If the term “body scan” makes you think of futuristic, high-tech gizmos, think again: This meditation technique is one you can do by yourself, wherever you are, and the only piece of equipment you need is an open mind.
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Body scan meditation is a technique to help you increase awareness of your body and assess how you’re feeling — basically, it’s a way for you to become more in tune with yourself.
Functional medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD, explains how to look inward to perform a body scan meditation and what it can do for your health.
What is a body scan meditation?
Think of a body scan meditation as an inventory of your mind and body. It’s a practice that originated with the popularization of mind-body stress reduction techniques that mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, introduced to the United States in the 1970s.
“Sometimes, we’re just so busy that we’re not really aware of what’s happening in our body,” Dr. Young notes. “There can be a very big disconnect between the body and the mind, and a body scan meditation is a way to bring those together.
“It’s about taking time to scan through all parts of the body from head to toe and checking in with the sensations in the body,” she explains. “How does the body feel?”
How to perform a body scan meditation
The best way to perform a body scan? Slowwwwly.
“It’s all about slowing things down and figuring out what you’re feeling,” Dr. Young says. “We don’t usually pay attention to sensations in our body, and because some of those sensations are unpleasant, we try to push them away.”
During your body scan meditation, try not to label or judge any of your sensations — just feel them, notice them and name them.
- Get comfortable. You can perform a body scan in any setting, even on the go, but when you’re just learning how, you may want to start by sitting or lying down.
- Close your eyes. If you’re not comfortable doing so, drop your gaze downward so you’re not distracted by anything around you.
- Begin with a few deep breaths. “Slowly breathe in through the nose and then out through the mouth,” Dr. Young instructs. “Do this a few times, letting your shoulders drop and getting settled into your body.”
- Start at the top of your body. Focus on your head, asking yourself what sensations you feel in this part of your body.“ It could be tension, it could be heat, it could be a pulsing quality,” Dr. Young offers. “There’s no need to have any judgment about it — just awareness.”
- Move down your body. Turn your attention down to your shoulders and upper back. “What sensations are there for you?” Dr. Young asks. “It could be tightness, it could be lightness. Whatever it is, it’s perfect in this moment.”
- Focus on your mid-body. Moving down to your chest and belly, notice what you’re feeling in those areas. If you’re sitting in a chair, pay attention to the sensation of your body in the chair; if you’re lying down, notice the feeling of your back on the floor or bed. “Just go through that inventory and where are you in that moment,” she says.
- Continue the process down your body. Keep it up as you inventory the rest of your body: each hand and arm, your thighs, then your knees and calves. “Be aware of tension or other sensations there,” he encourages. “No need to try to change them in this moment.”
- Finish at your feet. Finish your body scan by moving all the way down to your feet and toes, bringing awareness to those areas of the body and how they feel.
- End the process gently. Slowly bring your attention back to your surroundings, taking a slow deep breath and gently opening your eyes.
A body scan meditation isn’t a magical pill to make you suddenly feel amazing. But it is a way to help you feel grounded, aware and more connected to your body.
“These techniques weren’t necessarily created to make us feel better,” Dr. Young notes. “There really isn’t a desired outcome, in the true sense of utilizing these wonderful ancient techniques. It’s all about the process. It’s the journey.”
Benefits of body scan meditation
Like other forms of meditation and mindfulness, doing a body scan can tap into your parasympathetic nervous system and help you calm down in the moment. But it’s not all about the immediate benefits, Dr. Young says. She explains how body scan meditations can benefit both your short- and long-term health.
Connects you to your body
You live inside your body every day, but how in tune with it are you, really? A body scan meditation is a tool for grounding you within your body and helping you better identify what’s happening within it.
“This mind/body connection gives us the power to stay in the moment and not worry or overthink about stress or pain or other bodily sensations,” Dr. Young explains.
Plus, when you’re focused on trying to feel good, you may try to ignore any less-than-ideal feelings. Doing a body scan meditation can help you identify some of those sensations in a judgment-free way.
“We spend so much time and energy — often unconsciously — pushing away what we think is bad or unpleasant,” Dr. Young says. “The goal of a body scan is not necessarily to change anything, just to build an ongoing awareness of how you’re feeling because, again, we disconnect so much.”
Trains your nervous system to relax
Practice may not make perfect, but practice can certainly make progress. The more often you do body scan meditations, the better you become at them — and the more able your body is to respond to stress.
“When you practice this technique and incorporate it into your self-care routine, your nervous system starts to remember how to relax,” Dr. Young says. “It becomes easier for you to come out of sympathetic fight-or-flight mode and instead move into parasympathetic mode, which is the “rest-and-digest mode.”
Can help with chronic medical issues
Mindful awareness of your pain can help you to better cope with that pain. Studies show that doing even a quick body scan meditation can reduce the severity and perception of chronic pain.
“Practicing awareness of the present moment, without judgment, helps patients with chronic pain, chronic tension and chronic anxiety,” Dr. Young adds.
Helps identify and relieve stress
Body scan meditation alone won’t suddenly melt away your stress. But when practiced regularly and combined with other mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, you can address anxiety, relieve stress and improve your overall well-being.
“Techniques like this one can mitigate stress in both the body and the mind,” Dr. Young says. That’s hugely important, given that a shocking 60% to 80% of primary care visits are related in some way to stress, which can contribute to issues like fatigue, insomnia, headaches and high blood pressure.
A word of caution about body scan meditation
If you have severe anxiety or a history of significant trauma, proceed carefully.
“As you become more aware of what’s in your body, use your judgment about whether things are unmanageable,” Dr. Young advises. “Sometimes, becoming more aware of what’s happening in your body can bring up intense feelings that you may want to work through with a therapist.”
How to use body scan meditation in everyday life
A body scan meditation is a stress-relief technique you can use nearly anywhere, at any time. Starting a busy day? About to go for a long run? Just feeling a little overwhelmed and want to take a moment for yourself? They’re all the perfect time for a body scan meditation.
“Say you’re going into a big meeting,” Dr. Young says, “you can take a moment to scan through our body and see: Where is there tension? Visualizing the release of that tension can be so powerful.”
To hear more from Dr. Young on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “The Power of Body Scan Meditation.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.