A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation

Trish Magyari teaches an eight-week-long Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, where students learn a range of meditations. At the end, participants decide which meditation, or combination of them, motivates and relaxes them the most.

Although rushing goes against the rules of meditation, Magyari gives us a pass with this crash course on the body scan, one of the meditations taught in the course.

The purpose of the body scan, she says, is "to bring awareness to each part of our body sequentially, to see how it is today — not to check in to change or judge the body, which we're apt to do, but just to experience it and see what's there."

"Most people find it extremely relaxing," Magyari says.

Get Ready

Block out at least 30 minutes of time and turn off your cell phone. Lie down in a comfortable place, such as your bed or a cushy mat on the floor.

Get Grounded

Before you start the scan, notice the parts of the body in contact with the mat.

"People often notice what is pressing is their heads or hips, so before the formal scan, we imagine softening around those areas," Magyari says.

This is a chance to tune into and relax parts of the body that are holding tension – such as the jaws, neck and shoulders, or even gripping in the calves.

Set Your Intention

Agree to let go of the past and future. Don't listen to the sounds around you. Let everything fade into the background but the body. Agree to meet what you find in the body with friendliness.

"Usually, when people find something in their body they don't like, they meet it with judgment; the body that's in pain is your enemy," Magyari says. "It's a very radical concept to meet the body with friendliness."

Begin the Scan

Imagine you're taking a tour of your body — looking to see what's there just today. Don't visualize or move your body parts; simply notice and experience them, one by one. Magyari says start with the left foot. Feel how the heel makes contact with the mat. Can you tell if your toes are colder than the rest of your foot? If you have a blanket over you or a sock on, notice the weight and texture of the fabric.

Once you scan over a body part, allow that part to fade from awareness. Let it go and then move up to the next body part: the ankle, the calf, the knee, the thigh. Then cross over the lower torso, travel down the right leg and start again at the right foot, and repeat, traveling up the body, part by part, until you reach the head.

Connect It All Together

After you scan the head, you want to connect the entire body together, says Magyari.

"Instructors give cues to help you feel the entire body," she says.

For example: Feel the head connected to the neck, the neck connected to the torso, the torso connected to the arms, and so on.

The final step is to feel the skin around the whole body, Magyari says. Notice the sensations on your skin — temperature, texture.

"At the very end, we're lying with the awareness of our wholeness in that moment. We're not thinking about what's right or wrong with us, our state of health, but just that sense of physical wholeness," Magyari says.

People suffering from chronic pain often find some relief with the body scan, she says. Magyari recalls one patient who had been living with chronic pain for 20 years.

"Previously, her sense was, 'I just hurt everywhere,'" says Magyari. After two weeks of body scan training, the patient realized there were parts of her body that weren't in pain. That may not sound like much to some people, but for patients who see their bodies ruled by pain, Magyari says it's a refreshing discovery.

For more on the body scan and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses, refer to the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and to the book Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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