In this blog, I introduce the body scan mindfulness meditation practice: what it is, what is involved and how you can practice this meditation.
The body scan is one of the first core meditation practices that we learn and practice in the 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) programme. “The body scan has proven to be an extremely powerful and healing form of meditation.” noted Jon Kabat-Zinn, the american scientist who developed the world renowned MBSR programme recently (Kabat-Zinn, 2018). He can say this on the basis of consistent evidence over 40 years now of the positive impact of the MBSR programme on stress, quality of life and mental health (for example, deVibe et al, 2017). In particular, when we practice the body scan regularly, we may experience greater awareness of our thoughts, feelings and physical body sensations and non-reactivity to stressful moments that in turn supports our psychological well being (Carmody & Baer, 2008).
What is it?
The body scan involves taking a sweeping journey through the body with our mind. As we pay attention to different parts and areas of the body in a systematic way, we bring along attitudes of open-heartedness, curiosity and care. Typically we practice in a lying down position, which can be the most comfortable position for many of us to be still for longer periods of time. Of course, the other side is that we tend to associate lying down with sleeping so we might find we drift into drowsiness more easily. Practising with eyes open or a soft, unfocused gaze can support the intention of ‘wakefulness’. And with practice, we may experience this position as grounding and supportive of a new habit of ‘falling awake’. And of course, we can also choose to sit or stand for a body scan if that feels like the best position for us to practice the body scan.
The body scan is a welcome opportunity to meet the body just as it is. We are not seeking to change anything we notice in this journey. We simply grow awareness of body sensations which will help us to explore stress as it shows up in the body: ‘it is easier to heal a body that you are actually in‘ (Jon Kabat-Zinn). So we might notice parts of the body that are experienced as pleasant and we might notice others that are more unpleasant, even uncomfortable and tight with tension. We might notice some for the first time and find something new in each practice. Simply in the noticing of these previously unacknowledged sensations and experiences can change our relationship with the pain and discomfort. We can learn to bring mind and body together and find a new kind of ease and familiarity of being at home in our bodies. As we become more attuned to our physical sensations, we may also become more attuned to our needs and how to make healthy choices about eating, sleep and exercise to take care of our bodies, minds and hearts. We may also find the body scan a soothing way to honour and feel the full range of human emotions.
What is involved?
Usually we start this journey by taking in a sense of the whole body resting in its still position. Then we begin by taking the attention right down to the feet, to the left big toes, the rest of the toes, sole of the foot, front then moving upwards through the ankle, lower leg, knee and upper leg. Then we move over to the right toes, feet, ankle, lower leg, knee and upper leg. From here continuing to move successively up through the pelvis area including the hips and groin, the lower back, mid and upper back, coming around to the abdomen, the chest, ribs, the lungs and heart regions, the collarbones and shoulders. From the shoulders, we move down through the arms, taking them together we can start at the fingertips, into the knuckles, palms and front of hands, into wrists, lower arms, elbows and upper arms up armpits and shoulders again. Finally we move into the neck, head and face. We close the practice with another whole body expansive scan. Along the way, we might marvel at the intricacies of the body’s anatomy and functionality. We might tune into the breath that carries us in each moment. We may also notice the kinds of thoughts and emotions that might arise as we move along.
What if my mind won’t stay still?
Full disclosure – truth is that our minds don’t stay still! Phew! right?? In the body scan, we really get to see this part of being human in action. We might experience a mind that moves our attention away from the body many times. And we celebrate those moments when we realise that the mind had wandered off of our chosen focus of attention in the body. I repeat – it is completely natural for human minds to wander (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). The skill is in noticing and choosing to redirect. The magic is in that moment when we realise where our attention is now. Because this is it, the moment of awareness. In this moment, we now have a choice. Where to place the attention. What action to take next. And what attitude to bring to this moment. So what will we choose? Judgement? harshness? We can choose to drop any secondary layer of self-judgement that may well arise in the noticing that our attention had wandered off. This too we can understand as we get to know our habits of mind and thinking through mindfulness meditation practice. The more we catch these moments, the more choice opens up to us in our lives. The more we can choose to stop and restart. The less we feel like we are living on automatic pilot, at the merciless control of a tyranny of conscious and unconscious thinking.
Is there any harm?
The core intention of mindfulness practice is to reduce suffering and to not cause harm. Yet mindfulness meditation is as deep as it is simple in practice. Just like any activity that has potentially therapeutic benefits (for example, physical exercise) may carry risk of unintentional negative effects (Kuyken, 2016). For this reason, exercising personal choice and agency in any such activity is crucial. Body scans are invitational in nature. Sometimes people find paying attention to their bodies in this way can feel stressful and threatening. We may be living with unexpressed emotion, chronic pain or other historical traumas of the body that we have worked hard to distract ourselves from in different ways. Now we are asking to open up to all. So it is crucial that whenever we find this feeling of pain, resistance and overwhelm, that we know we can make choices to stay grounded by choosing to move the attention to a more neutral place in the body, by opening your eyes and seeing familiar objects that let you know where you are and by stopping the body scan meditation if that is what feels best for you. This is self-care. This is also a crucial mindfulness moment of choice. We can practice in small, achievable steps that work for us. Working with a trustworthy teacher who is following a monitored teaching pathway can also offer vital supports for practising mindfulness meditation in safe and sustainable ways.
Practising the Body Scan
You can join us for the live weekly body scan on Friday evenings 8.30pm (Irish Time). I guide you through a 30 minute body scan practice and there is also space for comments and questions about the practice experience. These practices are currently available online, with some limited spaces onsite at Flourish Movement Studio, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. If you would like to join the class simply email firstname.lastname@example.org for the registration form or follow this link.
You can also try out this brief body scan, 10 minutes once or twice a day. Try it for a few weeks and see what you find for yourself. Let us know how you find it!
Feel free to get in touch with any questions or requests.
Wishing you all well,
- Jon Kabat-Zinn (2018). Falling Awake: How to practice mindfulness in everyday life. (p. 79) London: Piatkus, Hachette Books.
- de Vibe at al (2017) https://doi.org/10.4073/csr.2017.11
- Carmody, J. & Baer, R.A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms, and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(1), 23-33.
- Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
- Kuyken, W. (2016). Is mindfulness safe? https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/news/is-mindfulness-safe/