Body Scan Meditation

Release Tension With This Targeted Meditation Technique

Overhead view of woman lying down meditating
Deborah Kolb / Getty Images

When you're feeling stressed, it's common to "carry stress in your body" in the form of tense shoulders, a stomach "in knots," through shallow breathing, or in other ways. When people carry stress in their bodies, they're often not even aware of it! When we're really stressed, we may be feeling physical discomfort but not connect it with our emotions. A body scan meditation is a practice that can be performed daily or even several times a day and can help you learn to identify what you are feeling and where you're feeling it, and learn to release the stress in your body and mind.

The body scan meditation is effective in relieving stress not only because of the mind-clearing aspects present in all forms of meditation but because of the physical component as well. Research shows that there are physical and psychological benefits to relaxing the body and relieving tension. Relieving physical tension, for example, has been shown to lead to a decrease in psychological stress, even when no psychologically-based stress relief efforts are made. Tension relieved in the body can lead to lower stress levels and lower reactivity to future stress, which can, in turn, lead to less physical tension as a result of stress.

In this way, this meditation works to break the cycle of physical and psychological tension that can feed on itself. Because of this, the body scan meditation is a very useful and effective meditation that can help you to stay relaxed mentally and physically, and return to a relaxed state when you become too tense. You can try a body scan meditation right now; here's how.

Get Comfortable 

Sit in a comfortable place and fully relax your body. You don't need to be lying down, but it helps, particularly if you're doing a body scan meditation before you fall asleep. Try to get into a position that is comfortable enough for you to fully relax without becoming so comfortable that you may fall asleep if you're not able to nap or sleep at the moment. Let your breathing slow down, and start breathing from your belly instead of from your chest, letting your abdomen expand and contract with each breath. If you find your shoulders rising and falling with each breath, focus more on breathing from your belly, as though a balloon is inflating and deflating in your abdomen with each breath. For more practice on this, try these breathing exercises.

Notice Where Tension Lies 

Starting with your head, bring your awareness to your body and notice any tension you're feeling as you practice your body scan meditation. Do you feel a feeling of tightness in your shoulders, back, neck, or anywhere else? What about sensations of pain, either sharp, dull, or subtle? Do you have a feeling of concentrated 'energy' around a certain area? Sit with it for a minute and notice what you're feeling in your body. You may want to start at the top of your head and systematically focus on each area of your body on your way down--scalp, ears, cheeks, neck, shoulders, chest, solar plexus, etc.--and really notice what sensations you have in each area. This becomes easier and more automatic with practice to the point where you'll be able to do this with very little effort.

Zero In On Tense Areas 

If you notice any uncomfortable sensations, focus your attention on them. Breathe into them, and see what happens. Visualize the tension leaving your body through your breath and evaporating into the air. (Many people notice that the feeling becomes more intense first, and as they continue their body scan meditation and keep their focus, the feeling dissipates.) Keep your awareness on that feeling for a little while, just staying present. Give yourself a little massage in that area if you want to. Move on when you feel ready.

Continue, and Breathe 

After starting with your head, move down to your neck and beyond, and repeat these body scan meditation steps. Notice if there's any tightness, pain or pressure, and continue the process. Breathe into the areas you notice, and stay with the feelings. Gently massage your neck if you wish. Let the energy relax and your muscles become slacker.

Scan Your Entire Body 

Continue this practice with each area of your body, moving from head to toe. Notice how you feel, where you're holding your stress, and what sensations you're experiencing as a result. Breathe, meditate, massage and relax. This can help you release tension in your body now, and be more aware of it in the future so you can release it then, too.

Tips

  1. Practice this body scan meditation anytime you feel stress or several times through the day.
  2. If you don't have a lot of time, you can do an abbreviated version of this body scan meditation by just sitting and noticing any place in your body that you're carrying tension, rather than moving group by group. This will become easier as you practice the body scan meditation regularly.
  3. The body scan meditation can promote body awareness, stress awareness, and relaxation. Practice it often. You can also try progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, or visualization exercises for releasing stress and tension in your body.
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