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A man lying down on his back in bed practicing a body scan meditation.

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How to Do a Body Scan Meditation (and 3 Reasons Why You Should)

By taking notice of head-to-toe body sensations, you can help yourself find calm.

By Jessica MigalaJanuary 16, 2024


Quick check-in: Is your jaw clenched right now? Are your shoulders stiff? Is your forehead scrunched up? Holding tension in your body like that is normal, and often results from the stress we encounter daily. Fortunately, there's a way to release and stave off that tension: body scan meditation.

There are several types of meditation, and while no one practice is better than another, they each have their unique strengths. While mindfulness meditation, for instance, can help you feel present and ready to tackle the day ahead, body scan meditation is especially great for relaxation, releasing tension, and sleep.

We spoke with Peloton instructor Nico Sarani to learn the ins and outs of this meditative practice, including what it is, the benefits involved, and how to do a body scan meditation so you can decompress and find a sense of calm.

What Is Body Scan Meditation?

Body scan meditation is a type of meditative practice in which you focus on the sensations of your body, one step at a time. During a body scan meditation, you shift your attention to various parts of your body while consciously noticing how each part feels (without any judgment or reactions), describes a 2019 Mindfulness study.

“Body scan meditation helps us become aware of our body’s sensations and state of well-being,” Nico says. “We systematically go through the body mentally and become all of its parts,” she says. During the practice, you’ll move your focus from your toes to your head (or vice versa), noticing the sensation contained in each body part, and releasing tension as needed.

Benefits of Body Scan Meditations

With all the different types of meditation to choose from, what makes a body scan stand out? For starters, it’s a wonderful tool to unwind, relieve anxiety, and help you drift off to sleep. Here’s what this meditative technique can offer:

1. It Can Induce Relaxation

You might have a few reliable relaxation go-tos, whether that’s watching a comfort TV show, taking a hot shower, or curling up with a book. Those are all wonderful activities, but the benefit of adding body scan meditation to your relaxation toolbox is that it helps you pinpoint places in your body where you store stress-induced tension—and then release that tension, Nico says. 

“This process helps us particularly become aware of tension in the body, including in the muscles or even internally in the organs,” Nico says. Once you know where your stress is, you can begin to let it go. In short, body scan meditation helps you systematically release stress.

But how does that happen? Nico explains that during a body scan meditation, you might find that you’re clenching your jaw, for instance, which often occurs as an automatic or unconscious response to stress and anxiety. Stress also tends to physically manifest as tension in the forehead, shoulders, and neck, or as a sucked-in belly or tight hips, Nico says. But you might not even realize you’re holding onto that tension, thanks to the distractions that fill our days (think: surrounding noise, an overflowing inbox, a constantly refreshed social media feed—you name it). 

Body scan meditation, then, helps you notice and release those points of tension. As a result, “we become calmer and relaxed, and thereby send a signal to our nervous system that it can shift from the sympathetic response (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic response (rest and digest),” Nico explains.

2. It Can Help Relieve Anxiety

If you have anxiety, body scan meditation can be a great tool to help yourself get (or stay) grounded, Nico says. It can potentially help ease both chronic anxiety and temporary anxious thoughts, like when you’re getting ready for a flight or preparing for a difficult conversation. 

In short, body scan meditations are useful for “any stressful situation,” Nico says. Again, that’s because the practice tells your nervous system to calm down, which helps you approach anxiety-triggering situations with a clearer mind.

3. It Can Prepare Your Body for Sleep

About half of folks with anxiety find it difficult to sleep, according to 2022 research published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews. Unfortunately, when you don’t get enough sleep, anxiety tends to get worse, making for a stressful cycle of rumination that can feel hard to escape. 

One way to help stop the boundless list of negative, worrisome thoughts keeping you wide-eyed is by redirecting your attention to something else, like your body sensations—which is exactly what a body scan meditation focuses on. Plus, something amazing happens when you actively release areas of stress during your body scan: “When we let go of any tension in the body, we signal to the body that it is safe,” Nico says. 

And bonus: Body scan meditation may even make nights more restful. Research on adolescents with insomnia suggests that the practice may also help decrease middle-of-the-night wake-ups, though more research is needed.

A woman sitting on a chair in a sunny room at home while practicing a body scan meditation.

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How to Do a Body Scan Meditation

If you’re new to body scan meditation (or any type of meditation, for that matter), the good news is that there’s a low barrier for entry: You don’t need any experience or know-how to get started. That said, here are a few body scan meditation pro tips to help you begin with confidence:

1. Get Comfortable

The beauty of a body scan meditation is that it’s not fussy—the practice can be done seated or lying down, Nico notes. Think about why you might be doing a body scan meditation to determine the best position for you. If it’s to relax before bed (and maybe put yourself to sleep!), then you might want to get under the covers and lie down. If it’s in the middle of a workday when stress has reached its peak, sitting in a chair at your desk (or in a place where you won’t be disturbed) will probably be best for your body scan meditation.

2. Start Short

If you’re a body scan meditation beginner, Nico suggests starting with a five- to 10-minute session. This is long enough for you to benefit from the practice, but also short enough that you can easily slide it into a routine to make it a regular part of your day. 

3. Determine the Direction You Want to Move In

A body scan meditation can flow from your feet up to your head, or from your head down to your feet—there’s no right or wrong way to go. However, your choice of direction might depend on your goals for your practice at that moment.

“Some may say that from the top down is more relaxing, and from the feet up may be a little more ‘energizing’ due to the energetic flow in the body,” Nico says. If you’re taking a guided body scan meditation (which you can do on the Peloton App!), your instructor will take you in the direction best suited for that class so that you don’t have to worry about it.

4. Take Notice of Body Sensations

Your body is not static. How it feels from one moment to the next can—and does—change. While you’re doing a body scan meditation, take note of how your body’s sensations shift. As the aforementioned Mindfulness study points out, this focused attention may allow you to experience your body from a new perspective, which may also promote a feeling of happiness.

Tips for Getting Started with Body Scan Meditation

The best way to get started with body scan meditation is by trying out a guided class. By following the vocal cues of an instructor as they take you through the practice, it’s easier to stay focused, examine the sensations in your body, and move through the scan without critiquing yourself or worrying if you missed a step. 

“Find a teacher you like to listen to and pay attention to their voice, tone, and pace,” Nico advises. Once you get the hang of it, you can try a body scan meditation on your own if you’d like, she adds. (And as a reminder, the Peloton App has tons of guided body scan meditation classes you can explore, ranging from five to 20 minutes in length, with countless other meditations to choose from as well.)

Body scan meditation can also provide a helpful foundation for another meditation or yoga class, Nico says. This is especially useful if you find meditation challenging to begin with, as body scan meditations help “release stuck energy from the body caused by stress and tension and will therefore help you settle into any meditation more easily,” she explains. 

The Takeaway

A body scan meditation is a practice in which you move your focus from your head to your toes (or vice versa), experiencing the feeling of each body part along the way. When you find tension, you can release it. This meditation practice helps your body relax and calm down, and while it can be done anywhere or anytime, it’s especially beneficial for helping settle your mind and nervous system before bedtime. A guided body scan meditation (which you can find on the Peloton App!) can be a great way to start the practice if you’ve never tried it before.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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