5 minutes, three to six days per week. Research suggests that people who practice the body scan for longer reap more benefits from this practice.
How to Do It
The body scan can be performed while lying down, sitting, or in other postures. The steps below are a guided meditation designed to be done while sitting. You can listen to audio of this three-minute guided meditation, produced by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), in the player; if it doesn't play, you can find it here or download it from MARC's website.*
Especially for those new to the body scan, we recommend performing this practice with the audio. However, you can also use the script below for guidance for yourself or for leading this practice for others.
- Begin by bringing your attention to your environment, slowly looking around and noticing that you are safe in this moment.
- Bring your attention into your body.
- You can close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you or maintain a soft gaze, with your eyes partially closed but not focusing on anything in particular.
- You can notice your body seated wherever you’re seated, feeling the support of the chair or the floor beneath you.
- Take a few deep, long breaths, within the range of what is comfortable for you.
- And as you take a deep breath, bring in more oxygen, enlivening the body. And as you exhale, you might experience a sense of relaxing more deeply.
- You can notice your feet on the floor, notice the sensations of your feet touching the floor. The weight and pressure, vibration, heat.
- You can notice your legs against the chair, pressure, pulsing, heaviness, lightness.
- Notice your back against the chair, supporting you. If you are not able to notice sensations in all areas of the body, that is OK. We are more connected to certain areas of the body than others, at different times of the day.
- Bring your attention into your stomach area. If your stomach is tense or tight, can you allow it to soften? Take a breath.
- Notice your hands. Are your hands tense or tight? See if you can allow them to soften.
- Notice your arms. Feel any sensation in your arms. Do your best to allow your shoulders to be soft.
- Notice your neck and throat. Try to allow them be soft. See if you can invite a sense of relaxation in.
- Try to soften your jaw. Do your best to allow your face and facial muscles to be soft.
- Then notice your whole body present. Take one more breath.
- Be aware of your whole body as best you can. Take a breath. Slowly open up the eyes, without focusing on anything in particular. Allow the head and neck to gently rotate, taking in the space you are in. When you feel ready, you can return to your normal gaze.
* You can also listen to a 45-minute version of the Body Scan that the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness uses in its trainings in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Why You Should Try It
This exercise asks you to systematically focus your attention on different parts of your body, from your feet to the muscles in your face. It is designed to help you develop a mindful awareness of your bodily sensations, and to relieve tension when possible. Research suggests that this mindfulness practice can help reduce stress, improve your well-being, and decrease aches and pains.
Why It Works
Our body can sometimes be a source of pain and negative emotions, whether they are caused by injury or disease, or experiences of discrimination and prejudice. The body scan provides a rare opportunity for us to experience our body as it is, including any difficult feelings that come up, without judging or trying to change it.
It may allow us to notice and release a source of tension we weren’t aware of before, such as a hunched back or clenched jaw muscles. Or it may draw our attention to a source of pain and discomfort.
Our feelings of resistance and anger toward pain often only serve to increase that pain, and to increase the distress associated with it. According to research, by noticing the pain we’re experiencing, without trying to change it, we may actually feel some relief. Even if the pain doesn't go away, we can take steps to shift our relationship to pain and our relationship to our body in general.
The body scan allows us to work with these types of negative feelings. This practice may also increase our general attunement to our physical needs and sensations, which can in turn help us take better care of our body and make healthier decisions about eating, sleep, and exercise.
Evidence That It Works
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.
Body Scan is one of the practices included in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and based on Buddhist teachings, MBSR is a six- to 10-week program that teaches various mindfulness techniques through weekly sessions and homework assignments. More information about this program is available in Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living.
People in Massachusetts who attended an MSBR program showed increases in mindfulness and well-being, and decreases in stress and symptoms of mental illness, at the end of eight weekly sessions. Time spent engaging in the Body Scan was associated with increased psychological well-being and greater levels of two components of mindfulness—non-reacting to stress and observing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.
Who Has Tried the Practice?
Additional studies explore how the Body Scan benefits people outside the U.S.:
- Terminal cancer patients in Hong Kong improved in overall mental health and reported feeling more peaceful, happy, and calm after 90 minutes of the Body Scan.
- Japanese people increased in self-compassion and decreased in symptoms of depression and anxiety after an eight-week mindfulness program that included the Body Scan.
- University students in South Korea experienced reductions in self-criticism and psychological distress, along with improvements in self-reassurance and mental health, after participating in a six-week program that included Body Scan, Mindful Breathing, and the Loving-Kindness Meditation.
Research suggests that MBSR, which includes the Body Scan, benefits the mental health of various groups, including the following:
- People in different cultures and countries, such as bilingual Latin-American families, university students in China, disadvantaged families in Hong Kong, low-income cyclo drivers in Vietnam, males with generalized anxiety disorder in Iran, Indigenous people in the Republic of Congo, and Aboriginal Australians.
- Women around the world, including pregnant women in China, rural women in India who experienced still-birth, at-risk women in Iran, Muslim women college students in the United Arab Emirates, American survivors of intimate partner violence, and socioeconomically disadvantaged Black women with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- People with certain diseases, such as New Zealanders with rheumatoid arthritis, male patients with heart disease in India, patients with diabetes in South Korea, cancer patients in Canada, breast cancer survivors in China, and HIV-positive individuals in Toronto, San Francisco, Iran, and South Africa.
More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.
Keep in Mind
A 2015 study found that MBSR “improved depressive symptoms regardless of affiliation with a religion, sense of spiritually, … sex, or age.” However, other studies suggest that MBSR may not benefit everyone equally:
- When MBSR was administered in Massachusetts correctional facilities, male prisoners experienced less mental health improvement than female prisoners.
- MBSR may not be beneficial in all cultural contexts. For Haitian mental health practitioners and teachers, MBSR contradicted some of their cultural worldviews and everyday practices. Brazilian medical students who participated in MBSR experienced no significant changes in mental health or quality of life.
Diana Winston, Ph.D., UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
Steven D. Hickman, Psy.D., UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness
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The Body Scan Meditation helps us become more aware our bodies, an awareness we often neglect. Are you attuned to the present moment? Take our Mindfulness quiz to find out:
(Norma) Sasha Kusel
Very relaxing, even with the few minutes to do this exercise. Easy to do anywhere, at any time. I am definitely saving this exercise.
Too short for me.
Sonia Isabel Fernandes Barradas
The Greater Good Toolkit
Made in collaboration with Holstee, this tookit includes 30 science-based practices for a meaningful life.
The Greater Good Toolkit
Made in collaboration with Holstee, this tookit includes 30 science-based practices for a meaningful life.