The first time I did a body scan, I thought it was a load of crap and basically gave up. A few months later though, I decided to give it another go. This time, instead of listening to my own thoughts mocking me for trying again, I just noted them, put them aside and returned to the body part I was on. Over time, I started to get distracted less and less often. I felt more centered and engaged with where I was.” – Angelo, 35
In this guided practice, we’ll be focusing attention on sensations to train body awareness and ultimately improve our ability to regulate even challenging emotions.
Like our breath, body sensations are always with us, so this is a practice we can do almost anywhere and anytime, and requires only a few minutes.
Why body scans?
With the body scan, we’ll continue to build our skills of anchoring attention that we started in Lesson 1. Whenever our focus is pulled away (such as, into ruminations or worries), redirecting our attention back to the body can help ground us in the present. We’ll also build our awareness of body sensations.
During a body scan, the goal isn’t to make sensations happen, but simply to notice whatever sensation makes itself known, such as warmth, coolness, tension, pressure (dull or sharp), tingling, numbness, or pulsing. In this process, we learn to approach all body sensations – pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – with openness and curiosity, expanding our capacity to be with our full range of experiences.
You may find that some areas of the body are easier to get in tune with, while there are little to no signals, or sensations, coming from other areas.
With practice, you may find these ‘quiet areas’ start speaking more often, and in more detail. This is supported by research that has shown an increase in body awareness after only eight weeks of body scan practice.
Through regular practice, the body scan allows us to more readily access valuable information about our internal state, including our emotional experiences (like early signals of anxiety or depression).
Follow along with the steps below, as we guide you through a simple body scan that takes less than 10 minutes.
Before you start
For this practice, you can choose to sit or lie down.
- If lying down:
- Try resting on an exercise or yoga mat, or a comfortable surface where you can remain fully awake and at ease. Your hands can rest at your sides or on your belly, with your legs outstretched or bent. You may want a cushion under your head and/or knees.
- If sitting upright:
- Try releasing any rigidity in the shoulders and spine. Cushions and supports are welcome, such as a sweater behind the lower back.
- Close your eyes, or lower your gaze with a soft, unfocused gaze to minimize visual distractions. If you find yourself getting sleepy, you may wish to keep your eyes open. (Let’s keep them open for now though, while we walk through the practice together!)
- Make any last adjustments to be comfortable and at ease. Some slight discomfort in your position may arise over the course of the practice, but that’s ok; if it gets too intense, you can make an intentional choice to shift postures.
Step 1: Grounding
- Begin to notice where your body meets the surface beneath you, whether the floor or chair, focusing on any sensations. Observe temperature and variations of pressure at these points of contact.
Step 2: Focus on the breath
- Turn your attention to the movement of breath and the rise and fall of your belly from full inhale to full exhale. On an exhale, invite your body to sink towards the points of contact, releasing any unnecessary work or tension in your muscles, as you allow the ground or sitting surface to more completely support you.
- If at any time you feel lost during the body scan, or feel like you may be outside your window of tolerance, you can return your attention to breath, anchoring your attention here until you’re ready to return to the practice.
Step 3: Begin to shift your focus to different areas of the body
- On the next exhale, release your attention from the breath, and shift it down to both feet. Try to use your curiosity to explore any sensations at the soles of each foot (heels, arches, and toes).
- Open to any sensation along the sides and tops of the feet, perhaps sensations of socks or the movement of air. Noticing any sensation along the surface of the skin, or deep within both feet, such as pulsing, or vibration.
- There may be many sensations, few, or none at all. There’s no need to strive to find sensation or try to make it happen. Simply notice what happens when you direct attention here.
- Whenever you notice your attention has wandered, acknowledge what caught your attention – perhaps a sound, a stream of thoughts, or a sensation elsewhere in the body – then gently guide your attention back to your feet.
- Invite curiosity to any sensations that make itself known, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
- When you’re ready – you might spend 30 seconds (or 5-8 breaths) for each body section – shift your attention from your feet to the next area of your body.
AREAS OF THE BODY
Gradually work your way through each of the following areas. There is no rush here. If you have the urge to rush through, note that urge and return your focus to the body.
You want to make sure you go over every part of your body, as best you can, leaving no areas left out.
BODY CUES, SIGNALS, AND SENSATIONS
As you go through each area of the body, try to notice:
- Top, back, sides
- Skin/surface, deeper muscles, bones, and tendons
- Pressure, tension and ease
- Temperature (warmth, cold, neutral)
- Heaviness or lightness
- Breeze or flow of air, or the weight and texture of clothing
- Sounds (e.g., of the digestive system)
- Movements (e.g., rise and fall of the chest and belly, or pulsing of the heart)
- Pressure or weight at any points of contact with the chair or ground
Step 4: It’s all about attitude!
Make adjustments with intention
- If you decide to make an adjustment to your body or position, that is okay. But try to be intentional about how you do so.
- Instead of noticing ‘Oh hey, I’m scratching my leg’, form the intention to scratch your leg, then do it. This way you’re acting after noting your body’s signals, not reacting without thought.
- Explore the edges, depth, and qualities of any source of discomfort – such as throbbing, tingling, sharpness, dullness – noticing its outer edges, where intense sensations give way to more ease.
- If you notice an urge to avoid or get rid of this sensation, recognize this as a natural impulse, and see if you can stay with the sensation as it is, even for a moment or two.
- If needed, you can always expand your focus to other sensations nearby, shift attention to the breath at the belly for a few moments, or step back from the practice if you’re outside the window of tolerance.
When judgment or frustration arises
- If judgment arises, simply notice this natural tendency of the mind, then see if you can soften this judgment to bring a kind curiosity to the body, just as it is.
Step 5: Expanding Focus
- After moving through each area of the body, ending with your face, slowly expand the size of your focus of attention to encompass your entire head and neck.
- Expand further to hold the entire mid and upper body in focus: head, torso, arms
- Expand still further to also include the lower body
- Pause to hold your whole body in awareness. Take some extra time here to feel the body as a whole
Step 6: Wind Down
- Start by wiggling your fingers and toes
- Rotate your wrists and ankles in circles
- Stretch out through the arms and legs
- Notice any sensations brought on by these movements
- Open the eyes if they’ve been closed, and allow them to adjust to the light
- If you’re lying down, form an intention of how you’ll sit back up, then mindfully follow through with that movement
As the practice ends, observe the present state of the body and mind – perhaps there’s tension, ease, sleepiness, restlessness, curiosity – knowing there’s no one way you’re supposed to feel.
Instead, see if you can continue bringing an open, curious interest to any internal experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, as you go about your day.
The next page includes a Workbench Exercise that gives us the opportunity to reflect on this first body scan practice.