Body Scan: Mindfulness of the Body

This entry was posted on Mar 7, 2024 by Charlotte Bell.

A while back, I wrote a post on mindfulness of the body, centering the practice on breath awareness. In the Theravada tradition, breath awareness is the starting point, the foundation of beginning to stabilize the mind. Breath awareness gives us a continuous process on which to rest the mind. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the mind won’t wander off into its own worries, memories and reveries even as we intend to stabilize our minds on the breathing process. But it’s in the process of continually recognizing that the mind has wandered off, and redirecting it back to the breath, that we begin to cultivate a new habit of mind. In today’s post, I’d like to invite you to play with expanding awareness into the rest of the body, utilizing a body scan.

How Does a Body Scan Work?

Body scans are foundational in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Goenka-style Vipassana meditation. Moving awareness systematically through the body is integral to Yoga Nidra practice. I’m sure there are other methodologies that use a form of body scanning as a way to stabilize awareness as well. Practicing a body scan can help us connect with the body internally, and as a whole.

In body scan practice, we systematically move awareness through the body. This can include intentionally relaxing areas as we acknowledge them. It could also be simply visiting these areas without a particular agenda.

In some forms of the practice, we start with the feet and move up the body. In others, we start with the head and work our way down to the feet. It’s simply a matter of preference. In the practice I’ll introduce below, I start with the head. That’s because, at least for me, visiting the anatomy of the head seems to have a softening effect on everything below.

Breath Awareness vs. Open Awareness

Since breath awareness is usually where mindfulness practice begins, we may tend to think that it’s an “elementary” practice, and that open awareness of the body as a whole is more “advanced.” Joseph Goldstein addressed this at an Insight Meditation retreat I attended a few years ago. When asked which form of body mindfulness practice was preferable—breath awareness or open awareness—he paused for a moment, and then said “whatever works.”

Which practice you choose on a given day depends on the state of your body/mind. If your mind seems scattered and unfocused—aka “monkey mind”—breath awareness can help you stabilize it. If you’re practicing breath awareness and find that your body and mind are feeling tense and stuck, you might want to invite the rest of your body into awareness. The practice that’s best for you on a given day will be the one that allows you to be most mindful.

There’s More than One Way to Practice a Body Scan

Before I suggest the practice below, I want to reiterate that this is not the only way to practice a body scan. This is simply what I’ve used that has seemed to work with my mindfulness students. The practice below attempts to tune us into some of our internal anatomy, as well as general categories such as arms, legs, torso, etc.

You might want to record a voice memo on your phone so that you don’t have to look at the text. Or, if you’re like me, and hearing your own recorded voice is distracting, you can have a friend record the body scan instead.

Head-to-Toe Body Scan

You can practice this body scan sitting on a Meditation Cushion, lying down or in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). If you’re feeling tired, sitting or standing may help you stay more alert. If you’re feeling tense or stressed, lying down might work best.

Here’s how to practice. Remember that you can intentionally relax these areas, or simply be aware of the sensations you’re feeling as you touch into them:

  • Be aware of your facial muscles and scalp.
  • Your skull
  • Your brain inside the skull
  • Eyes
  • Cheeks
  • Inner ears
  • Outer ears
  • Jaw
  • Upper palate
  • Upper row of teeth
  • Inner cheeks
  • Lower row of teeth
  • Throat
  • Tops of the shoulders
  • Upper arms
  • Forearms
  • Hands
  • Fingers
  • Ribcage
  • Muscles between and around the ribs
  • Contents of the ribcage: heart and lungs
  • The diaphragm: Feel the diaphragmatic movement as the muscle flattens downward on the inhalation, making room for the lungs to expand, and pressing on the abdominal organs, causing the abdomen to expand. Then as you exhale, feel the diaphragm doming upward to help push air out of your lungs, allowing the abdominal organs to settle back into place. (You can practice this awareness for several breaths if you like.)
  • Abdominal muscles
  • Low back
  • Pelvis
  • Abdominal organs
  • Perineum
  • Thighs
  • Knees
  • Feet
  • Toes

Feel free to reverse the process and make your way back up, from the feet to the head, or proceed to the next instruction.

Open Awareness of the Body

Once you’ve finished your body scan, you can settle back and invite the entire body into awareness. Here, you can simply feel all the sensations arising—sensations of contact, temperature, tension, hardness, softness, pulsing, vibration—whatever is arising. If a particular sensation becomes predominant, you can rest your attention there, feeling its process. Does it intensify and then wane? Does it come and go? If nothing in particular feels predominant, rest your awareness in the whole body, feeling the breath arising within this larger frame.

As Joseph said, there’s no hierarchy between breath awareness and open awareness. Use your own meditation practice as a guide to which practice works better for you at a given moment.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

One response to “Body Scan: Mindfulness of the Body”

  1. Avatar Jen Deer says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder of the benefits of a body-scanning practice. It is such a lovely way to connect with our innate body-based intelligence. I appreciate that you itemized many of the areas we can focus our awareness on, as I so often forget the diaphragm!

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