scan matters. Particularly if you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, trauma-related issues, or any other condition that might make being in your body feel uncomfortable. But there are ways to accommodate for this, and that’s part of what I’ll be sharing here.
In this post, I’m covering:
- What’s so great about the body scan meditation.
- Why it’s such an important part of any mindfulness practice – as you’re first stepping onto the mindful path and all along the way.
- How to do it effectively and in a way that honors your own unique circumstances and needs.
- And best of all, my version of the Guided Body Scan meditation you can use to support you in your practice.
Body Scan Meditation Benefits
Let’s begin with why you should even care about doing the body scan meditation. What’s so great about this practice?
Well, the benefits are bountiful! There aren’t many things you can do in the same amount of time that can deliver such powerful results for your body-mind-spirit system. These boons to your well-being derive from the body scan’s ability to increase two important traits within you – mindfulness and interoceptive (internal body) awareness.
They include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Improved self-regulation of emotions
- Enhanced ability to understand one’s emotions
- Increased capacity to be in the present moment (as opposed to ruminating)
- Increased ability to listen to one’s body (for the sake of performance, intuition)
- Improved stress management
- Improved concentration skills (ability to regulate and focus attention)
- Increased self esteem, empathy and sense of autonomy & competence
- Decreased depression, anxiety, rumination & cognitive reactivity
The Body Scan Meditation’s Role In Developing Mindfulness
Alongside the practice of focusing attention on your breath, the body scan meditation is Mindfulness 101. That’s because observing your breath and what’s happening in your body are two of the most potent ways to consciously connect to the present moment. And that’s what mindfulness is, after all – being conscious of the here and now, as opposed to thinking about the past or the future, which our squirmy minds tend to want to do most of the time.
Both techniques – breath and body awareness – are important and effective. Neither is better than the other. However, since this post is dedicated to the body scan meditation, let’s explore the unique ways in which this focused attention supports your capacity for mindfulness (and in turn, all those awesome benefits we just talked about.)
Body Scan Meditation & The Present Moment
When we practice the body scan meditation, we ground ourselves in the present moment by actively noticing what’s happening in our body. Focusing on the visceral experience of our bodily sensations offers a powerful connection to here and now. I like to think of it as having more meat on the bone than my breath awareness practices. Because it just feels like there’s more for my attention to grab onto. And that means, it’s less easy for my mind to get distracted and wander away from the present moment.
In saying that, I don’t mean to imply the body scan is better than breath awareness. I’m just highlighting the mechanism by which body awareness anchors us in the moment. With this practice, ultimately, we grow more comfortable using body awareness as a portal for connecting to the present. We can move our attention from mind stuff to body stuff more easily and reliably, when it’s prudent to do so. For instance, when we want to interrupt rumination or other distressing thought patterns. When we want to gain insight around an emotional experience. Or, when we just want to ease into a state of peacefully abiding in the present moment.
Body Scan Meditation & Interoception
The Body Scan Meditation increases our interoceptive awareness.
Interoception means being aware of our body’s internal state. What sensations can we feel? How is our heart rate behaving? What’s happening with our breath, our gut, our nerves? Do we feel energized or sluggish? Which bodily sensations tell us we’re energized vs. sluggish? How do emotions show up in our bodies? Where do we feel them, and how do they feel, exactly?
When it comes to our well-being, this is important stuff. Because interoception is a big part of self-awareness. We can use the information we gain from this inner perception to self-regulate. It can help us make healthy, adaptive choices. And it can provide us with insight to better understand ourselves – our motivations, habitual tendencies, emotions, etc.
Interoception & Emotion Regulation
It can be profoundly impactful to gain insight around how emotions present in our bodies. I once worked with a client who struggled significantly with anxiety. It was the free-floating kind that often didn’t arise from any specific circumstance. Which meant, he couldn’t find relief from trying to cognitively reason himself out of it. There was no specific fear to face or disprove. No catastrophized scenario to bring back to reality.
As he began to witness his experience of anxiety from a more mindful perspective, he gained the awareness that his anxiety frequently arose as a bodily sensation in his chest. In other words, it originated in his body, without any identifiable life circumstance to trigger it. What’s more, as he explored this phenomenon, he realized he often looked for something external to be anxious about because he was feeling the sensation of anxiety in his body.
With this insight, he was able to cultivate a more mindful, objective relationship to his anxiety. He could self-regulate by telling himself, there’s nothing to be anxious about. This is just a feeling in my body. As a result, his anxiety abated more quickly and easily.
Obviously, his situation isn’t indicative of all anxiety or all emotional experiences. But it’s a striking example of how developing interoception can support self-regulation. In fact, the connection between interoceptive awareness and well-being is a growing area of interest in neuroscience and psychology studies. As we gain insight into our mind-body experience, we can learn new, more adaptive ways to relate to what’s happening inside us and in our lives.
Interoception & Mindfulness
This brings me to an important point. Not all body awareness is supportive of our well-being. And, interoception doesn’t automatically produce adaptive self-regulation or a sense of being comfortably connected to the present moment. Sometimes, bringing attention to bodily sensations can have the opposite effect. It can be quite distressing.
This can prove especially true for people who struggle with significant trauma-related issues and anyone who experiences their body as being unsafe or the source of too much pain or unease. In these instances, heightening awareness of the body with a body scan meditation can elicit traumatic memories, automatic trauma responses, and increased symptoms of physical or emotional distress. This is where the intersection between interoception and mindfulness becomes crucial.
Bringing mindfulness to our body isn’t just sensing what’s happening in our body in the present moment. It also involves summoning the qualities of non-judgment and acceptance. Mindfulness asks us to go into the practice of body awareness with the firm intention to accept whatever we notice. It’s as though we become curious investigators, watching what’s happening from a distance. When judgments arise, we don’t buy into or give weight to them. We just observe them too, with acceptance and curiosity. And then, let them go.
When we’re doing a mindful body scan meditation, we don’t bring preset notions for what we think should be happening in our body to the practice. And this means, whatever is happening doesn’t have to alarm us or set off signals that tell us something’s wrong. If what’s happening feels uncomfortable, we can acknowledge that without feeling we have to change it. We understand, we’re training ourselves to become more adept at simply seeing our experience as what is.
Cultivating Self-Regulation & Acceptance
This intentional non-judgment in and of itself functions as a form of self-regulation. In other words, when we choose to bring mindful, accepting attention to our body, we are regulating our mind. We’re actively choosing how we’re going to relate to our bodily sensations. Which means, every time we practice it, we’re cultivating our capacity to self-regulate.
But moreover, as we come to the body scan practice again and again, we’re giving ourselves the opportunity to learn a new way of relating to our body and all its sensations – both the pleasant and unpleasant ones. If in the past, our body has felt unsafe, or we’ve experienced it as a source of pain we seek to avoid making contact with, we can gradually come to relate to it in a different way.
By controlling what we bring attention to, and what kind of attention we bring to it, we can transform the body into a safe space again. As we witness – from a distance, with acceptance – that emotions can arise and take shape in our body without us having to judge, change, or act on them, we gain confidence and skill in our role as navigator of our emotions.
The same can be said for physical sensations that are uncomfortable for non-emotional reasons. Studies have shown mindfulness can help us grow our tolerance for physical pain by shifting how we relate to it.
Self-Compassion & Body Scan Meditation
If you know connecting to body awareness is unsettling for you, it can be really beneficial to work with self-compassion and loving-kindness prior to and/or alongside body scan meditations. As you develop self-compassion and loving-kindness toward yourself, you can bring these incredibly self-supportive mindsets to your body awareness practice.
That way, if physical pain is present, rather than rejecting it outright, you can direct love and compassion toward that part of your body. While it may not remove the sensation, it can help you relax around your experience of it. If troubling memories and/or emotions come up, you have a powerful tool you can use to connect you to a sense of being safe and loved in the present moment. One that doesn’t deny or reject your painful experience, but instead wraps it up in the arms of love and compassion.
You can find a wonderful resource for self-compassion practices here.
How To Do Body Scan Meditation
At the end of this post, I’m sharing a body scan meditation video to guide you through all the steps. Because it’s best learned experientially, I won’t take time here to spell them out. But I would like to offer some tips for how to practice it most effectively and safely.
- Practice in a quiet setting where you’re unlikely to be disturbed.
- Choose a comfortable position. It can be seated or lying down.
- Prior to starting, make adjustments to your posture, so you’re not distracted by the discomfort of postural misalignments as you practice.
- Bring a sense of curiosity to your practice. This is a little journey of self-discovery, not self-correction.
- Release any expectations you might have about what should be happening in your body. Open your mind instead with an attitude of allowing.
- Set the intention to be gentle, kind, compassionate, and loving with yourself – no matter what.
- Know that you’re in control of your practice. Honor what feels right for you. If you need to stop, then stop. If you need to skip over or stay longer with a part of your body, do so.
- Let go of any inclination you might have to judge yourself for doing it right or wrong.
I hope you enjoy this Body Scan Meditation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. And share with anyone you think might appreciate it! You can find more guided meditations (and soon, yoga classes too) on my YouTube channel.