Performing body scans, Hatha yoga, and simple exercises to promote well-being
What is the one place we never leave no matter how far we travel? Our body. It houses and powers every tool we use to observe and interact with the world around us. It can be perceived with great happiness, as when we feel vibrant and healthy, or negatively, as when we are struck with injury or illness. Being that we live in our bodies during every hour of every day, it makes perfect sense to use this permanent home of ours in our meditation practice.
Focusing on our body’s sensations is a great way to connect with the present moment and step outside our compulsive thinking patters (what some call “mind chatter”). Even if only for a few minutes at a time, we stop entertaining the thoughts constantly running through our heads and instead observe the sensations in our bodies. We stay with these sensations for awhile, focusing only on what we feel in the present moment and gently reminding ourselves not to judge or label these sensations as good or bad. Every time our minds inevitably drift toward a thought, we bring our attention back to our bodily sensations.
Let’s examine three ways to meditatively focus on the body: performing a body a scan, Hatha yoga, and stretching.
1. Body scan: In mindfulness meditation, a body scan is a sweep of your body in which you progressively observe each of its component parts. A typical scan will take about 30-45 minutes, but a quick centering can be achieved in as little 10-15 minutes. There is no best way to do a body scan, but some general principles apply:
a. Pick a quiet spot in which you can comfortably lie down or sit undisturbed for however long of a time you wish to perform the body scan. You want to assume a position that allows your entire body to be relaxed, but you don’t want to be so comfortable that you set yourself up to easily fall asleep (this happens occasionally, particularly if you are new to meditation and/or you haven’t gotten enough sleep for awhile). If you feel it is likely that you will fall asleep, elect to sit instead of lie down.
b. Select a part of your body to start the scan with. My previous meditation teachers have advocated for starting with the feet and then moving up to the calves, thighs, hips, chest, back, arms, neck, and finally head. It doesn’t matter what order you do your scan in, only that the order makes sense to you and enables you to focus sequentially on each area of your body.
c. Once you pick your starting point, focus on this part only. Note the sensations you feel there: heat, coolness, pressure, your clothes’ fabric, etc. If you feel neutrality, that’s OK too – just do your best to stay with each body part for approximately one minute. Focus on just one part at a time – for example, the underside of the left foot instead of all parts of both feet.
d. Repeat this process for each body part you visit. If you catch your mind wandering, bring your attention back to whatever part you left off with and continue the scan.
Most people (myself included) find scans easiest to do with the help of an audio track. There are several body scan meditation CDs available for purchase that feature a speaker guiding you through the whole process. Using these CDs allows you to know exactly when it is time to move on to a new part, and a narrator’s vocal reminders can help bring you back into meditation if you have become lost in wandering thoughts while doing the body scan.
2. Yoga: Yoga is an activity that has gained tremendous popularity during the last several decades in what Americans commonly call “the Western world.” It can improve flexibility, strength, balance, circulation, and one’s overall sense of well-being. Mindfulness meditation concerns itself with Hatha yoga, a style that has practitioners gently assume and maintain a variety of positions. When doing yoga as a meditative practice, we focus our attention on bodily sensations as we move into a position, hold it, and move into another one.
There are literally thousands of books and DVDs specializing in yoga, so if you are new to this practice, find one specifically targeted for beginners. If you are doing yoga for meditation, select a routine that is not focused on punishing your body with exercise as a means to lose weight or build muscle. Such a vigorous workout might distract you from mindfully focusing on each movement, and your meditation will then turn into a goal-oriented exercise session rather than a chance to observe the present moment and simply let it be.
3. Stretching: As with yoga, this is another activity that can be used in an athletic or meditative context. If you like to work out, stretching is a perfect way to incorporate a meditative element into your exercise routine. Simply select a variety of stretches you wish to perform post-workout and then hold each position for at least 30 seconds. Focus on your breathing and the sensations in each targeted muscle as you hold each stretch. Sometimes it can be helpful to set a timer and stretch until the alarm goes off, because this may prevent you from rushing through your stretch routine.
One final note: remember to warm up and get blood flowing into whatever areas you stretch before doing your stretches. Your muscles need to have adequate circulation before you test their flexibility. This prevents injuries and allows you to get a better range of motion.
When doing any body-centered meditation, remember to adjust your positions as needed if you ever feel pain. The point of meditating is to center yourself, not test the limits of endurance and safety.
As you become conscious of your body during meditation, an almost inevitable side effect is that you also become more aware of what you put into it in the forms of food, exercise, sleep, and drugs. Thus, focusing on your body for sustained periods of time leaves you feeling centered, healthy, and more inclined to make better nutrition and lifestyle choices beyond meditation.