Is meditation just focusing on breathing? Not exactly, considering there are many ways to meditate. One such way is by practicing a “body scan meditation,” which is often recommended for those who are just getting started building a meditation practice.
Studies have found that following body scan guided meditations can help people become more self-aware and present, cope with pain, feel more relaxed and less anxious, sleep better, and learn to be less self-critical.
How does it work? It’s believed that the practice can help increase awareness of sensations happening in the body, providing insight into deeper emotions without judging or trying to change them.
What Is Body Scan Meditation?
Body scan meditation is a practice in which you pay attention to sensations happening in your body. During a body scan, you mentally scan over every part of your body from your head to your toes.
Sensations are anything that you feel and notice in the body, like tingling, cramping, tightness, heat, coolness, buzzing, pulsing, itching, throbbing or numbness.
Why is noticing sensations in the body beneficial? It helps bring your attention to the present moment, since you can only feel what is taking place in the “here and now.”
The idea behind a body scan is that physical sensations are tied to emotional states. You may not even realize that stress and other emotions, such as anger or sadness, cause physical symptoms like tightness in your chest, headaches and heartburn.
The practice trains you to stay present in your body even when you don’t like what you’re experiencing, such as pain and discomfort.
According to the HelpGuide website:
The goal is to train the mind to be more open and aware of sensory experiences — and ultimately, more accepting. With time and practice, the body scan will build your ability to focus and be fully present in your life.
What is a body scan exercise good for? Here are some of the benefits associated with this type of meditation practice:
1. Improves Self-Awareness
A number of studies have found that people who practice body scans as an act of “self-care” experience greater levels of self-awareness, mindfulness (they are able to observe their thoughts and feelings without reacting) and increased psychological well-being.
One of the primary reasons to practice body scan is to tune in to what you’re feeling, rather than ignoring how your emotions impact your body. Another way this is described by researchers is as experiencing “increased internal somatic sensations” (or interoceptive attention).
A body scan practice can help you notice what’s going on in your body/mind without having to hold on to sensations/feeling, allowing you to better let them go and run their course.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, unsure of how you really feel or lost, this is a good time to try a body scan. Try to relax into whatever comes up and explore both the pleasant and unpleasant sensations as they unfold.
With practice, you can use your body to gain awareness of your emotions without trying to fix or change anything.
2. Has Relaxing Effects
This type of meditation is one of the most commonly recommended for people dealing with anxiety symptoms and chronic stress. It can help decrease muscular tension and tightness in the body and other symptoms tied to stress, such as inflammation, pain, digestive issues, tension headaches and insomnia.
Studies show that meditation practices lead to greater activation of the parasympathetic nervous system in relation to the sympathetic nervous system, evoking a relaxation response.
Not only can it reduce stress in the moment that you’re feeling anxious, but it can also be used to help you cope better with stressors in the future. With practice, you can get better as noticing stressful thoughts and feelings without over-reacting to them or ignoring them all together.
3. Can Be Beneficial for Sleep
Body scan meditation can be very relaxing, which means that practicing before bedtime may make it easier to fall and stay asleep. This is exactly what a 2019 review found after investigating the effects of mindfulness meditation among people with sleep disturbances.
While laying in bed or somewhere else comfortable, try listening to a body scan with music while progressively focusing on relaxing your body from head to toe. This can help to turn off the “noise” in your head and put your mind to rest, making it easier to drift off to sleep.
4. May Help You Cope With Pain
If you’re someone who deals with ongoing pain, research indicates that body scan meditations can be one way to practice acceptance and self-compassion.
One clinical study found that a brief body scan had immediate benefits for those experiencing chronic pain. Participants in the body scan group reported a significant reduction in ratings for pain-related distress and for pain interfering with social relations compared with those in the control group.
The nonjudgmental quality of body scans and other mindful practices is important for developing an accepting attitude toward present-moment events and feelings. Rather than fighting your pain and potentially making it worse by becoming frustrated with it (which is stressful and can worsen tension or inflammation), the practice helps you approach your body with more gentleness, gratitude and patience.
5. May Improve Focus
A quick body scan meditation for 10 minutes or even less is a great way to “reset” during a hectic day by giving your mind a break. By letting thoughts go and your mind relax as you focus on your body, you may find that you gain more energy and improved alertness afterward, especially if your environment is a hectic one.
Some research suggests that mindfulness practices, including body scan and all other forms of meditation, may work to improve mental performance by modulating the insula, which is the primary hub for interoception in the brain. Some have argued that interoception is the primary mechanism by which one benefits from the practice and that it can potentially lead to improved attention, awareness and decision-making.
How to Do It
How do you do a mental body scan exactly? If you’re new to the practice, it’s a good idea to listen to a body scan meditation script read out loud.
Once you get the hang of it, you can practice without needing to listen to a guided meditation, however music and apps can still be helpful. (It’s really all about your preference.)
Here’s a basic body scan meditation, adapted from one published by Mindful.org:
- Start by laying down or sitting up in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes, or at least lower your lids, let your eyes relax and “half-close” them.
- Bring awareness to your body, breathing in and out, noticing sensations at your nostrils, belly and chest.
- Then bring your attention to the places where your body makes contact with the seat or floor, such as your back and shoulders.
- Start scanning your body from your head downward. Move your attention to different parts of your body as you breathe and keep exploring sensations.
- Ask yourself what each body part is feeling. Is there pressure, vibration, heat, pulsing, heaviness, lightness?
- Be curious and open to what you are noticing. Tune in to what’s present without judgment. You can try to visualize any pain or tension leaving your body, but don’t try to force discomfort away.
- When your mind wanders and you get lost in thoughts, bring your attention back to exploring sensations in the body and breathing until you’re done with the practice.
How long should a body scan meditation take?
It depends on how much time you have and your preferences. There is no strict time limit, however giving yourself about 20 to 40 minutes to let yourself really relax and get into the practice is recommended.
If you’re short on time, even a five- or 10-minute body scan meditation can be beneficial.
Consistency is key if you want to get the most benefits from a meditation practice. Experts in meditation at University of California Berkeley suggest practicing three to six days per week, for at least four weeks, in order to make the habit stick.
Can you practice mindfulness meditation while also doing a body scan?
Yes — in fact a body scan can be thought of as one form of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is commonly defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It involves regulating one’s attention toward current-moment experiences and noticing those experiences with an attitude of openness, acceptance and curiosity.
While there are many forms of meditation, three popular types of meditation include focus, mantra and moving meditations. Mindfulness and body scans can be considered focus-oriented practices.
All mindfulness practices involve setting an intention to focus on a specific “object of awareness,” and in the case of body scans, it’s the body that’s being observed.
As the Headspace website puts it, “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.”
You can combine a body scan with breath-oriented meditation by staying present with and breathing into sensations as you notice them taking place.
- A body scan can be performed while lying down, sitting or in other postures. Sitting may be best if it helps you stay awake, while laying down is best if it’s most relaxing and helps you sleep.
- Make sure you’re in a comfortable position and location that isn’t distracting.
- You may want to place a pillow or folded blanket under your knees to help take stress off of your back. You can also use a pillow under your head, blanket over your torso or anything else that makes you feel comfortable.
- It helps to lay or sit down somewhere where the lights are dimmed rather than shining in your face.
- Experiment with trying music versus silence. A guided meditation using a body scan meditation app can also be helpful if you get distracted easily.
- Visualization may also help take your practice to the next level. You can try visualizing ice melting as your muscles relax, you floating in water or other calming images.
- To listen to either long or short body scan meditations, check out UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), which offers several different downloadable scripts and audio meditations.
Risks and Side Effects
Meditation overall is very safe and a low-risk way to cope with stress and pain. If you suffer from PTSD or severe anxiety, it might be helpful to start practicing with a therapist.
If you’re struggling to feel like you benefit much from a body scan practice, consider your intentions and attitude toward the practice. Are you rushing or approaching the practice with specific goals in mind?
It’s best to stay open-minded and curious, rather than going into meditation with specific goals. If your practice is actually worsening your stress, try making your sessions shorter and taking the pressure off of yourself to see immediate benefits.
- Body scan meditation is a practice that involves mindfully scanning your body as you pay attention to sensations. Noticing sensations (like discomfort, pain, tightness, tension, heat, etc.) helps you stay present and also allows you to connect your emotions to physical sensations you’re experiencing.
- Benefits can include improved awareness, reduced stress, better sleep, help coping with pain, improved focus, increased self-compassion and gratitude, and more.
- The basic way to practice is to lay or sit, focus on your breath, then scan sensations from your head to toes without judging them.
- You can practice for anywhere between three and 40 minutes, however 20 to 30 minutes is common. If you’re new, start with shorter sessions and use a script or app for support.