Did you think that meditation was all about “the mind,” and aren’t quite sure where the body fits into the “mindfulness” equation?
There’s a reason body scan meditations are so effective – we actually hold a lot of our emotions inside of our body. In a practical sense, that’s exactly where we feel things like fear, anger, shame and frustration. Ever notice that your stomach sinks when you feel guilty about something you’ve done, or your throat clamps up when you’re feeling sad? Those are common examples of how the body expresses what’s going on inside in the mind, whether we realize we’re having those experiences or not.
Discovering what’s happening in the body with full awareness during meditation is a way for you to have an active, powerful role in improving habits, behaviors and, ultimately, your life. A body scan meditation is one that helps put you into a deeply restful state where you can dwell in awareness. (To learn more about the benefits of meditation read Trusting the Practice of Meditation.) By feeling every pulse, tingle and sensation in your body while paying attention to feelings like tightness, heaviness, or constriction, you can gain insight into how your mind is processing what’s going on in your life.
Fore example, sometimes you can tell something isn’t quite right, but you’re not exactly sure what’s bothering you. After regular meditation practice you can start to notice familiar feelings in the body and quickly realize how that translates to how you’re feeling. Embracing whatever comes up during meditation – whether good, bad or neutral – is exactly what mindfulness is all about. (Learn more about mindfulness in 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
Responding, Not Reacting
It’s only after we become aware of a problem that we can start to unravel it. Similarly, we need to acknowledge positive feelings and experiences to get the most benefit from them. When we aren’t in touch with our daily thoughts we lose our power over them.
Maybe you find yourself meditating and discover a sense of heaviness or a feeling of cloudiness near your heart. You might not have realized prior to your meditation that an event the day before left you feeling ashamed and worried. By checking in with your body, you are bringing awareness to your emotions so that you can choose how to respond.
Learning how to respond to thoughts and feelings instead of simply reacting to them is the secret of meditation. It’s what gives the practice the power to change everything in our lives.
Aside from getting to know yourself better, discovering the body during meditation can help you enter a deep state of relaxation. Body-based meditations activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and help strengthen its response. The PNS is in charge of keeping you calm, cool and collected – so the more you can train it to take over and guide you through your feelings, the better equipped you’ll be to handle tough emotions when they arise "off the mat.”
If you’re new to using your body during meditation as a means of discovering more about your inner world, begin by practicing slowly and for short periods of time. Choose a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted; ideally in comfortable clothes, either laying or sitting down. Begin the meditation by scanning your body methodically. Bring your attention to various body parts one by one, either slowly working up from your toes all the way to the crown of the head or vice versa. Connect with how each body part is feeling. Tight, tense, achy, hollow, heavy, dark, light, warm, cold: all these sensations are great indicators that you are getting in touch with yourself.
You don’t need to enter a body meditation with any expectations. You can simply look at the body clearly and see what it’s experiencing, since it’s already happening without your consent. “Non striving” is a principle of meditation and yoga that means doing the meditation without an agenda. It is simply a way to get to know ourselves better and see things more clearly and realistically, and not with the goal of entering into a certain state of mind or to change ourselves. There’s no need to judge what you find when scanning through the body, or to feel frustrated if your mind wanders – just keep coming back to the body and keep an open mind. (Read more in Don't Judge Your Meditation.)
Start with a simple five to 10 minute meditation session. Once it's over, take a moment to reflect on what thoughts, feelings and sensations came up. You can use these insights to develop a better understanding of how you’re feeling at your core.