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  • The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

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November 12, 2021

Many people around the world struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Some have a hard time sinking into slumber as the lights go off and others wake in the middle of the night, unable to drift back to sleep. When we find ourselves in either of these scenarios, we might feel hopeless or drained, unable to give ourselves what we so desire: that is, deep rest.

One technique that we can practice at any time to support ourselves in falling to sleep is the body scan meditation. Many people use a body scan meditation for sleep as a way of calming both mind and body, which helps to create conditions conducive with slumber.

But what is a body scan exercise and how do you do a body scan for sleep? In this comprehensive guide to the power and practice of body scan meditation for sleep, we will explore:

  • What Is a Body Scan Meditation?
  • How Body Scans Support Sleep
  • How Do You Do a Body Scan for Sleep?
  • 6 Body Scan Exercises for Sleep
body scan meditation for sleep, The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

It is only by grounding our awareness in the living sensation of our bodies that the ‘I Am,’ our real presence, can awaken.

- G.I. Gurdjieff -

body scan meditation for sleep, The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

What Is a Body Scan Meditation?

One of the most common mindfulness meditation techniques, a body scan meditation is a practice of bringing curious, non-judgmental awareness to different parts of the physical body. It is called a ‘scan’ because this technique invites us to mentally scan through the body with eyes closed, feeling into our sense of various body parts with an inner lens. Typically, the scan is conducted in a systematic way from head to toes or toes to head. However, some body scan meditations move in a less systematic manner.

While many people use a body scan for sleep, this meditation technique can be used at any time of day – not just before bed. A body scan, just like mindful breathing techniques, is a great practice to incorporate into our daily practice as it strengthens our overall capacity for present moment awareness. 

It is also worth noting that body scans differ from progressive muscle relaxation techniques. In the latter, the process includes active tensing of different muscle groups and then releasing this tension. In body scan meditation, we simply draw caring curiosity to our sensory experience of different organs, muscle groups, or parts of the body. There is no active release taking place, although some body scan meditations will include the invitation to gently soften any tension that might be observed.

How Body Scans Support Sleep

When it comes to sleep, why are body scans an effective technique to consider? Research points to a variety of mechanisms in attempt to explain why this technique is helpful for many who have sleep issues. Consider the following:

Body scan meditation can reduce cortisol, our primary stress hormone.

One research study noted that a group of participants who underwent an eight-week training program of body scan meditation showed reduced cortisol levels as compared to a control group. Cortisol is our body’s primary stress hormone, secreted when we are undergoing stress.

Mindfulness-based interventions (including body scans and mindful breathing) may help to reduce depression and PTSD symptoms.

Another study found both that mindful breathing and body scanning led to significant decreases in PTSD and depression among veterans. Since both PTSD and depression can interfere with healthy sleep patterns, the technique could support sleep where these are a factor., Please note, however, that mindfulness-based interventions are not a substitute for professional health care. Always consult with a health care professional prior to beginning a new regimen for wellbeing.

Body scans increase interoceptive awareness, which can help us to regulate emotion and manage stress.

Another explanation for why body scan meditation may be effective for sleep is that it redirects our attention to the body and heightens our sense of our internal physiological state. This might impact the way we then relate to our emotions and to our experience of stress.

Body scan interventions may reduce the experience of pain.

For those who struggle to get a good night’s sleep due to chronic pain, research indicates that in a clinical setting, brief body scan interventions can reduce ratings of pain-related distress. It is important to note, however, that new students of mindfulness might experience an intensification of sensation when they begin mindfulness training since mindfulness (including body scan practices) increase our awareness of our direct experience. If you experience chronic pain and are new to mindfulness techniques, consider working with a teacher to safely ease into these practices.

Body scan meditation redirects our focus.

Lastly, we can also consider the simple fact that body scan meditations shift our focus away from the contents of the thinking mind. If our sleep struggles are due to racing or worried thoughts, this might be another reason that body-based practices are helpful. Quite often we live more in our thinking brains than in our feeling bodies. This shift can help the nervous system to settle and therefore ease us into the sleep we need.

body scan meditation for sleep, The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

Body awareness not only anchors you in the present moment. It is a doorway out of the prison that is the ego.

- Eckhart Tolle -

body scan meditation for sleep, The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

How Do You Do a Body Scan for Sleep?

So where does someone begin if they wish to practice a body scan meditation for sleep? For beginners, there are many guided practices that can help to enhance familiarity with the technique. In other words, we can let ourselves be guided, simply listening to the words and following along with the directions offered. Consider the examples listed in the section below.

If, however, you want to try this practice alongside your own guidance – or if you wake in the middle of the night and don’t want to reach for your phone – familiarize yourself with the following steps:

  • Adjust your body to find a comfortable lying down position – or as comfortable as possible for the moment.
  • Start by taking ten grounding breaths. Breathe in as deeply as is comfortable and then exhale with a gentle sigh. You can count out these breaths to help focus and ease the mind.
  • To begin the body scan, draw your attention to the top of your head. Feel into this space, just noticing what is there. Keep your attention here for at least a full breath and up to 20 or 30 seconds.
  • When you feel ready to shift your attention, move your inner lens to your forehead. Witness what is present here with curiosity and non-judgment.
  • When you are ready to move on, continue in the same way as you slowly scan your awareness through the body – part by part. Consider the sample flow outlined below, knowing that this can be adjusted according to your intuition and/or your body’s needs:
  • Head space – top of the head, forehead, cheeks, jaw, mouth, back of the head, neck
  • Upper extremities – shoulders, upper arms, elbows, lower arms, hands (one side of the body at a time)
  • Torso/mid-body – chest (front and back), lungs, heart, spine (descending vertebra by vertebra), belly, lower back, pelvis, hips
  • Lower extremities – upper legs, knees, lower legs, feet (one side of the body at a time)
  • Remember that as you draw your awareness to each body part, the intention is to bring curious, caring, non-judgmental awareness to each part and your experience of it. You do not need to exert will to change your experience, but you might find that you naturally soften or release where you discover tension (i.e. in the jaw, the hands, or the belly)
  • Once you finish, take a few whole body breaths. Notice if there has been any shift in your present moment experience – without holding expectations. Again, remain curious.
  • If you feel the need to practice it again, start from step one and repeat. Be patient with this practice, as with all other meditations, knowing that you cannot force your experience to be other than what it is. Through cultivating trust, curiosity, and care, your experience will shift naturally.

6 Body Scan Exercises for Sleep

If you would like some guidance as you explore this type of practice, consider the following body scan exercises. For practices that you enjoy, bookmark the page or save the link so that you can easily come back to them when needed.

body scan meditation for sleep, The Power and Practice of a Body Scan Meditation for Sleep

The first practice is a written script. You can read through this exercise prior to sleep and then practice it from memory. Alternatively, you can read it aloud and record it, saving it for future use.

For a practice that requires no reading and no recording, consider this nine-minute meditation with Sean Fargo. This soothing practice includes nature sounds as a backdrop, helping to promote a sense of calmness as you move through the body.

If you are looking for a longer practice, consider this compassionate body scan by Kristin Neff. This meditation focuses not only on present moment awareness of the body but also on cultivating self-compassion. It is a reminder to be gentle and tender towards ourselves.

Another body scan meditation script, this meditation can be read first and then practiced by memory or recorded for playback. It is a beautiful practice for when we feel the caught up in thinking and need to ground back into the earth.

For those that want to listen to a guided practice, you might also consider this 40-minute guided body scan meditation by Christiane Wolf. It is a practice that helps us to cultivate a sense of appreciation for the physical body as we move our awareness through it.

Finally, if you want to become more familiar with how you can move through a body scan meditation on your own, download this body scan worksheet. This worksheet outlines in-depth the steps you can take to practice this by yourself.

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About the author 

Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]