How to Scan Your Body for Tightness, Tension, or Pain

For the best results, scan your body regularly

Body scanning is a meditative technique that lets the mind wander, searching the body, looking for areas that are holding tension. If you regularly scan your body, over time, it can reveal patterns in where, and how, you hold onto stress.

The example provided here is just one of many ways to scan your body for tightness and tension. It’s meant to give you a starting place from which to add body scans to your meditation practice. Over time, you may want to try your own variations in the order you progress through the parts of the body, the amount of time spent on specific areas, or the verbiage used to refer to what you’re doing.

Scan Your Body Using this Technique

Find a quiet place to lie down on your back. Common locations to do a body scan include a bed, sofa, yoga mat, or the floor. Make sure you’re relaxed and at ease. Use a pillow under your knees, or neck, if you need to.

Find a comfortable location, and position
Find a comfortable location, and position

Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. As you breathe, fill your belly. Notice the way it rises and falls as you breathe in and out. If you like, put your hand on your chest, belly, or both.

Inhale through your nose, exhale through you mouth. Then do it again, and again…

Center Yourself

Let go of whatever is on your mind. Bring yourself to the here and now. Draw your attention in, away from the sounds and sensations around you, follow the air as it moves into and out of your body. Pay attention to how the air feels entering your nostrils, filling your lungs, lifting your chest and belly. Notice the way your belly contracts as you exhale.

Breathe deeply, but normally, don’t force yourself to inhale, exhale, or hold your breath longer than is comfortable.

Consciously and Intentionally Relax

On your next exhale, try to release some of the tension you’re holding onto. As you do this, let your awareness expand beyond the breath, to the whole of your body. If you’re noticing tightness anywhere, breath deeply and directly into the stiff muscle, using the pressure from the influx of air to loosen it. Then, allow the tension to fade away, with your breath, as it leaves the body. Likewise, if you feel pain anywhere, breathe into it, through it, and then exhale, letting it go.

Scan Your Body From Bottom to Top

Once you’re done targeting your troubled areas, shift the attention down to your toes. Notice how they feel. If you’d like, point, squeeze, and release them. You might also want to wiggle them.

As you breathe in and out, scan your feet for pain, for tension. If you find any, use your next breath, or next few breaths, to release it. You may want to focus on each foot individually. When your feet feel completely relaxed, or close to it, use one more extended exhale to breath out any remaining stress or pressure.

Slowly shift your focus from your feet to your legs. If you’d like, tighten up and squeeze those muscles (drawing your toes toward you will help) then release and relax. Scan your legs, with you mind, looking for any sign of rigidity, any muscles that feel strained. When you find one, breathe into it.

Focus on the left leg, then the right. Notice whether one is holding more tension than the other. Continue breathing into tight or sore areas until all, or almost all, of the muscles in your legs feel completely relaxed.

Take Your Time, Tuning in to Each Part of the Body

Let your attention continue to move up your body, scanning for tightness and pain. Repeat the process of breathing into tension, and releasing it, with your stomach, chest, then shoulders. You may want to draw your stomach in, and your shoulders up at some point, tightening the entire torso, then releasing and relaxing.

Let your attention move out, into your arms. You may want to make fists, stiffen your arms, and push them away from your body. As you exhale, let them fall, let them relax. Use your mind to scan for pain, tightness, and tension. Use your breath to release it. Focus on the left arm by itself, followed by the right. Notice whether they feel equally relaxed and comfortable. When you feel little to no tension remaining, drop your attention further, into your hands.

Notice Everything Your Feeling as You Scan Your Body

Focus on each hand, and each finger. Beyond tension, notice the sensations in your fingers. Are they warm, or cool? Do they tingle? How does connection to the bed, floor, etc. change the feeling in your fingers or hands? Do you notice a breeze brushing against your skin?

If you’d like, spread your fingers out wide, as wide as you can. Then, let them fall back to your side. We do a lot with our hands; they support us in many ways. Take a minute to be grateful for their efforts, their contributions.

You can scan your body quickly, if need be, or really take your time
You can scan your body quickly, if need be, or really take your time

Attend to Any “Trouble Spots” Twice

Let your attention drift back to the shoulders and neck. We hold a lot of tension in these areas! As you’re scanning for tight muscles, and breathing out tension, let your head roll slowly and gently to one side. Notice how this movement impacts your neck muscles. Scan again, breathe into the muscles again. Once you’ve reached a state of comfort and relaxation, turn your head gently, and slowly, through the center to the other side. Repeat the process there. Before you move on, you may want to pull your chin into your chest, tightening the muscles of your upper back, and then releasing them.

Focus on the Face

Start with your jaw. Touch the tip of your tongue to just behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth, and release your jaw as you exhale. Repeat this a few times. Then notice your cheeks, eyes, and forehead. Use your breath to relax the muscles of your face. You may want to scrunch and release. You might even want to scrunch twice. Use the time, and number of breaths you need, to feel at ease, free of any pain, tension, or strain.

Widen Your Attention

Let you’re focus expand outward, from the face to the entire body. Take it in! Notice how different you feel, now. Then, continue to expand outward, letting the external world back in.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • What do you smell?
  • How do you feel?
Let the world back in once you are finished scanning your body
Let the world back in once you’re finished scanning your body

When you’re ready, roll onto one side. After another breath, slowly open your eyes. Give yourself a moment to adjust. Then, again, when you’re ready, sit up. You may feel lighter, refreshed, or even want to smile.

After You Scan Your Body, Savor the Moment!

Rather than rushing back into your daily routine, engage in some self-care. You may want to grab a journal to reflect on the experience, or a cup of tea to savor your newfound state of relaxation.

We Can’t Permanently Eliminate Tension

The buildup of tightness, tension, and pain in our bodies is inevitable. It results from daily stressors, injuries, the positions we sleep in, lack of physical activity, etc.

However, body scanning can reduce and relieve stress. It helps facilitate recovery from injuries and invites deeper sleep. Energy, which was continually drained by, or lost to, pain and tension can be reinvested into physical activity.

But, since the relief offered as you scan your body is temporary, to gain the full benefit from this technique, we must make it a habit. Meditation is one way to downshift, which is absolutely essential to our health and wellbeing.

Author profile

Chris Elle Dove is the author of Gabby Makes a Friend, and the upcoming picture book, Sadie's Sea Turtle. She's been teaching sociology courses at community colleges since 2005. Her hobbies include meditation, cooking, hiking, and running. Chris is the proud mother of two beautiful, adult children and one German Shepherd.

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